Amazon wants biospheres in downtown Seattle

Posted by Randy Woods, EarthTechling

Of all the science-fiction tropes from late-20th-century pop-culture, perhaps none is as strong as the eternally futuristic rounded glass dome built to protect Earth’s fragile species.

From the floating space greenhouses in the 1972 Bruce Dern film “Silent Running” to the ill-fated Biosphere 2 experimental environment in the 1990s, these domed structures came to represent both the quaint eco-idealism of the 1970s and the harsh realities of finances and limited resources.

So it was a bit of a surprise to see these “retro-futuristic” spheres make a dramatic return in the latest design of the planned Amazon headquarters in downtown Seattle. The three intermeshed spheres will cover 65,000 square feet of space and house various mature tree and shrub species from around the world. The glass domes, in addition to being conversation-starters citywide, will also include dining areas, meeting rooms, retails shops and lounge spaces for Amazon workers.

The new Seattle headquarters for Amazon will feature three conjoined glass spheres. Image via NBBJ/Studio 216.

The new Seattle headquarters for Amazon will feature three conjoined glass spheres. Image via NBBJ/Studio 216.

The spheres, which are designed to meet LEED Gold standards, are only a small part of the larger, three-block campus now under construction in Seattle’s Denny Triangle neighborhood. On the adjacent blocks, Amazon is building three 37-story towers, which will have green roofs and open floor plans, and are expected to be completed by 2016.

Cross-section diagram shows how some of the retail shops and green spaces will mingle under the dome. Image via NBBJ/Studio 216.

Cross-section diagram shows how some of the retail shops and green spaces will mingle under the dome. Image via NBBJ/Studio 216.

According to designer NBBJ, the three partial spheres—one about 130 feet in diameter, the other two 80-feet wide—will be reserved for Amazon employees only as an alternative and experimental work station. To provide a comfortable environment, the temperature will be kept at 68 to 72 degress Fahrenheit, so all the plants under the dome will be selected for their ability to survive within this temperature range. During fair weather, the domes will be opened to let in fresh air for natural ventilation.

“While the form of the building will be visually reminiscent of a greenhouse or conservatory, plant material will be selected for its ability to co-exist in a microclimate that also suits people,” Amazon said in its planning documents. “The exterior enclosure will be highly transparent and be composed primarily of multiple layers of glass supported by a metal framework.”

The 65,000-square-foot spheres in the Denny Triangle neighborhood will contain trees and shrubs. Image via NBBJ/Studio 216.

The 65,000-square-foot spheres in the Denny Triangle neighborhood will contain trees and shrubs. Image via NBBJ/Studio 216.

In the original plans that were announced last fall, the plot of land where the domes are being planned, known as “block 19,” looked much different. The central part of the Amazon campus was to be a far more conventional low-rise structure with some small public green spaces and a green roof. In NBBJ’s revised plans announced last month, the spheres were added and the ground-level, publicly accessible park area was greatly expanded.

So, while non-Amazon passers-by will not be able to enter most of the Disneyesque, domed wonderland, they can be consoled with some much-needed urban green spaceamid the asphalt and concrete towers of downtown Seattle.

Randy Woods, EarthTechling