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Directional sign inside Nortel Nortel Brampton Center
Brampton, Ont.

Northern Telecom Ltd.

Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum and Bregman & Hamann Architects

Building Type
Corporate headquarters

Award Category
Private sector, over $25 million

It would have been so easy for Northern Telecom Ltd. to simply stop at saving money by moving 3,000 workers from offices to a cavernous, retrofitted factory. In 1993, after 20 years of growth, the telecom company had to write off $1 billion. Three leases in downtown Toronto towers were up, and Nortel asked its real estate group to cut costs. ''At first, it was only a financial question,'' says David Dunn, Nortel Real Estate's director of global planning and design. ''But then we went further to help facilitate the reinvention of Nortel.''

First came the cost cutting. By opting for a 1963 factory instead of a new building (saving $100 million in capital costs), switching to leased, movable furniture, and compressing the amount of space used by employees, Nortel squeezed out savings of $22.6 million a year. The new factory site averages about $29 per square foot, vs. $30 to nearly $50 per square foot in the previous leases.

Then came the creative architecture. Nortel turned to Houston's Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum to transform the interior of the 1 million-square-foot factory into what is, in effect, a horizontal 50-story office building. HOK analyzed Nortel's organization and culture and probed the relationships of its 85 discrete units. It studied how work was actually done--the levels and kinds of interaction, the mobility of the people, the time spent in the office and traveling, and the tools employees used.

HOK then designed the gigantic factory space using city planning concepts. There are ''neighborhoods'' for different operations connected by boulevards, streets, and alleys, all marked by color-coded signs and banners. Skylights were punched in the 23-foot-high ceilings. Piazzas, coffee shops, gyms, and retail stores were built to encourage ''fortuitous encounters.''

Most important, teams were allowed to choose their own way of working. They could model their spaces on a magnetized game board and reconfigure them. The entire space is open, but there are zones where trellised walls can be set up. HOK planned for a 70 to 30 ratio of open to closed offices but quickly added more enclosed spaces. Initially, top execs wanted to move into open spaces. But HOK studied what they actually did--selling to Japanese and other foreign customers--and said it wouldn't work. Foreigners are put off seeing chief executives without the prestige of traditional offices. The execs got them.

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Updated Oct. 23, 1997 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1997, Bloomberg L.P.
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