Home > Architecture, Education, Elementary Education, Montessori, School > Gates Foundation: Great Design for a School, too

Gates Foundation: Great Design for a School, too

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation just moved into their new $500 million headquarters in Seattle. That’s a lot of money for a non-profit to spend on a building. Why is it so important to be in a great space? Wouldn’t that money have been better spent on global health issues?

According to Martha Choe, the foundations chief administrative officer, they needed a building that would accommodate different kinds of work. As she said in a New York Times article yesterday, “There’s recognition that we work in different modes, and we have designed a space to accommodate them.” She continued, “I think one of the lessons is to understand your business, and understand what your people need to do their best work.”

The way your physical environment is set up affects the quality of the work you produce. This belief is the cornerstone of the design-thinking movement.

The new Gates Foundation Headquarters was designed by a firm called NBBJ in Seattle. They focused on six core principles. First, there should be energy in the workplace. Quiet conversation is a good thing. As the Times said, “Buzz… is good.” Second, private offices create hierarchy that work against collaboration. Space should reflect the cooperative nature of the organization. Third, less space per person can encourage people to work together. Fourth, NBBJ emphasized lots of window for natural light. Fifth, accidental meetings (or “chance encounters” as the Times calls them) enable creativity. And sixth, according to NBBJ, “mobility is essential.”

With workers unchained from cubicles, they are free to choose workspace that fits their style and their tasks. Many “free-deskers,” as the Times calls them, find spots with great views close to their teammates’ hubs. Teams come together when needed and can easily find breakout areas. Some workers, who may be more introverted, prefer to work at the quiet, glass-enclosed end of long hallways. NBBJ calls these “diving boards” spaces because of the way protrude from off the main building.

The Times article paints a picture of beautiful office space designed with a keen understanding of different work styles. It reminds me of an Evergreen classroom with different work areas, freedom of movement, tolerance for quiet conversation, and respect for the needs of its workers. Comparing the Gates Foundation Headquarters to a traditional building with offices and cubicles is a lot like comparing a old-fashioned classroom with rows of desks to a Montessori space that honors children’s need to move, design, manipulate and create.

Remember Martha Choe’s words– we work in different modes, and we have designed a space to accommodate them—and apply them to education: you’ll have a Montessori-style classroom.

Doesn’t it sound wonderful? Too bad it took half a billion dollars for the Gates Foundation to achieve!

Bill and Melinda, would you consider making a grant to a Montessori school that would like room to roam, diving boards and picture windows too? 


  1. shel29
    March 25, 2012 at 7:07 pm

    It is interesting to note how the Gates Foundation would give such attention and care to the environmental space of its workers to allow them to do their best. How much more would children learn if this kind of attention and care was given to public school environments, where dingy, over lit and cramped classrooms are the norm?

  2. March 26, 2012 at 12:52 am

    While we can only dream of what is possible in a space designed specifically for our school, we are making the best of what we have. The kind of thinking the Gates Foundation did re-imagining office space is the kind of work educators should be doing about re-imagining our schools.

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