The construction of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Campus transformed a contaminated 12-acre parking lot in the heart of Seattle into an ecologically and socially sustainable hub for global collaboration and local engagement. The landscape architects designed the site to serve as the ground that connects employees and regenerates the surrounding community meeting the Foundation’s principles of having a global mission with local roots.
Prior to development, the site of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Campus was a 12-acre parking lot cut off from the surrounding neighborhoods by major roads. Years before Seattle became a city, the site was a rich, peaty bog situated in the saddle between Lake Union and Elliott Bay. Over time, industrial activities contaminated the bog with a cocktail of toxic chemicals that were eventually covered in asphalt. This hardening of the landscape resulted in an isolated, degraded site.
The Foundation’s goal to “help all people lead healthy, productive lives,” motivated the entire project team and drove the decision-making process. From the outset, the client challenged the design team to envision a campus that would support the local and global agendas of the Foundation—being both a steward of the land and active member of the neighborhood as well as fostering a global resource and collaborative environment for its diverse staff and guests.
Through a close collaboration, the design team developed the buildings and landscape to represent complimentary principles inspired by the Foundation’s goals of a global mission and local roots. On the ground, the landscape and building podiums root the project in the former bog through materials and planting, giving continuity throughout the site, as well as restoring native habitat and ecological functions previously lost. The combined site and building composition of this “local ground” responds to the neighborhood grid and fronts onto the surrounding streets. At the level of the tree canopy and above, the buildings expand as open forms reaching out to the world.
The landscape architects leveraged the project's transformation of the 12-acre parking lot to bring to the neighborhood long-absent street edges and welcoming, furnished sidewalks. Streetscape design builds on surrounding standards to strengthen the existing streets with additional amenities of seating, public art, and planting along the edges. Security walls integrate into seating elements and site furnishings. The same attention to materials and detailing used in the campus interior extends to the public spaces around the edge.
Inside the campus, the landscape unites individual buildings and provides a space for meeting and activities as well as daily passage from building to building. At the center, a tree-covered plaza that lightly floats above a deeply grounded pool serves as the heart of the campus community. The plaza connects back to the “local ground” of the campus and more intimate meeting spaces by boardwalks designed to promote serendipitous encounters and opportunities for pause. On this local ground, meadow-like drifts of thick grasses characterize the sunnier areas of the site. The shadier areas are planted with thick drifts of native and non-native ferns, native evergreen huckleberries, and forest groundcovers.
Rainwater harvesting is the seemingly simple key to sustaining the complex and lush ecology. At the outset of the project, rainwater harvesting was still illegal in Seattle. The landscape architect and engineering team worked with the Foundation, the City of Seattle, and King County to make the argument to the Washington State Department of Ecology that no “water right” was required. The argument was simple: in urbanized areas, since all of the rainfall will enter the combined storm sewer system and overload the infrastructure, the greater benefit is to capture and re-use the rainwater for on-site functions. Implementing this new approach to water stewardship has contributed to the health of the surrounding watershed.