88 Acres

How Microsoft Quietly Built the City of the Future

2: 88 acres in a one-stoplight town

Today Microsoft may have one of the smartest corporate campuses in the world, but in 1986, its headquarters was still a grass- and forest-covered 88-acre plot of land in Redmond, a sleepy, one-stoplight suburb of Seattle.

Back then, there wasn’t even a store in town to buy underwear, and from city hall you’d have to walk to the grocery store for lunch because the nearest fast food restaurant was too far away, says Judd Black, who has worked for the Redmond planning department for 26 years.

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“Redmond and Microsoft, we’ve grown up together, and we’ve learned from each other quite a bit,” Black says. “We’ve both worked to create a great place for people to work and live.”

The 88 acres of land Microsoft chose for its headquarters (the code name for the project was just that: 88 Acres) was originally supposed to be a shopping center, but that plan was bagged during hard economic times. Microsoft snapped up the land and quickly constructed its first office complex – four star-shaped buildings surrounding Lake Bill (a large pond affectionately named by employees for founder and then-CEO Bill Gates).

Business was booming, and construction on campus followed – so quickly that Microsoft initially didn’t have deeply defined construction standards. To meet demand, the company had to work with a variety of contractors and construction schedules, so consequently Microsoft’s 125 buildings were constructed in a variety of styles and configurations. By the time Microsoft instituted comprehensive building standards in the 1990s, a large portion of the campus was already built.

Microsoft’s campus would become the size of a small city – a city within a growing city. Redmond was expanding as well, and soon a quarter of its residents were Microsoft employees.

"Give me a little data and I’ll tell you a little. Give me a lot of data and I’ll save the world."
- Darrell Smith , Director of Facilities and Energy

Today the campus spans 500 acres. There’s a soccer field and cricket pitch, miles of wooded walking paths – and 14.9 million square feet of office space and labs that now function as one interconnected system.

It wasn’t always that way.

Until recently, Microsoft was using disparate building management systems to manage 30,000 unconnected, sensor-enabled pieces of equipment. Imagine a symphony orchestra, but with every musician playing from different sheet music. Then, imagine trying to conduct that symphony – to make sure the music was on tempo, in key, and starting and stopping as it should. Microsoft’s buildings were experiencing data dissonance that would make the works of Igor Stravinsky sound like a barbershop quartet.

Smith’s team was on a journey to find harmony.

When Smith, Jay Pittenger (Smith’s boss), and others started exploring ways to manage buildings smartly, they realized it would cost upward of $60 million to “rip and replace” enough equipment to get those 30,000 sensors to whistle the same tune.

"What is a smart building?"

Jessica Granderson, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

41 sec.

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This would not only involve costly construction and equipment replacement, but it also would mean displacing employees and losing work while teams temporarily shut down labs. Smith and team knew there had to be a less pricey, less disruptive way to achieve data harmony, but after a whole lot of looking, they couldn’t find one.

So they invented one.

Smith’s team enlisted the help of three vendors in the field of commercial building data systems and created a pilot program in 13 of the buildings on Microsoft’s Redmond campus. The team developed an “analytical blanket” to lie on top of the diverse systems used to manage the buildings. The blanket of software finally enabled equipment and buildings to talk to each other, and to provide a wealth of data to building managers.

“It hasn’t been a bowl of cherries – my hair wasn’t as gray before we started,” Smith says. “The challenge with building systems is that they can create a lot of chatter from multiple systems, but there’s value there if you connect and capture it. It’s all about the data. If you can’t get data out of the buildings, you’re done.”

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The new tool did get data out of the buildings – great tidal waves of data that came cascading into the ROC, telling engineers about everything from wasteful lighting schedules to hugely inefficient (but up until then, silent and undetectable) battles being waged between air conditioners and heaters to keep temperatures pleasant.

In one building garage, exhaust fans had been mistakenly left on for a year (to the tune of $66,000 of wasted energy). Within moments of coming online, the smart buildings solution sniffed out this fault and the problem was corrected.

In another building, the software informed engineers about a pressurization issue in a chilled water system. The problem took less than five minutes to fix, resulting in $12,000 of savings each year.

Those fixes were just the beginning.

Suddenly, the symphony of sensors was not only following the conductor, its musicians were all playing the same song. As buildings came online and data poured in, it created what engineers called a “target-rich environment” for problem solving. Smith and the team soon expanded the pilot to a handful of additional buildings, and by summer’s end they plan to have the whole Redmond campus online.

The team now collects 500 million data transactions every 24 hours, and the smart buildings software presents engineers with prioritized lists of misbehaving equipment. Algorithms can balance out the cost of a fix in terms of money and energy being wasted with other factors such as how much impact fixing it will have on employees who work in that building. Because of that kind of analysis, a lower-cost problem in a research lab with critical operations may rank higher priority-wise than a higher-cost fix that directly affects few. Almost half of the issues the system identifies can be corrected in under a minute, Smith says.

The change has created groundbreaking opportunities for Smith and his team.

“Our conversations have changed,” Smith says. “Before, the calls we got were about buildings being too hot or too cold, or about work orders. Now we’re talking about data points and building faults and energy usage. We’re seeing efficiencies that we never even contemplated when we started this journey.”

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