REDMOND, Wash. — Matthew Whilden has been at Microsoft for 11 years. For about 30 minutes on Tuesday, the senior software engineer did his best to erase a 34-year-old piece of company history.
Whilden was behind the controls of a construction excavator with a claw at the end as he tore into the facade of Building 1, one of a dozen original structures on the company’s headquarters campus that are being knocked down to make way for a major renovation project.
Building 1 was built in 1985 and nearby Building 4 was home to the corner office of Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates. The iconic “X-Wing” structures — Buildings 1 through 6 and 8 through 10, and a few others — make up about 1.2 million square feet of office space and are giving way to 18 new four- and five-story buildings. They will total approximately 3 million square feet, sitting on 72 of the company’s more than 500 acres.
The modern campus, situated just a stone’s throw from SR 520, will have room for an additional 8,000 employees and is slated to open in phases over the next four to six years.
As Whilden hesitantly poked at the concrete and steel and drywall with slow movements of the claw, a group of his Developer Platform Tools co-workers looked on, cheering and jeering and shooting video on their phones.
“We’re really good at software!” one of them yelled as a crowd of construction workers and Microsoft real estate executives waited for Whilden and the heavy equipment to tear off a good chunk of the building. When part of the roof finally gave way in a crunch of debris, the crowd voiced its approval.
“Now he’s getting the hang of it!” someone yelled.
Whilden and his team were swinging sledgehammers earlier inside Building 2, poking holes in office and conference room walls and crumbling the reception desk. They won the privilege by being leading contributors to the Microsoft Giving Campaign, an annual philanthropic effort. Whilden later said it’s much easier to develop software than to operate heavy machinery.
The old buildings, while nostalgic for what they meant to the software giant’s beginnings in Redmond, were notoriously difficult to navigate, and were very easy to get lost within. They date back to an era when individual offices were the tradition at Microsoft, long before the open floor plans and collaborative spaces of today.
“There’s a huge amount of nostalgia,” said Rob Towne, Microsoft’s director of real estate and facilities. “If you think about what the company did in these buildings from 1985 til today, it’s phenomenal. It’s something we don’t want to lose, we don’t want to forget that, however we do want to look forward.”
The new campus will be in close proximity to a Sound Transit light rail station just off 520, as that transportation link from Seattle to Redmond is expected to be completed when the new buildings begin to open. An 1,100-foot pedestrian- and bike-only bridge will also span the highway, connecting the new campus to the west campus and shortening walk times between the two significantly.
With open malls, sports fields and gathering spaces, the new campus is designed to be entirely pedestrian friendly — all parking will be underground, and service deliveries will be directed there as well.
“Collaboration” and “open floor plan” are definitely the buzz words when it comes to modern tech workspaces, and Microsoft will be no different in what it is creating going forward.
“What we are doing as a company is maximizing for team efficiency vs. individual efficiencies,” Towne said. “We have modernized about 23 percent of our campus over the last seven years, in renovating buildings, it’s all gone to team-based space with no offices.”
While Microsoft certainly has a large presence in other parts of the region and across the country and world, it’s obviously going all in on its headquarters in suburbia for the long term. Towne said he thinks that’s still attractive as a recruiting tool.
“We love the urban space. We love what Amazon is doing in Seattle,” Towne said. “But what we have here is so unique and the fact that we’ve been here for so long — the company grew so fast in such a short amount of time that you couldn’t build, buy or lease fast enough, so that’s the way that you end up with 500 plus acres. To find this or replace this across [Lake Washington] is really hard. We think it’s competitive.”
Microsoft takes great pride in having been operationally carbon-neutral since 2012, and Katie Ross, a sustainability program manager with real estate and facilities, pointed to several initiatives the company has undertaken elsewhere. At its Silicon Valley location, for instance, Microsoft uses an onsite black water treatment plant. The company is also exploring the use of cross-laminated timber as a construction component.
Ross said Microsoft will also take steps going forward to reduce “embodied carbon,” the energy required to manufacture such things as concrete used to make the actual buildings.
As hundreds of large, old fir trees swayed over Building 1 and others on Tuesday, officials made clear that plans for the new campus take into account saving as much older growth as possible. Ross said Microsoft is committed to planting one new tree for every tree removed and planting three new trees for every “heritage” tree removed. She said old campus trees will also be used to create finishes in various new buildings.
Back inside a nearby building, Michael Ford, general manager of global real estate and facilities, stood over a model of the new campus.
In the heart of suburbia, amid the company’s sprawling and historic 500 acres, he gave a nod to the new campus and all of its coming amenities — and Microsoft’s ability to match in its way the enormous growth happening 30 minutes away in Seattle.
“It’ll have its own downtown feel,” Ford said.
Jerry Joyce and his late wife Marianne Moon both worked at Microsoft back before the move from an office in Bellevue to the Redmond campus in 1986.
Joyce reached out to GeekWire on Wednesday to share a picture of a trivet that was given, along with a coffee mug, as gifts to employees, showing the original four “X-Wing” buildings. Joyce said that Moon was the first proofreader for Microsoft Press and he later later worked for the company on contract as a technical editor.
“When the big announcement of Microsoft moving to ‘Sherwood Forest’ way out in Redmond was released, people were concerned about how far away and remote work would be,” Joyce said via email. “The large composite desks from Bellevue were sold as surplus to staff for $50, including providing two movers to deliver it and set it up. The desk is still sitting in my office.”
Joyce and Moon both worked in Building 4 and after Moon left Microsoft, she would work at her old company desk in the couple’s basement office. They wrote 16 Microsoft Press books.
“Despite doing some work in several of the other buildings, the Bellevue office and Building 4 will always be the real Microsoft to me,” Joyce said. “An interesting memory from a time obviously gone, along with the buildings.”