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Smart People In Dumb Buildings

By Bryan Croeni and Jill Jago. Published on March 12, 2020.

From the legendary Building 20 at MIT to the ubiquitous tilt-ups that incubated the Silicon Valley giants, many transformative innovations have been conceived in the most prosaic buildings imaginable. What is it about these humble facilities – facades only a mother could love – that sets the stage for the advancement of technologies that change the shape of our world?

Do these unassuming structures hold the key to how we should be building in today's era of exponential change?

The Paradox

Here's a paradox – does "innovation space" engender innovation? Who decides what makes spaces innovative?

Research typically happens in one of three building types:

  1. "Functional" buildings that minimize cost through cookie cutter solutions based on accepted formulas for space allocation and the nature of the research.
  2. "Statement" buildings that incorporate the latest design trends, often modeled on whichever building has caught the eye of the Director or the Board. The aesthetic of these buildings is tightly controlled by the architect who also interprets the function of what they design.
  3. The right people collide in whichever building they happened to be able to pay the rent on.

With the relatively modest rate of change we experienced in the past, the combination of a leader's direction, a designer's interpretation, and past proof of success was probably good enough. However, today's exponential rate of change means that the past is no longer predictive of the future. Building more of what we already have is downright risky.

Complicating matters further, we find that organizations themselves often don't know what's coming at them. Where can we go for guidance when we're trying to plan for something that doesn't yet exist?

Smart People

The only people who really know what they need are the people doing the work. A theme that regularly emerges in our focus groups is a strong preference among younger researchers for space that isn't precious – space that can be altered, hacked, and remade their own by teams. Most designers would blanch at the prospect. What if the original design intent is lost and, along with it, all the hard work that went into finding the "perfect" interpretation of function into space? If the architect's responsibility isn't to interpret function into beauty, then what is it?

Dumb Buildings

"Innovation," by definition, means the introduction of something new. We would argue that the place for innovation isn't necessarily in the building envelope or interior design. Nineteenth century mills, factories and warehouses have hosted a multitude of uses over time as their original functions became obsolete. Their inherent characteristics presented few obstacles for a wide variety of successor uses. They have demonstrated themselves to be the perfect canvas for the unfolding pageant of history. They are proof of resilience to change. What are the characteristics that have allowed them to withstand the tides of time?

Large uninterrupted floorplates

Two women sit in the lounge area of a historic building, discussing something and taking notes.Nineteenth century space planning strategies that anticipated changes in manufacturing processes and equipment now provide the same flexibility for knowledge workers, maximizing horizontal connections between teams, departments and business units. Unencumbered spaces with long-span structural systems and fewer columns provide a clean slate every time technology and work styles evolve. Further, larger footprints increase opportunities for horizontal connections, between teams and within social and collaboration spaces, supporting the cultural infrastructure that promotes success.

Increased floor to floor height

High ceilings create a sense of space, even with a relatively small floorplate. They also promote eye-level privacy while increasing daylight penetration into floorplates from above. Increased headroom allows supplemental daylighting strategies and changes in ceiling areas can denote different work zones, creating identity and facilitating wayfinding.


Durable, non-precious materials such as timber, brick and concrete convey that this is a building that means business, tough enough for hard use, experiments and play. The materials assure longevity and none of the design elements limit the range of activity or creativity. Imagine the potential of an empty stage where all the infrastructure is there and the only thing missing is your imagination.

The Legacy of MIT Building 20

Building 20 at MIT, a "temporary" structure hastily erected during World War II to support the war effort, arguably produced more innovation per square foot than any other structure – ever. The late William Mitchell, former Dean of the MIT School of Architecture and Planning observed,

"People didn't love this building for its beauty or its comfort, but for its flexibility. What we learned from Building 20's success was that we would need to provide modern services and technology without being rigid or constraining."

As we begin to run out of these hard-working legacy buildings, it is time to put our energies to creating their successors; durable buildings that will morph over the long term, adapting to changing needs.

Innovation Doesn't Require Innovative Building Design

Our user engagement experience at the recently-opened Knight Cancer Research Building at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, Oregon led us to many of the insights shared above.

In response to user values, needs and expectations the new building emerged with large floorplates, a long-span concrete structure and integrated horizontal and vertical infrastructure. We fully anticipate that over time it will significantly outproduce its more self-conscious neighbors. More importantly, it is designed to foster a social and collaborative culture that will lead to breakthrough cancer research.

Investing in a 50-year building at a time when the only constant is change takes courage and a good risk-management plan. We believe that discovery and innovation will be driven by a new family of unpretentious, non-iconic structures that will prove to be as durable, desirable and beloved as the nineteenth century workhorses that inauspiciously created the platform that launched us into this era of technological, social and economic transformation.