Rethinking Office Design

Barry Ludwig has left his mark on Silicon Valley’s high-tech campuses.


When architect Barry L. Ludwig joined Devcon Construction in Milpitas, CA, in 1980, Silicon Valley was gaining momentum, and speculative builders were paving over the region’s orchards and farmland with sprawling industrial parks. Virtually all the buildings were single-story, Ludwig recalls, with parking at the side and front, and roll-up warehouse doors at the back.

“The whole concept, a new one then, was to try to create a space in which to combine offices, manufacturing - perhaps 40 percent of the floorplan - plus a little research and development,” he recalls. “What drove the sprawl was the relatively inexpensive cost of real estate, selling from $2 to $8 a square foot. Now, of course, we don’t even think in terms of single-story office parks; it’s always three-, four-, five-story buildings because of land and financial constraints.”

Even in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Ludwig observes, when advances in technology required much more R&D space within the same building and manufacturing was being moved to remote sites, the low-slung linear office building was still the norm. A company’s most important asset, its people, continued to be warehoused in row upon row of cubicles - a layout that offered little opportunity for interaction and few amenities, and that paid no attention to individual differences or needs. Ludwig took note and determined to change the structure of office-park design by rethinking the interior environment and, he says, “creating architecture that energizes people and encourages them to perform at their best.”

Today Ludwig is a principal and vice president of architecture at Devcon Construction (, where he manages the company’s architectural and interior design departments. The design-build firm has grown from a handful of employees in 1976 to encompass an office and field staff of more than 500. More than 30 million square feet of office, commercial, and industrial space have been completed in northern California, and a 75-acre mixed-use business park, the Reno/Tahoe Tech Center, is currently under construction in Nevada.

In his years with the company, Ludwig has been responsible for facility design for such familiar tech firms as Cisco Systems, Samsung Semiconductor, and Fairchild. He is noted for office-park landscapes that are in tune with the natural site and surroundings, for campuses that resemble company “towns” more than office complexes, and for interiors that constantly evolve as work patterns change.

“Now that so many people are telecommuting or working part-time from home, we find that workers don’t need their own offices or cubicles as much as places to ‘land’,” he says. “An 8'x10' space might accommodate three employees because it’s unlikely they’d all be there at the same time. Instead of separate one-story offices, we’ve got a three-story building with people in shared spaces and now the question becomes, ‘What amenities can you create within the reshaped environment to make this a rewarding place to work?’”

He says people need a variety of flexible spaces throughout the building: more conference rooms, a spot you can get cup of coffee or snack in a hurry, little break-out stations to sit alone to think or to have a conversation, alcoves and niches inside and out. “People always need outdoor places to linger - sunny ones when it’s cool, shaded ones when warm, shelter from wind or rain, even secret places you think no one else knows about. Why does the business day have to stop because you walk out the door?”

At its best, Ludwig proposes, today’s office complex would feel and behave like a small town, with shops and restaurants, parks and plazas, pedestrian walkways -

perhaps even some housing. It would have the flexibility to reinvent itself and grow as needed. His vision draws inspiration from observations of European cities and the ways they have evolved and adapted over the centuries.

“If you go back to the ancient towns of Italy and France,” he explains, “most began with little one-story buildings tucked side by side. Like the early office park, there wasn’t much demand to go up. Over time, as these towns were ravaged or burned down or circumstances changed, the structures were rebuilt, remodeled, upper stories added. Cities became denser because that’s where the jobs were, and what we see today is an assemblage of growth over hundreds of years. All great cities have a fabric that’s not all of one age.”

Ludwig was inspired to bring the vision of an evolving town to the design and planning of a hi-tech research park for Cisco Systems, to be situated in Coyote Valley, near San Jose. With an anticipated working population of 10,000, the complex had all the makings of a small city and was designed as such. Anchored by a light rail station on one edge of “town” and a commuter train station on the other, the main thoroughfare featured a series of small businesses and a pedestrian-friendly atmosphere. Neighborhoods were envisioned with such amenities as a dry cleaner, flower mart, Internet café, and bagel shop - not to mention a variety of restaurants. Set off by nature trails and open spaces, clusters of office buildings echoed the architecture of barns and greenhouses and paid tribute to the valley’s farming past. Ludwig also wanted to introduce what he calls “remnant orchards” on odd pieces of land tucked between the building clusters to help people keep pace with the seasons and remind them of the area’s heritage.

The downturn in the hi-tech economy, however, and local political pressures have put the project on hold and involved a partial change in players. “We were trying to work with zoning that had been put in place 20 years before,” Ludwig explains, “and there were a lot of stakeholders on all sides with conflicting points of view. One of the weaknesses of the zoning plan was that it didn’t allow for the services needed to support the numbers of people - a gas station, for example, or enough restaurants.”

While not a “company town” per se, the Reno/Tahoe Tech Center exhibits a similar vision and is off to a more promising start. The complex will offer similar amenities tailored to the various occupants of its ten multistory buildings. Some buildings are designed specifically for hi-tech R&D and, says Ludwig, are “planned for changing technology and new ways of working.” Office buildings will offer support operations for the tech companies but will also incorporate light commercial interests and restaurants.

The first phase of the project has been finished and includes three two-story concrete, warm-shell, tilt-up buildings. Their architectural design and palette of materials reflect the high desert landscape, the nearby eastern Sierra Mountains, and the area’s ranching history. Interior spaces provide a mix of amenities to appeal to the new breed of workers.

Although the complex will not be completed for some time, Ludwig is planning ahead. The master plan integrates a number of small sites that will be left open for future use - perhaps a bank or retail establishment or outdoor plaza. “At present there’s no bus service to the park,” he says, “but with enough demand it will come, so we’re allowing for it now by providing paths to the places on the street where it’s likely the buses will stop.”

“That’s the essence of good planning - to allow for change and growth,” he explains. “Look at the older university campuses like Stanford, Duke, Rice, Harvard. They’re all completely different but when they were created they had one thing in common: a structure or skeleton that accommodated the now and provided for the future. There were open spaces, courtyards, places to walk and play. At the same time, there was room to integrate future buildings. Like cities, these campuses have a fabric that’s not of one age.”

He thinks modern-day planners of office parks and mixed-use projects could learn from history. “I find it presumptuous on some people’s part to think that they have all the answers, that they can come up with a master design that ‘does it all’ at once and dictates how others should live. Design never stops,” he concludes. “It’s always evolving and should be refined as current needs and lifestyles change.”

Christina Nelson is a California freelance writer and an ARCHI-TECH contributing editor.