The Tale of the Ugly Duckling Facility

March 19, 2012
Building 20 provides an example of opportunity to consider.

Last weekend I stumbled on an article about ways to stimulate brainstorming. The article, published in the January issue of The New Yorker, described a formal approach in which people join a risk-free huddle calculated to unleash a torrent of creativity. Somewhere among many useless ideas, a few sparkling solutions are supposed to emerge. This approach was contrasted to an informal one that promotes chance encounters among people with different viewpoints and missions. Research suggests that the latter approach – which a facility’s design can nurture – is more effective.

A legendary example is Building 20 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Designed by an architect in an afternoon and rushed to completion in 1943, the building solved a wartime need to house researchers developing radar. Sheathed in asbestos shingles, the “plywood palace” didn’t meet code and was supposed to be demolished within 6 months of the war’s end. It was flimsy and uncomfortable, yet it became a hothouse of trailblazing research in diverse disciplines. It survived until 1998.

Whether its occupants desired them or not, the hodgepodge of Building 20 provided unpredictable encounters. A piano repair shop with a “computer-free zone” warning sign shared a floor with a shop for a nuclear science lab. Noam Chomsky, one of the most influential scholars of modern times and a linguist who has made contributions to other fields, spent decades there. Still a political and anti-war activist today, Chomsky had his office a few doors down from MIT’s ROTC center.

Building 20 was also adaptable. By one account, if a researcher needed to run a wire from one lab to another, he might just take a screwdriver and punch the requisite hole himself. Forget the facility work order. A professor once boasted to a Boston Globe reporter that “You can knock down a wall, you can punch out a ceiling, and you could get space.”

The unique conditions that gave rise to Building 20 can’t be replicated. And the kind of lavish lounges in a pharmaceutical R&D center or the game rooms for Google employees are not options for most facilities. But opportunities exist in your facility to encourage interaction through more mundane strategies like the location of mailboxes and meeting rooms and increasing the day-long appeal of an atrium or cafeteria. You might find that occupants are even willing to take a few extra steps to their destinations.

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