Amazon Biosphere Office Combines Plants and People in Missed Opportunity

amazon seattle biosphereOnline retailer Amazon grabbed headlines with their plan to build a biosphere inside transparent glass orbs which will house its Seattle – based workforce and a forest of plants.  Interiors will feature “botanical zones” modeled on earth’s mountain ecologies. Compare this Western eye-candy to nominated projects for the 2013 Aga Khan Architecture Awards to understand the credo that “less is more”.

The biosphere is just one element in the Amazon campus. A sleek tower will be erected adjacent to the balls (don’t need to be Fellini to grab the metaphor), with two additional towers elsewhere onsite. Uninspired stuff for founder Jeff Bezos, who develops musical 200-foot-tall clocks when he’s not at his day job.

Designers NBBJ Architects selected plants that thrive in Seattle’s high-elevation climate to help maintain interior temperatures in the 68°F to 72°F range (ideal for human comfort).  There’s no mention of associated humidity levels, or whether mechanical heating and cooling will also be used. The project is targeting LEED certification.

Amazon Seattle biosphereNot everyone is thrilled about the project. Architect Gundula Proksch, a member of Seattle’s design review board, asked the Seattle Times, “What’s it offering other than an experimental work environment?”

amazon seattle biosphereWell, Gundula, it’s a splashy architectural attraction that differentiates Amazon from it’s rectangular neighbors. Perhaps they’re caving to design pressure from other web-centric corporations (Apple’s planning a flying saucer headquarters in Silicon Valley and Facebook’s got a green roof with hiking trails.)

Employee comfort is critical in any office design, incorporating sunlight and greenery is also good.  But these aren’t new concepts in modern construction, in fact, buildings in the Middle East often employ the vegetation strategy: plants clean the air and add moisture to interior environments.

Siemens’ new headquarters, pictured below and under construction in Masdar City (Abu Dhabi), incorporates daylight and plants as part of a comprehensive scheme aimed at achieving LEED platinum.

Siemens Masdar City LEED JDS Architects designed an M-shaped office building with green roof terraces, planned to break ground near Istanbul this month. Pictured below, this project could offset some of the green space in Taksim Square being razed for new development.

KAG Turkish campusMaybe anyone liking the 50-year-old terrarium thriving beneath an Englishman’s staircase would love working inside Amazon’s planted domes.They’re eye-catching, like pretty buttons on an ugly shirt.

More critically, they’re another missed opportunity for game-changing sustainable design. These orbs drop the ball on the end note of Amazon’s corporate mantra of Work Hard, Have Fun, and Make History.

Images of Amazon HQ by NBBJ; Siemen’s Masdar HQ by Masdar; and M-shaped building by JDS

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