While companies such as Twitter and Facebook consume ever-larger offices in San Francisco and the Valley, at one major software firm, you'll find its employees in a completely opposite setting: a bucolic farm.
On its campus, there's a flowing creek, an apple orchard planted in 1873, corn and alfalfa fields, an occasional cow or two, and 5,500 solar collectors at one of the largest, most-significant—and sustainable—high-tech campuses in the Midwest.
It is the headquarters of health care software developer Epic Systems Corporation, in the heartland of Verona, just 10 minutes southwest of Madison, Wisconsin, seamlessly nestled among acres of rolling farm fields. As a maker of software for mid-size and large medical groups, hospitals and integrated health care organizations, Epic’s products are designed to allow both doctors and patients to control the flow of electronic health data.
"We didn’t know how big Epic would grow," says John Cuningham, founder of design firm Cuningham Group Architecture who designed the farm-cum-office. "They started small in Madison in 1979 and by 2002, they had grown to 600 employees. So we started planning the Verona campus. Today, they have more than 6,000 employees."
The latest campus, with 319,000 interior square feet of new offices, reflects its farmland surroundings with imaginative rethinkings of the icons of a classic Wisconsin dairy farm. "The design was obvious," says Cuningham. "The design was already there—we just enhanced it."
The agrarian motif carries through inside and out, with a huge stable housing workers, plus a machine shed, cozy porch swings, antique milk jugs, a four-story stairway surrounded by reclaimed barn wood.
One feature that isn't farm related: A lack of open offices. Cuningham has worked with Epic for more than 19 years, and learned early on that "employees felt they were much more efficient when working in individual offices."
"At first they exclaim that they don’t feel individual offices are necessary. But they all go away saying, ‘Wow, I think they’re onto something.'"
With its cutting-edge design, strong appeal to high-demand, high-skilled employees, and its sheer scale, the Epic campus demonstrates it’s no longer just the West Coast that can claim innovative tech headquarters.
And beyond its unique agrarian design, it’s a showcase for numerable sustainable features: The land’s 3,500 geothermal wells offer heating and cooling solutions for the winter and summer, providing a 15% savings in energy bills. The buildings are also equipped with solar panels, and the campus has 250 acres of actual farmland that are rented to local farmers to harvest corn and alfalfa.
"The neat thing is that you can farm right on top of the geothermal wells," says Cuningham. "It’s called a triple harvest: geothermal wells underneath, alfalfa on the ground and solar collectors overhead." When it comes to measuring success, the proof is in its utility bills. The campus uses 40% less energy than typical buildings.
Human health was also in mind through the design advances. While daylighting makes the best use of natural light to reduce florescent light usage, it also stays in tune with human health by resonating with circadian rhythms.
An underground parking lot keeps cars out of sight, to preserve the farm illusion. Epic plants on the lot's roof and don’t use asphalt. The result: a more efficient air-cooling system and mega savings in land usage. "We like the idea that we’re saving land, and it makes the buildings more compact. For aesthetics, it’s unimaginable."
Epic allows visitors to roam the campus and even provides maps to guide guests on their tour. "You would want to plan for two to three hours but would still not see it all," says Cuningham. One popular attraction is a 20-seat tree house in the woods made out of reclaimed wood used for staff meetings.
Though Epic is growing, "there are parts of the campus they never plan to touch—they want to see animals as part of their view."