The initial drawings for the rooftop space at BuzzFeed’s New York City headquarters were beautiful. The landscape architect envisioned various layers of greenery, wood, and rolling topography with a built-in stage area and unique lighting.
Everyone who saw the drawings was enchanted, says Gabrielle Rubin Deveaux, senior director of global real estate and facilities for the online entertainment and news giant. Still, the financial reality of bringing the vision to life poured cold water on that dream. Moreover, as lovely as the designs were, they were in stark contrast to the company’s ethos.
“We were excited about anything—even just the idea of having outdoor space,” Deveaux says. “But BuzzFeed maintains a very scrappy mentality. We don’t like to overdesign. My CFO said, ‘Let’s keep it simple. This is all really nice, but I think we’re overthinking it.’”
So the visions of rolling greenery and built-in staging made way for more basic movable furniture and a single level of gathering space. Cue the sad trombones—Deveaux even notes that when the building’s landlord saw the more simplistic plans, he remarked that he liked the initial drawings better.
“I can tell you that even if I had the budget for that initial vision, I would still choose the rooftop we did,” she says.
That’s because simplicity leads to versatility. The rooftop space isn’t just a space for the company’s employees to take their laptops outside and get a bit of sun while they work. Since its April 2017 opening, the rooftop space has hosted a carnival with tents, provided ample space for video shoots and BuzzFeed programming such as Tasty, served as a unique backdrop for celebrity photo shoots, and given the company its own private space to host media events, attract new clients, and maintain relationships with old ones. In August 2017 alone, the rooftop space hosted 31 different events in just 20 working days.
“You can give our company a blank surface and the people here will do the most amazing things with it,” Deveaux says. “It’s unbelievable to sit back and watch. Had we gone with the original idea, we wouldn’t have been able to do so much of what we’ve already done, because we wouldn’t have been able to move things. It’s been a game-changer.”
That game-changer has provided a whole new jolt of life at a cultural level for the company. The notion of having a common area to eat or meet certainly existed in the headquarters before, but when you’re inside a building, Deveaux notes, it’s common to stay in your own area. Now people from all over the headquarters are meeting on the roof—to the point where plenty of sunscreen dispensers, which were added at employees’ request, are on hand.
“People just gravitate toward the outdoor space,” she says. “It’s made our office of more than 700 people feel that much cozier.”
The outdoor space also influences the New York headquarters’ interior design. Staircases were purposefully built along windows not only to let in an abundance of natural light, but also to provide a view of the
When American Builders Quarterly last spoke with Deveaux in August 2016, she noted the importance of the “canteen” areas throughout all of the company’s office locations as a place where employees could gather and participate in various company events. The rooftop space at the New York office has quickly become an extension of that—as she predicted it would two years ago.
When BuzzFeed first took the space in the New York building, Deveaux pushed to put the canteen on the thirteenth floor—which at first held the finance, HR, and legal teams—as she saw the floor as the epicenter of the office.
“Just like the kitchen is the heart of the home, that is what the canteen is to us,” she says. “It needed to be in the middle of the stack, and not on the top floor.”
True to the “epicenter” notion, the thirteenth floor houses conference rooms, studios, the pavilion, and access to the rooftop in addition to the canteen. The energy created in the area is such that even as the fall and winter seasons loomed at the time of writing, Deveaux says BuzzFeed had no plans to close the rooftop doors.
“I have no doubt that I’ll see snow angels or igloos out there,” she laughs. “Maybe they’ll find a way to host a vodka-tasting event. People will go outside with coats. It’s just nice to get a breath of fresh air. It’s fun to see change, and I enjoy letting creative people decide what they want to do with this space.”
Those decisions are in a state of constant evolution, which Deveaux says is not only the charm of BuzzFeed, but the reason she loves her role in particular.
“We’ve been in this space a little over a year and a half,” she says. “I haven’t stopped doing construction. My work is never done, but that’s the exciting part. When I started here, people said, ‘BuzzFeed is a rocket ship.’ I didn’t understand it for a long time—I thought it just meant we moved fast. But no, it means we’re constantly moving. Talk to me in another year and I’ll tell you how much we’ve done since today.”
Photos: Taylor Miller