From The Order of Her Noodly Appendage
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How does one transform verbal and often abstract statements into steel and stone? We are all familiar with how the Greeks and the Romans left the marks of their culture in architecture. The Mayans, too, expressed their culture in distinctive buildings. Broadly, you might say that architecture deals with the relationship of people and the environment. As a company, Herman Miller deals with that relationship every day.

In thinking about facilities and their relation to corporate culture, I consulted my dictionary about the word "culture." From a number of choices, most of which had to do with biology, I selected this statement: "A particular state or stage of civilization." To me this definition links rather nicely to the idea of a corporate culture, but leaves me with a question: How should we think about man-made facilities as a state or stage of civilization?

You can frequently be helped in efforts to understand a problem by asking yourself questions. Here are a few about physical places and social places. These questions lead me to think about the working environment in a variety of ways:

  • Does what I do count?
  • Does what I do make a difference to anybody?
  • Why should I come here?
  • Can I be somebody here?
  • Is there for me any rhyme or reason here?
  • Can I "own" this place?
  • Do I have any rights?
  • Does coming here add any richness to my life?
  • Is this a place where I can learn something?
  • Would I show this place to my family--or am I ashamed to show it to them--or does it just not matter?
  • Is there anybody here I can trust?
  • Is this place open to my influence?
  • Does it help to understand architecture as a societal response?

The physical environment matters a great deal, but it is not as important as the management environment. The physical environment is likely to be a consequence of certain elements of the management environment. In that sense the facility will reflect the context of a cooperation, its leadership, and its values.

During a time of financial strain in the economy and in the company, an employee-owner at Herman Miller asked why we had spent so much money on three ponds surrounding our main site in Zeeland, Michigan. In short, this person was asking how these ponds reflected our company and its values, a question he had every right to ask.

Buildings do not exist in a vacuum, and neither did these ponds. The ponds exist to gather runoff created by the roofs of our buildings, to keep our neighbors' land from flooding, and to satisfy local land use laws. They furnish a ready supply of water in case of fire. They form a beautiful addition to our site. We even have a company picnic around them.

These ponds, only a small part of Herman Miller's facilities, reflect our people. All facilities should make this kind of sense in their contexts. In turn, facilities should create a context for a state or stage of corporate civilization.

Facilities can aspire to certain qualities as an expression of a civilization. Some of these qualities are readily apparent. Some are not.

A facility should be a place that people can possess. Taking possession of the facility in which we work is closely linked to the ideas of ownership. There is a fundamental difference, after all, between owners and renters. It is fair to say that renters are no-fault owners.

Facilities should enable and empower people to do their best. Facilities, like managers, should be vulnerable. They should encourage a rising level of knowledge about corporate life: literacy about business, the competition, relationships, and ownership. Our facilities must encourage lavish communications.

A facility should be a place of realized potential. It should be a "high touch" place. A place where we connect persons to each other and to technology in an effective and human way.

Now, having said all of those things, some philosophical and some practical, about facilities and the corporate culture, is there a way to be specific? Of course there is. We should make it our goal to create an environment that

  • encourages an open community and fortuitous encounter
  • welcomes all
  • is kind to the user
  • changes with grace
  • is person-scaled
  • is subservient to human activity
  • forgives mistakes in planning
  • enables this community (in the sense that an environment can) to reach continually toward its potential
  • is a contribution to the landscape as an aesthetic and human values
  • meets the needs we can perceive
  • is open to surprise
  • is comfortable with conflict
  • has flexibility, is nonprecious and nonmonumental

It is important that we be prudent stewards of corporate assets and at the same time avoid savings at the cost of good long-range planning and a quality environment.

It is important that we keep future options open. This will demand real discipline because there is always a great drive to pin everything down if possible.

It is important that everyone understand the context in which our facilities function and the context and value they create for us.

It is important that we avoid an overcommitment or rigidity to a single function or need. Experience has shown us that we need varying utilization patterns open to us and that we need open-ended growth possibilities. One of our goals is to build the indeterminate building.

Another goal is to ask the right questions about facilities. Perhaps Bucky Fuller did it best.

Buckminster Fuller, the philosopher, inventor, and designer (I have never quite known exactly what to call Bucky!) was touring a new building that an excellent architect, Norman Froster, had just completed in the English countryside. Norman had carefully prepared for the visit and had asked his staff to anticipate every question Bucky could possibly pose. As Norman and Bucky approached the building, which looked as if it could have been a huge extrusion landed in the meadow by a giant helicopter, Norman reviewed in his mind all the answers, all the angles.

Bucky went along silently as they moved through the impressive building. At last he turned and pierced Norman with his steady, twinkling gaze and asked simply, "How much does it weigh?"