Outdoor Retailer REI Building the Most Outdoorsy Headquarter ever

By guest author Konrad Putzier from Wall Street Journal

All captions courtesy by Wall Street Journal

In a Seattle suburb, retailer Recreational Equipment Inc. is building a new headquarters that is blurring the boundaries between office and nature.

Once it opens in the summer, workers will be able to walk from one room to the next through outdoor staircases and bridges. They can hold group meetings on rooftop terraces, or around a fire pit in a courtyard full of native plants. Skylights and oversize sliding doors will bring in sunshine and air.

“You can’t really be in the building anywhere without having a visual connection to the outdoors,” said Mindy Levine-Archer, a partner at architecture firm NBBJ, which designed the project.

REI is one of a growing number of companies building unique headquarters meant to attract employees and market their brand. In 2017, Apple opened a massive, donut-shaped office in Cupertino, Calif., whose futuristic design earned it the nickname spaceship. Consumer-goods company Unilever PLC renovated its U.S. headquarters in Englewood Cliffs, N.J., to re-create the feeling of a New York City loft and appeal to younger workers.

With headquarters “you get the opportunity to do it once and do it right and do it big,” said Paul Amrich, a vice chairman at brokerage firm CBRE Group Inc. Older companies often use a new office as a “rebranding tool,” he said.

REI ended up buying an 8-acre site in Bellevue, Wash., that is part of the Spring District, a 36-acre transit-oriented development. The district’s master developer, Wright Runstad & Co., is also REI’s development partner, Mr. Stephens said.

Construction started in 2018. Mr. Stephens said he expects the main building to be completed by May and most employees to be moved in by July.

The main office building, a 380000-square-foot structure around two courtyards, is oriented from east to west to maximize the amount of sunlight it gets. Next to it will be an indoor marketplace that will be open to the public and powered in part by rooftop solar panels

REI’s employees are currently spread out over four locations in the Seattle area, said Kirk Stephens, REI’s divisional vice president of campus transition. About five years ago, the company started looking for a single site large enough to consolidate the offices into one.

The site was once occupied by an agricultural community that grew blueberries, among other plants, said Ms. Levine-Archer. In a nod to that history, the project will feature blueberry bogs, and the courtyards will be planted mostly with local flora.

Founded in 1938, REI has 162 stores across the U.S. in which it sells anything from backpacks and tents to cycling shoes. The company’s experience design manager Nikki Easterday said the new headquarter’s ample outdoor space will allow employees to put up tents and test outdoor gear on-site.

“We do a lot of our own testing on our product. So it’s just another way to get immediate feedback and see how things go,” she said.