On Friday I had a tour of Google's new Sydney office. This was before talking at the Sydney Linux User's Group meeting on "Learning to lower costs and carbon emissions with ICT". Here are some impressions on the building, offices and particularly on green aspects.
The Google Sydney office is a remarkably modest building for a high profile multinational company. It is so modest I had difficulty finding the building. It is a simple glass box across the road from the gaudy Sydney casino, facing the harbour. The outside the entrance there is space for parking a few dozen bicycles. This is an excellent design element: simply and practically showcasing the building's green credentials.
Inside there is a similarly understated foyer leading out to a glass roofed atrium. The only obvious signs of sustainable design as vertical large air-conditioning ducts rising up through the atrium.
One point about the building is that while Google have the naming rights, they are not the only tenant. This caused confusion at reception. I gave my name and was asked "what organisation". It turned out I was being asked what organisation I was visiting, despite the fact that next to the reception desk is a very large sign saying "Google".
As well as lifts, the building has a set of buterfully finised wooden stairs in the atrium, which should be useful in encouraging staff to walk between floors, instead of using the lift.
The Google reception is several floor up in the building. The reception desk is backed by a living wall, with plants in a hydroponic matrix. This has a Google sign in rusty steel. The effect is very striking and apparently many people photograph it (this being an area of the building where photography is permitted). But the wall requires very bright lights to keep the plants alive. This makes the setup unsustainable in energy terms, wasting electricity. The bright lights also make it hard to see the receptionist. Google should relocate this and other living walls in the building to the northern side, where they can take advantage of natural sunlight.
Next to reception are several meeting rooms. These have automatic lights which turn on when occupied and off afterwards. The automatic lights work well, unlike some offices I have visited. The meeting rooms are themed in a playful way, at best these are unobtrusive, but some are silly and inconvenient. One room has a meeting table, lamps and chairs attached upside down on the ceiling. It cannot make for a comfortable atmosphere under these, even if they are securely attached. Another room has the table attached by ropes from the ceiling, so that it wobbles when bumped. These are interesting, but failed, experiments which should be carefully documented and then replaced with a conventional fitout.
Google uses a conventional floor plan with open plan offices for most staff and some meeting rooms at the core of the building. This leaves most windows and views open for staff to enjoy. This is a good arrangement. There appears to be limited external shading on the building and it is likely that any desk located within a few metres of the northern glass would be uncomfortable for much of the day. This might be a good location for some other functions. Also relocating the living walls to the north face would help with shading, as well as giving the plants natural light.
Some of the ceiling has been covered with shade cloth, apparently in an attempt to create an outdoor atmosphere. However, about all this does is to waste energy by having the ceiling lights blocked by shade cloth. This material should be removed and, if necessary, replaced by thinner light transmitting gauze. It is ironic that shade cloth is used on the ceiling where it is not needed, whereas there is little shading on the northern windows, where it would be of use.
The open plan office areas are generously proportioned, with more than the usual amount of space for each employee. There are low cloth covered partitions attached to the modular furniture to provide some sound abatement, without obscuring lines of sight when standing. Technical staff have very large (30 inch?) LCD monitors, while sales and marketing staff have smaller screens. Many staff have two screens. It would be more energy efficient to give staff one large screen than two smaller ones.
The screens and computers of unoccupied desks seemed to be switched off indicating either automated power saving or a well trained workforce. This contrasts with the office of a well known media company visible out the window seemed to have entire unoccupied floors with rows of hundreds of powered up screens wasting energy.
The building employs a perforated metal ceiling, design to allow free flow of air from the cavity, where chilled water is employed. Harbour water is used to chill water for building air conditioning.
The Google meeting room proved to be a disappointment, with a tiny lectern inconveniently located in the corner of the room up against the door. The room is equipped for old fashioned video recording and video conference. This makes it inconvenient to use for modern computer based presentations.
The meeting room lectern is mounted on a small raised platform, which is unsafe. The platform does not extend beyond the lectern. As a result I stepped off the platform and lost my balance almost hitting my head on the nearby door. Google should extend the platform, or rebuild the whole lectern.
Apart from offices and meeting rooms, Google has staff kitchens, games rooms and a canteen. These seemed remarkably similar in design and fit out of the Microsoft Cambridge Research Center in the UK. These are generously equipped for staff who tend to work long and unusual hours. The Google canteen has very good harbour views and is particularly well equipped.
Overall the Google offices avoid the excesses which might be expected of a hi-tech very successful global company. The commitment to corporate social responsibility is evident without being ostentatious. Some of the excessive exuberance of the interior designers needs to be corrected and the meeting room fit out made functional and safe.