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How Adobe built an all-electric office tower

Adobe’s new 18-story building is Silicon Valley’s first of its kind, and places a big bet on the future of corporate spaces in the era of climate change.

A photograph of Adobe's red label with the words Adobe underneath in white

Image via Shutterstock/ r.classen

When Adobe began designing its new corporate office tower in 2018, the company knew it had the opportunity to make some bold choices.

Prioritizing community and collaboration was a focus from the very beginning, as was minimizing the building’s carbon footprint. But smack in the middle of the design and construction process, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, throwing into question what purpose offices served — and whether they would need to exist at all.

Nearly three years on, however, the pandemic has not changed much about Adobe’s new North Tower headquarters in downtown San Jose, California. If anything, it prompted the company to double down on its original priorities.

"We’re always iterating design," explained Eric Kline, Adobe’s director of global workplace experience. The pandemic served as an acceleration toward the critical aspects of the building — namely, space for collaboration and a laser-focus on sustainability.

The North Tower, expected to open in early 2023, is Silicon Valley’s first all-electric building of its scale, and is powered by 100 percent renewable energy.

With a goal of running company-wide operations on renewable energy by 2035, this was also a top environmental priority in the design of the new office. "The decision to make an all-electric North Tower had the biggest impact on this goal," said Scott Hiller, Adobe’s head of sustainability and energy infrastructure.

All of the electricity used in the building will be drawn from wind and solar sources in California, according to Hiller. This is accomplished through utility PG&E's direct access lottery, which allows non-residential customers to purchase electricity from third-party providers. Hiller said Adobe is purchasing power from two plants — one wind, one solar — in southern California.

Powering an office building entirely with electricity, however, is not without its challenges. For example, Adobe opted to install air source heat pumps, rather than furnaces, to handle the heating and cooling of the North Tower. While heat pumps are increasingly popular in residential applications, scaling up the technology for a ​​700,000-square-foot office building was a stretch — and a costly one at that, Hiller said.

Adobe was able to pull it off by reducing the energy needs of the building in the first place. 

"As many choices as you make around progressive technology," Kline said, "you still have to make some pretty big decisions about the building." Everything from the design of the facade, to the type of glass used in the windows, plays a part in reducing the heating and cooling needs in the space.

"We need to go that extra distance to create an energy efficient building," Hiller said, which opens the door to new, all-electric technologies. In other words: "You use less energy to get things done."

The commitment to sustainability also shows up in other parts of the building. In the cafeteria, for example, staff will cook with induction stovetops and electric pizza ovens — which they’ve already been training on for a couple of years, according to Hiller.

And waste handling has long been a focus for Adobe, with some 90 percent of daily waste recycled or otherwise diverted from landfills, Hiller said. The company uses basic signage and sorting cans, and also tasks its janitorial staff with additional sorting before anything heads to the landfill; the same systems will be carried over into the North Tower.

Looking back on the nearly completed project, Hiller and Kline said there are some clear lessons for any corporate leader looking to design an ultra-sustainable office.

"From the very beginning, you have to have a very strong internal and external team working on this project that have a strong passion for sustainability," Hiller said. Adobe already had this in its internal leadership, according to Hiller, but during the RFP process made sure to choose contractors who shared that dedication.

Kline also emphasized the importance of engaging a diverse set of employees in the design process, asking them: What’s important, and what do we need to focus on? 

"I don’t think you can ever have a successful project without taking into account the people you’re designing it for," Kline said.

Both leaders also said it’s important to be open to new ideas — especially those that might not yet be popular in the U.S. — and put in time to research innovative solutions. "We should always question how we can do it better," Kline said. 

But at the end of the day, Kline and Hiller agree that none of this is possible without a community that is, at all levels, committed to making positive change.

"It has to include sustainability," Kline said, describing the company’s ethos. "In our mind, it’s not as much a ‘nice-to-have,’ it’s really more a part of who we are." 

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