Goodyear Global Headquarters: Where the Rubber Meets the Road to Innovation

To reimagine Goodyear’s corporate headquarters, in Akron, Ohio, Gensler and Vocon turned to the tire company’s history of cutting-edge invention for design ideas that continue to outpace expectations today.

This article is originally from Architect Magazine, written by Gideon Fink Shapiro on December 23, 2020.  

Great inventions don’t come out of nowhere. It was only after years of persistent research and experimentation that, in the winter of 1839, Charles Goodyear discovered that adding heat and sulfur to rubber would produce a wonderfully elastic new material, vulcanized rubber. More than half a century later, a company named in his honor, The Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. of Akron, Ohio, changed the world with a series of vulcanized rubber products. Fast-forward another century to 2007: Goodyear, which had become a global giant and the last tiremaker left in Akron, was looking to spur innovative thinking over the long term. Following a public-private agreement to redevelop 480 acres of its former campus, Goodyear engaged Gensler to help rethink its brand identity and work environment, and ultimately to design a new global headquarters that unites corporate departments and encourages knowledge-sharing and collaboration.

The LEED Gold–certified Goodyear Global Headquarters building on Akron’s Innovation Way opened in 2013. As the 639,000-square-foot centerpiece of a consolidated headquarters complex in the southern part of Goodyear’s campus, it’s not only larger than the company’s former headquarters building on Market Street, barely a mile north, but also worlds apart in its collaborative approach to productivity.

Today, the seven-year-old project appears to have succeeded in fostering more interaction and communication among the approximately 3,000 employees who work there—notwithstanding the coronavirus pandemic, which has limited the building’s capacity since spring. The headquarters also offers a national model for corporate reinvention and reinvestment in a Rust Belt community. Today, as when it first opened and presumably as it will again in the future post-pandemic world, the project shows the lasting power of a design approach that brings people together to exchange ideas in an array of settings.

Renewing a Legacy of Innovation

“The company’s legacy and historic contributions to American industry were huge design drivers as we thought about the project,” says Scott Hurst, AIA, a Chicago-based senior associate at Gensler who served as a senior designer on the Goodyear headquarters. As the architects learned during a pre-design visioning phase, Goodyear leaders wanted to revitalize the company with the innovative spirit of a tech startup—the same spirit that had driven the company, founded in 1898, to introduce tubeless automobile tires, all-weather treads, pneumatic airplane tires, and heavy-duty inflatable truck tires and to build its first U.S. Navy blimp, all within its first two decades of existence.

With its new headquarters, Goodyear also wanted to demonstrate its commitment to environmental sustainability and employee health and wellness. “It was one of the most intensive studies we’ve undertaken with a company,” says Brian Vitale, AIA, principal and co-managing director at Gensler’s Chicago office. “By the time we started designing, we already knew a lot about who they were and what they wanted.”

To connect the company’s past, present, and future through architecture, Gensler conceived of the entrance plaza as a place to link old and new structures and to refresh the company’s public identity. Goodyear’s iconic Wingfoot logo, symbolizing lightness and speed, serves as a recurring motif, adorning a sleek aluminum feature wall above the main entrance, the plaza’s minimalist lighting fixtures, and a pedestrian bridge that connects the new building to a parking structure across the street. Repeated thousands of times on a tiny scale, the Wingfoot even forms the frit pattern of the lobby windows.

The north side of the entrance plaza is bounded by a century-old brick-and-concrete building. A former tire factory that was converted mostly to white-collar use with a 1984 Michigan Society of Architects Honor Award–winning design by Smith, Hinchman & Grylls (now known as SmithGroup) and renovated by Gensler in 2013, today it serves as a product research and development office called the Goodyear Innovation Center. (Goodyear’s specialized NASCAR racing tire manufacturing unit still cranks out 100,000 tires per year from the Innovation Center’s ground level.)

To the south of the plaza stands the Gensler-designed Global Headquarters building; its soaring, seven-story, glass-enclosed lobby wraps the west side of the plaza to connect with its centenarian counterpart, forming a grand yet accessible entrance. While the newer building is clad mostly in glass and metal, it pays homage to its elder neighbor with a contextual brick façade overlooking the plaza.

Yellow is the color of invention at Goodyear. As you approach the new building’s entrance, a warm yellow glow beckons from a backlit, 130-foot-long glass “brand wall” within the lobby that exhibits magnified photos of the element sulfur—a backdrop that animates the space. In addition to commemorating Charles Goodyear’s breakthrough, Vitale says, the brand wall is meant to spur employees and visitors to dream. “That moment of invention—the vulcanization process—changed everything,” he says. “How do you build on that, what is the next big change, and how can the company be transformative today?”

Deeper inside the building, luminous sulfur-yellow bands race up the atrium walls, ensconced in zigzagging shells of tire-black acoustic panels. At once decorative and functional, the multistory “skids” offer visual orientation and acoustical mitigation as well as a subtle nudge for viewers to test the limits of performance, Vitale says. They were inspired by “patterns on the pavement, skid marks, these beautiful sinuous lines [that are] left over when a racing car peels out. They’re meant to have a little bit of attitude.”

Designing the Voids

At the start of the design process, the Gensler team was concerned that such a large building could inadvertently atomize the same workforce it meant to unite. The designers began contemplating how to break up the building’s mass and create spaces for gathering and informal meetings. Then during a strategy meeting one day, a Goodyear tire engineer said something that almost made Vitale drop his pencil. “When designing tires,” Vitale recalls, “the engineer said that they spend as much time designing what isn’t there as what is there. The treads of the tires are voids. When we heard that we thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting if we thought about a building that way?’”

Gensler proceeded to plan the new building around a lobby atrium and two cavernous, daylit voids—each crossed by bridges and accentuated with bursts of color and texture. In the lobby, the bright yellow brand wall contrasts with a grand stair encased in a dark EIFS material. To the south, past the security turnstiles and over a landing, a six-story atrium picks up where the lobby leaves off. This articulated slice of space stretches all the way through the building, opening to views of the 7-acre native prairie meadow landscape to the south. To the west, a second atrium, at five stories tall, similarly overlooks the southern meadow. Together, the two internal atriums split the building roughly into three parts, demarcating corporate departments and providing natural places for planned or spontaneous meetings.

Just as treads enhance tire performance, the architectural voids in the Goodyear Global Headquarters are designed to enhance the building’s performance—and not just by funneling daylight deep into the office interiors.

These open spaces serve as “magnets or hot spots of activity” and provide a boost to communication, morale, and productivity, Hurst says. Semi-enclosed “huddle rooms” are positioned along the atriums’ balconies, while enclosed conference rooms project into the chasm with their occupants partially visible through glass walls.

The building’s 665-seat cafeteria, whose outdoor patio seating accommodates another 95 diners, adjoins the stadium-style seating that invites people to gather in the east atrium. Now that Goodyear’s Akron-based workforce could gather in one complex, says Julie Trott, AIA, a director at Cleveland-based Vocon, the project’s architect-of-record, “everyone is connected to the same dining area and conference spaces.” The headquarters and the renovated Innovation Center are fitted with similar furnishings and finishes “to signify corporate unity.”

In their expansiveness, the eastern and western atriums recall the superhuman scale of the famous Goodyear Airdock, just 2 miles to the south; upon its completion in 1929, the elliptical airship hangar had the world’s largest column-free interior. But unlike engineer Karl Arnstein’s machine-age hangar, Gensler’s towering atriums are designed to accommodate the human scale with comfortable furnishings, stadium stairs, living green walls, and natural materials such as reclaimed wood, all bathed in daylight. Gensler conceived of the workplace as akin to a fine-grained urban fabric that encompasses different scales and coalesces into distinct neighborhoods. “You think about it like a city,” Vitale says. “Smaller coffee rooms, break rooms, and little cafés intertwine with the neighborhoods of workstations.” Shared amenities like the cafeteria, a 10,000-square-foot fitness center, and a flexible classroom or conference center—not to mention the atriums—draw people from the internal neighborhoods as well as employees visiting from across Goodyear’s far-flung empire. Transparency reigns supreme: People can see each other working and interacting, heightening the sense of the collective mission.

Controlling the Light

The headquarters building’s 14-foot floor-to-floor heights and 10-foot internal ceiling heights, paired with copious glazing, ensure that no occupant feels cramped or left in the dark. Interestingly, the loftlike former factory across the plaza helped point the way forward on this design strategy. “That building, and others like it, brought in a lot of daylight and had tall ceilings,” Hurst observes. “Our approach with the new building was to manipulate the façade to create more opportunities for daylight to come deeper into the space, which is part of what makes a pleasant work environment.”

This daylighting strategy dovetailed with the architectural form of the building. Along the south elevation, angular, chevron-shaped facets create movement along the façade while altering its solar exposure. “Having the glass face due south allowed us to control the light more easily,” Vitale says. To limit glare and solar gain, Gensler and Vocon worked with curtain wall manufacturer National Enclosure Co. of Ypsilanti, Mich., and its Massillon, Ohio–based fabrication shop. The design team specified the application of internal aluminum shelves to deflect sunlight toward the ceiling. It also specified fritting for the largest glazed walls, substituting the custom Wingfoot frit in the lobby for a linear frit on the south-facing atrium walls. The curtain wall system utilizes insulated glass units and a low-E coating throughout. Roller shades deploy automatically, based on the angle of the sun, to screen the building’s east and west elevations as well as several conference rooms nestled inside the atriums.

To speed development of the curtain wall system, Vocon worked with NEC in a design-assist capacity. “We ended up with a unitized system, which was great for schedule and budget, but posed challenges related to sustainability and LEED accreditation,” Trott says. “We couldn’t achieve a traditional thermal break to block heat and cold transfer due to the connection of the units at the mullions. So we had to add insulation on the inside of the spandrels to wrap the mullions where the two unitized materials met.”

Staying Safe and Dry

The insulation system turned out to be another cutting-edge feature of the building. As part of the building’s LEED Gold–certified energy performance, the architects opted for the use of a continuous mineral wool insulation material, Owens Corning Thermafiber RainBarrier, which eliminates or minimizes thermal bridging in nonglazed areas, such as behind metal or brick panels.

Although this bendable product is known to be noncombustible and fire-resistant, some members of the architectural team initially questioned whether it could withstand exposure to moisture, according to Todd Shear, Owens Corning’s façades manager for the Eastern U.S., who worked on the Goodyear project. The designers didn’t want to install “what they perceived to be a sponge” on the outside of the building, he recalls. But Gensler and Vocon chose to specify the continuous mineral wool insulation after conducting wind and rain tests with full-scale mock-ups at NEC’s Massillon fabrication shop and reviewing the results of the manufacturer’s third-party-certified testing program. They also learned that the product is hydrophobic, so any infiltrating water quickly drains away with no loss to the insulation’s thermal performance. Additionally, Thermafiber is vapor permeable, meaning water vapor can escape before it condenses into liquid.

The perimeter fire-containment assembly offers an efficient life-safety system behind the curtain wall. Owens Corning Thermafiber FireSpan 90, also a mineral wool insulation product, was installed behind the spandrel glass in the unitized curtain wall, while Owens Corning Thermafiber Safing was installed between the edge of each concrete floor slab and the curtain wall. “Not all mineral wool is created equal,” Shear says. Beyond the density of the mineral wool, he continues, architects should check that the material is engineered to perform the specific purpose they intend.

Improving Life for People and Planet

Beyond life safety engineering, the architects of the Goodyear headquarters thought about health and well-being in a holistic way. The internal neighborhoods give employees choices about where to work, rather than confining them to their office or cubicle. The use of low-emitting, no-VOC finishes was assumed from the start. Aesthetic common spaces and stairs encourage walking within the building, while the fitness center and meadow paths offer additional opportunities for exercise. And bicycle storage and changing rooms make cycling a real option for commuting. In 2017, Goodyear was named one of the nation’s Best Employers for Healthy Lifestyles by the National Business Group on Health. This focus on employee well-being has precedent deep in the company’s past, such as the 1920 construction of the Walker and Weeks–designed Goodyear Hall, an employee recreation and learning center in Akron.

The headquarters was designed to promote environmental health along with human health. Combining sustainable landscape and architectural features, the project earned LEED credits for restoring natural habitats, mitigating stormwater runoff, and reducing the heat island effect. The building incorporates recycled and regionally sourced construction materials, and it earned 13 of 15 possible points on the LEED scorecard for indoor environmental quality.

The building’s most unusual recycled material is the reclaimed wood that was milled into cladding for the stadium seating and accent walls in the atriums. The supplier estimated that the old-growth timber, dredged from the bottom of the Ohio River, sat underwater for at least a century, having likely been logged upstream and floated down the river, along with thousands of tree trunks each spring, toward a sawmill that it never reached. The naturally weathered finish of this sustainably sourced veneer, along with the adjacent living walls, “visibly represent the building’s environmental considerations, and provide a sense of well-being for the occupants of the building,” Hurst says. Trott adds that the wood literally brings the landscape inside: “The soils and microorganisms that you find at the bottom of the river are part of it.”

An ecological approach to site and landscape design further enhances the Goodyear campus’s commitment to sustainability. Cleveland-based Behnke Landscape Architecture replaced water-hungry, maintenance-intensive lawns with native or adaptive plant species that improve biodiversity, require little to no irrigation, and detain and filter all stormwater on-site with the help of a basin in the south meadow. Porous crushed limestone gravel paths snake through the restored meadow—open to the public as well as employees. Modest green roofs top the building’s two atriums. Hardscaping is limited to specific portions of the otherwise permeable entrance plaza and to pavers for emergency vehicle access. The plaza’s recessed, zigzagging plant beds absorb and temporarily hold runoff and host resilient yet colorfully varied plants and trees.

Post-Occupancy to Post-Pandemic

Seven years after the headquarters opened, Vitale says, the building represents a mission accomplished. Goodyear executives, he says, “say the building has done exactly what we all wanted it to do, to foster a culture of collaboration and innovation. People enjoy working there.” Vocon, as the architect of record, has remained in closer contact with the client and reports similarly positive results. “The building is still used as it was intended,” Trott says. “They’re great stewards of the facility. They still ask us about the building to make sure they’re doing right by the design.” Post-occupancy design tweaks include the addition of interior window film on the south elevation to further reduce glare and solar gain, she adds.

Then came 2020 and the world entered into a global pandemic. All the interactions and casual collisions that the building was designed to catalyze among its 3,000 occupants became a liability. When the headquarters campus reopened at partial capacity in September, six months after shutting down, employees who needed or wanted to return, after completing a mandatory online training, found the conference rooms closed, seating clusters blocked, plexiglass barriers erected between workstations, hand sanitizer stations everywhere, walkways converted to one-way circulation, and floor markings indicating safe distances to stand while speaking with a colleague. Though the cafeteria dining area is closed, the spacious east atrium still accommodates a widely spaced lunch-hour queue as employees pick up to-go orders from the servery kitchen.

When the pandemic eventually recedes, the collaborative and social functions of the building will likely return. In fact, Gensler designers still believe this project is representative of at least one form of future office design. “As we look at creating those third spaces,” Hurst says, “away from desks, allowing for flexibility and choice, these are concepts that are still being reproduced in offices all over the world.” Just as Goodyear once built monumental factories and airship hangars perfectly suited for their industrial functions, he says, “we wanted to make sure the headquarters building was purpose-built for what it does, which is to create a great 21st-century work environment for collaboration.”