Nvidia‘s new headquarters in Santa Clara, Calif., is shaped like a triangle, and that goes to the heart of what the company is all about. Triangles, after all, are the polygonal building blocks for 3D graphics images, and Nvidia has become the world’s largest stand-alone company making 3D graphics chips.
The $370 million building reflects a trend in Silicon Valley, where the most successful tech companies are crafting their buildings to reflect their own unique personalities, to attract the best talent, and inspire employees to collaborate. Sometimes, these projects can be the perfect expression of a company’s vision, and other times, they seem like excessive vanity projects that miss the mark. And in Nvidia’s case, one of the unique things is that Nvidia’s own graphics chips, virtual reality tools, and visualization software became essential in simulating the headquarters. After viewing what the building would look like in virtual reality, the company and its architects made changes to the final design.
I took a tour of the unfinished 500,000-square-foot building, which will house more than 2,200 employees when it is finished in the fall of 2017. And I talked with the Gensler architects and Nvidia real-estate executives who have been working on the project for more than four years. I also visited the place in VR, looking at the way it’s supposed to work in the future, using Nvidia’s Iray professional rendering software, which creates photorealistic imagery in 3D.
One of the striking things about the real building is that its roof consists of triangles in various states of elevation. And on the 25-acre lot, there are no outdoor parking areas. Nvidia is building a two-level underground garage that can accommodate more than 1,500 cars. When employees drive into the garage, they can come up the stairs or rise through the elevator in the middle of the building.
“The triangle speaks to who we are,” said John O’Brien, senior director of real estate at Nvidia, in a press briefing. “We are a visual computing company, and the triangle is the basic building block of rendering. When our CEO Jen-Hsun (Huang) saw it, he said ‘That’s it.'”
Nvidia’s journey started in 2007, when it acquired a 25-acre plot and an adjacent 10-acre plot in Santa Clara. The company did a quick design to try to get out of its leased buildings more quickly. But Huang put the project on hold during the recession of 2008 and 2009. Nvidia continued to lease buildings, and then it revived the project four years ago.
At that time, Huang told the team to revisit the whole design again. He wanted something that was more aligned with how Nvidia did business, and he wanted something that would encourage collaboration.
Right now, the company’s thousands of Silicon Valley employees are spread across 12 buildings. That makes it very difficult to do any collaboration across divisions. One study by Tom Allen at MIT showed that if people occupied the same building and the same floor, there’s a 95 percent chance that individuals will run into someone from another department. If they’re on a different floor, that falls to 5 percent. And if they’re in a different building, the odds are virtually zero.
“Across 12 buildings, the chance for a casual collision with someone who sparks innovation across departments can be rare,” said O’Brien. “We wanted collaboration because our business is a combination of art and science.”
Nvidia knew about buildings like Pixar’s headquarters in Emeryville, Calif., where the central area has a wide open space for gathering, with centralized bathrooms and other amenities. It was also aware of the circular “spaceship” design that Apple’s then-CEO Steve Jobs had embraced. But Huang felt like a circle wouldn’t enable much collaboration. The triangle fit much better.
For the second time around, Nvidia assembled a team to create the new building, including architecture firm Gensler, general contractor Devcon Construction, Tom Leader Studio on landscape architecture, and development consultant Sares-Regis Group of Northern California. They settled on a two-story building with a lot of access between the floors in terms of stairs and the ability to see between the floors.
“This building is rooted in how Nvidia works,” said Manan Shah, studio director at Gensler, the architecture firm that did the design.
Iray uses light-ray-tracing and accurate material reflectivity to show what an architectural design will actually look like in the real world. The VR simulation of the building came in handy during planning because of the much higher level of accurate representation, said Scott DeWoody, creative media manager at Gensler.
At first, Iray wasn’t quite good enough to handle the job. So Huang urged the group to develop a better version that could handle accurate lighting and shadows. Nvidia used the rendering engine to power other companies’ products. But it eventually issued its own version of Iray, said Phillip Miller, senior director of product management on Nvidia’s Iray. And that software was able to give the architects such an accurate view of the final product that they were able to make subtle changes that they would otherwise have had to do in mid-construction.
“You get a sense of presence, and it lays bare all of the warts that could be obscured by a different camera angle,” Miller said. “You can find things you might not otherwise discover. We could also find errors in the VR model.”
DeWoody was also able to iterate much faster, producing new renderings in near real time as the architects suggested changes. In the past, it used to take a day or more to get those changes back. And that led to much faster progress and better overall design work. That was possible because Nvidia put graphics processing units in the cloud, with as many as 120 graphics chips working on the same image rendering at once, rather than just one or two. DeWoody can access the Iray software from anywhere in the world.
For instance, they found in their “walkthroughs” that they had too many triangle skylights throughout the building. Those triangles would have produced too much glare on the many computer monitors throughout the building. So the architects reduced the number of skylights, saving both money and reducing glare, Shah said.
“The tool helped us hone in on the appropriate amount of daylighting,” Shah said.
The middle of the building, as mentioned, is where employees come up from the parking garage. They can run into each other there and head upstairs or to their desks.
“You enter this building from the middle, and in that middle heart is where the social spaces are,” O’Brien said. “The meeting rooms, town hall room, and bathrooms are in the middle. As you move toward the side of the building, that’s where you get quieter, heads-down, and focus. Even if you’re introverted and want to stay in your workstation and work, you have to go to the middle of the building. That’s where we force the casual collision. That’s by design.”
O’Brien said the VR could give you a good sense of scale and what the view would look like from any given place. You could, for instance, see how the view of something was blocked by a column. Previously, Iray served as a rendering engine in other animation products sold by companies, such as Siemens. Now, the stand-alone Nvidia Iray software, built by a team in Berlin, is available for others to use, and it can plug into animation software like 3D Studio Max. It can simulate more than 1,000 materials in a physically accurate way, Miller said. It has been commercially available for about nine months.
“Jen-Hsun had the vision for Iray to simulate the building, just as Nvidia simulates its chip designs before it takes them into manufacturing,” O’Brien said. “At the time, Iray was in its infancy. As it got more mature, we used it as an iterative tool in design. We’ve seen this building for the better part of four years. Buildings are built every day. But they aren’t simulated. We have walked through the building.”
On top of that, Nvidia captured the growth of the building step by step, as construction began. It sent autonomous drones (from Kespry) throughout the construction site to capture images of all of the things that changed, and it showed me an animated view of the site that was built from all of the captured data points. The software stitched together a “point cloud” image with 1.2 billion points in it.
I could view in it VR from any angle and then fast-forward the imagery through time to see how the building came together step by step, as each layer of concrete and material was added. That stop-motion film is like a record of everything that happened during construction. And that film uses a considerable amount of GPU power to illustrate.
“It really helped us convert the images into real information,” said Miller. “We can now log in and recognize objects like trucks. At some point in the future, you’ll be able to see that construction is 80 percent complete on a project based on what you see in the point cloud.”
The employees are scheduled to move into the building in late 2017. Nvidia has more than 4,000 employees across its current buildings in Santa Clara, so not everyone will fit in the new space. But the company has more property that it can build upon in later years.