Could headquarter design be a standalone discipline within architecture? More and more companies are keen to convey messages by occupying buildings that make a statement. Zalando has built itself certified headquarters at the heart of Berlin. How does an architect go about ticking all the right boxes for a company like an online retailer?
Corporate architecture often oozes with enthusiasm to stand up and say something. Once upon a time, it was enough to ensure there was simply enough space for staff, plus all the things they need to get the job done. These days, contemporary headquarters come with a much longer tick-list of roles to fulfil. They should convey corporate values and brand identities; they should be functional, efficient and sustainable. The structure of a headquarters building should offer spontaneous appeal and act like a landmark – setting an illustrious stage for its occupants to make statements in the social media.
When architectural firm HENN won the pitch to design the new headquarters of Zalando, it had to ask itself an intriguing question: given all the demands it faced, how could it possibly tick all the right boxes?
Start-Up at a special place
Until now, Zalando has spent most of its time with a sign over its head saying ‘Start-Up’. Although fashion runs through its veins, for many it’s an e-commerce business so its defining feature appears to be that it’s digital. It has no physical presence; it’s immaterial. And then there was the location of the architects’ project. The plot in Berlin is a short walk from Oberbaum Bridge, from the famous techno club Berghain and the East Side Gallery. For many, this is an area where everything that embodies Berlin comes together.
To define the architecture of the building, the design team decided to ignore the nature of its client’s product as a point of reference. Instead, it wanted to erect an edifice that “acts like a stage”, explains Daniel Festag, Project Director and Senior Associate at HENN: “In functional terms, the new Zalando headquarters should generally be laid out like a city – or in this case, Berlin – with places for people to think about things, paths where people meet, and squares where people exchange ideas.”
Reinterpretation of the Berlin block
The first step for the team was to define a shape for the physical structure of the building. To do this, they chose a cube design based on the classic Berlin housing blocks from the era of industrial expansion in the late 19th century. This consisted of a front section, side wings, a transept and, importantly, courtyards. They positioned these courtyards around the edges and designed a kind of roofed court area to form the middle of the building. This produced a ground plan that looked like two X shapes in parallel. Most ‘Berlin blocks’ of the Industrial Revolution had enclosed courtyards. For this design, the planners came up with an open version of the Berlin block.
To design the inner areas of the building, Festag and his colleagues from Kinzo Architekten examined the social ‘spheres’ that define a city and how these can be translated into architecture. The first feature they identified is the traditional market square – the typical heart of European towns and cities since the Middle Ages. They then allocated this function to an atrium, a kind of roofed inner courtyard at the centre of the building. This atrium features a wide staircase (also good for sitting on), a natural daylight atmosphere, a cafe, lounge areas and a kindergarten. It thus delivers a strong social focal point for the overall complex. Next came the ‘apartment blocks’. To add a Zalando angle to their concept, HENN gave each block its own ‘living rooms’ – smaller meeting areas with wooden interiors, kitchenettes and bar stools. There are also ‘catwalks’, reminders of the boulevards and traffic arteries of Berlin. These catwalks are used to create connections to the other spheres in the building. And next came the ‘neighbourhoods’ – working areas in a more conventional sense, only with the option of forming table clusters for project teams to work in. The neighbourhoods also provide room for people to withdraw into, focus and work individually without background noise.
On the roof and other levels of the seven-storey building, open-plan areas were added for group activities. There are also open areas for the canteen, complete with a view of the arena forecourt and sports areas used to play basketball.
Sustainable and diverse
“The sociocultural demands with such a large complex in a central location are huge,” says Antje Holdefleiss, Senior Consultant at Berlin and Vienna-based PORR Design & Engineering, and the DGNB auditor for the project. “I was immediately fascinated by the variety of uses covered by the design and the stylistic pluralism of the inter-social areas.” This made working on the neighbourhoods and the atrium particularly exciting during the construction phase.
The Zalando headquarters are now gold-certified, and they didn’t just score well for the sociocultural and functional aspects of the building. The complex also achieved very high scores for its environmental qualities. A holistic approach was adopted for the project, based on integrated planning methods. This involved calculating and optimising the environmental and economic performance of the entire life cycle of the building, right down to individual building components. After rigidly monitoring the materials used for the construction project to ensure they were environmentally friendly, it could also be proven that the building counts as low-emission. The large green areas on the roof help with rainwater retention measures and improve the microclimate. The building also has its own percolation system to support local water supplies and align with Berlin’s strategy of enabling buildings to adapt to climate change.
Holdefleiss also noted that circular economy measures were integrated into the building, an important component of the DGNB System. “It’s one of the topics I’m passionate about. When we talk about sustainable building, we automatically talk about the circular economy,” says the DGNB auditor. “In the future, more attention must be given to material cycles.”
The company headquarters as campus
Over time, the Zalando HQ building is expected to be extended to span several buildings and take on the atmosphere of a campus. In parallel to construction work on the main building, a second, much smaller building was also erected on the other side of the road. As the online retailer continues to expand, a further building will soon be erected. Again, HENN will be responsible for designing the building. “The idea was to start by distilling the essence of the city in a highly concentrated format in the main building,” says Festag, “so that when further components are put in place it’ll be much more than a company HQ – it’ll be a lively campus that’s simply part of Berlin.”