“It is magical, it reveals itself as you experience it, whereas many materials are limited to being single experiences. With Panelite, one isn’t quite sure what it is, if you’re not familiar with it. It has a beautiful ability to look different at different scales. If you’re far away from it, it becomes like a moth to a flame, you know, it draws you in with the great lighting. When you’re close to it, it scales and humanizes a space with its materiality.” – Margi G. Nothard, Founder, Director of Design, Glavovic Studio

Magic Leap is one of the most interesting and innovative young technology companies in the world, developing a radical approach to spatial computing and mixed reality. For its headquarters near Miami, Magic Leap took over part of an existing, generic precast commercial building. The 259,000-square-foot space had to address a wide array of programmatic functions, including open work areas, offices, research and development labs, manufacturing facilities, a machine shop, demonstration labs, plus support spaces with advanced acoustics and audio systems requirements. For Glavovic Studio, the fundamental challenge was creating a workplace within this standard envelope that would reflect and inspire the revolutionary nature of the work being done there, while fostering collaboration among the more than 1,000 employees.

Our CEO Emmanuelle Bourlier interviewed Glavovic Studio’s Founder and Director of Design, Margi Glavovic Nothard, to learn how her firm met this challenge and why they chose Panelite as a key design element.

EB: I want to thank you so much for choosing to use Panelite at Magic Leap. Could you please comment on how your material choices and the choice of Panelite in particular, were made to convey the sense of innovation and collaboration so vital to this client?

MGN: It was a very interesting opportunity; we had multiple goals that were critical to the success of the project. For a sense of scale, each floor plate is about 125,000 square feet, larger than a football field. It was critical to bring the program in without having a rigid, formulaic experience for the workers. We also wanted the space to reflect the innovation behind the Magic Leap product which they were at that moment inventing and hadn’t released yet. The goal – for transparency, light manipulation, and community – was to represent this group of people who were ultimately going to share these innovations with the world. The technical requirements led us to look for materials that had these inherent qualities of light and transparency, but also, were in a way magical and surprising. We worked closely with Magic Leap on developing the material palette. The building had concrete floors and steel columns; only a couple of the exterior walls had natural light coming in, so we chose to use materials as another source of light. Panelite was a clear choice for us because it imbues feelings of surprise and can capture the light beautifully. It’s also a very straightforward material in its physical nature because it’s a flat pack, panelized system. So, we could use it in multiple conditions, multiple circumstances, and as a counterpoint to the heaviness of concrete and steel in an industrial open space. It was the perfect choice for us.

EB: I love your use of the word magical.

MGN: It is magical, it reveals itself as you experience it, whereas many materials are limited to being a single experience. With Panelite, one isn’t quite sure what it is, if you’re not familiar with it. For the employees, we knew it would be intriguing. It has a unique ability to look different at different scales. If you’re far away from it, it becomes like a moth to a flame, you know, it draws you in with the great lighting. When you’re close to it, it scales and humanizes a space with its materiality, which I found to be intriguing, and we were able to use that in many different applications.

EB: That’s a very beautiful way to put it. You’ve also described the project as having an urban quality due to its size and the many disparate program elements. The Panelite walls create solid geometric backlit forms that define throughways or gathering spaces. In some cases, the plane of the material folds from being a wall to become a seating element. Would it be fair to say that not only are these pathways urban in their usage, but they also have a kind of canyon or rock-like quality due to their slanted geometries?

MGN: That’s a very interesting way of describing some of the walls and surfaces. There was no intention of that, but if it’s experienced that way, that’s great. The ability to manipulate the Panelite surface to create a volumetric expression, rather than just a flat panel was helpful because of the very cavernous, long corridors. On the first floor where there’s a cleanroom, a very important component to their unique program, we wanted to create interest, to create some compression and expansion, spaces where people could slow down or speed up, as you would in a city. We tried to think about the syncopation of movement and dynamic flow. So going from a modulated surface to a recessed surface that became a bench, creating places to hang out, spend time, that was fundamental to Magic Leap’s program. This idea that you bump into each other, you connect with surprise moments, and creativity isn’t dependent only on that single moment when you’re at your computer. Having an urban landscape strategy helped us think through how the building’s inherent use of articulation to create more interest. We used the layering of light and form shifting to increase these articulations, decrease the speed of movement and allow the opportunity for exchange.

EB: That’s wonderful. The honeycomb panels are very beautifully and very evenly backlit throughout the project. And these complex volumetric geometries that you’ve created are so clean and precise. Anyone who’s worked with lighting or who has installed panels in complex assemblies knows that both of those things are very challenging to achieve. I’m curious to know about your mockup process and any other secrets you might be willing to share as to how you achieved that.

MGN: With the importance of light to Magic Leap and to us, we were fortunate to work with some extraordinary consultants. HLB lighting should take all the credit for getting this beautiful light experience because they did a lot of advanced analysis and photometric calculations to ensure that it was even, they also did a lot of testing with the mockup. The mockup was an essential part of the process, because not only was HLB able to adjust how the lighting worked to achieve such uniform luminosity, but we were also able to communicate the experience to Magic Leap. One other thing about that: obviously, we were very interested in energy consumption. By using high-quality long-life LEDs, we were able to contribute to the reduction in electrical usage.

EB: Your firm seems to strive for sustainability in all your projects, even if you’re not going for LEED specifically, that’s always a driving force.

MGN: Absolutely, across the board and from very early days. I grew up in South Africa, in a family of environmentalists. Consideration for the earth and nature has to be a part of all our decisions, in a positive way. In this case, we weren’t seeking a LEED certification, but we still focused on reduction in energy consumption and the use of materials that diminish a negative impact on the environment.

EB: The right thing to do.

MGN: Yes. And not so difficult to achieve either. I think there’s a sense that it’s always more expensive, but it’s less expensive over time, and highly affordable options are now available. So we really don’t have any excuse.

EB: Absolutely, I agree. Getting back to the question of lighting, but also, want to bring in the notion of privacy. Our panels are often used for their ability to transmit daylight, or backlighting, and to give either partial or complete visual privacy. In the case of Magic Leap and their proprietary technology, confidentiality was also a factor. Different users have different levels of security clearance. I understand that the panels were layered to address these programmatic changes. For example, in some places, the panels were single-layered, to allow some sense of people and objects behind. In other areas, they were double-walled or even backed with gypsum. Or they were continued with glass to allow visibility but maintain acoustic privacy. I’d love to learn a little more about those issues of privacy, confidentiality views, and how those impacted the design.

MGN: There were several situations where viewing into space was not permitted, but the ultimate project goal was to create a cohesive and immersive experience in this light environment. Panelite became a very easy tool because we could layer it. For an enclosed space with no direct visual connection permitted into the space, we wanted to signal that there were people inside that room, so creating a silhouette was important. Knowing that the space would be lit at certain times of day and not at others – provided an opportunity rather than a problem. We could locate Panelite on drywall, or backlight it. High levels of backlighting sometimes and softer, in other areas. Again, this goes back to the idea of the urban environment and the importance of creating interest in different ways. The uniformity of the product allowed for uncomplicated installation in different situations because we had a common detail for the flat panels. With the dimensional characteristics, we were able to make it readily transition to a glass wall condition for full transparency. We tried to take advantage of the material qualities to achieve these different conditions and create this rhythmic visual experience.

EB: That’s really wonderful to hear. I’m curious to know how the final installation compared with your expectations and your design intent. Were there any surprises?

MGN: Actually no, surprises – not really, in the sense that it worked, the goals that we had set out, worked, and it was beautiful, and people loved it. So the outcome was that this was a good choice. Ultimately, we know that we were demanding in our detailing process. We wanted it to be precise. And we wanted to achieve a very high quality where it wasn’t about the material itself, it was about the experience and the qualitative aspects of the space. So the material, as a tool, did its job perfectly. Where we may have been a little surprised – given this large, large space that didn’t actually feel so big at the end of the day – was that bringing in this complex set of arrangements was quite smooth visually, it didn’t feel like many different elements were put together to achieve that outcome, even though that is what we had to do. Everyone was extremely happy. The owner was very happy, we were, and we certainly couldn’t have done it without working with you very closely. That was also a key part of this success, you know, getting the Panelite team’s input on what the limitations are, what the possibilities are, and then figuring out how to achieve the details. That obviously was a real collaboration, in a true sense. Our vision needed to be met by some practical, technical support from you.

EB: We love to work with designers who are looking to push the boundaries or to use the product in different ways. It challenges us to find the right details and to help make it happen. It’s a thrill for us to see the panels used in new ways. Did you consider other ways to achieve those illuminated walls before settling on the Panelite?

MGN: We really didn’t. We understood what we wanted to achieve. We did our research and we were very committed to using this product because we understood the complexity of the situation. We didn’t find or know of another product that could do what Panelite did in terms of achieving our goals. The challenge wasn’t so much the material, as the extreme schedule. We had to do a lot in a short amount of time. We felt we needed to do something fast yet still be ambitious. If we weren’t ambitious, we would be diminishing the long-term experience of the space. So we were ambitious and bold. And we were able to do it all through early decisions about Panelite and not taking a lot of time to look for other things.

EB: It’s a real feat because when you look at images of the project, it does not look like a fast-track project. It’s wonderful for us that you so clearly understood the material’s properties and how it would help you to achieve your design goals. We often find that architects and designers understand those qualities, but we have challenges sometimes with contractors or facilities managers, who because it is an innovative and relatively new material, have some concerns about ease of installation or maintenance. Did you find that that was a challenge in this case?

MGN: There was definitely acclimatization of getting to know the product for the installers and the general contractor. The counterpoint to that is having very clear shop drawings and having mockups. The fact that it can be very easily cut is also a real benefit to the material and the planning process. Because there can be changes made onsite, if necessary. Especially in an existing building, there’s a lot of dimensional information that must be accommodated. So we needed to know when there was flexibility in the product. The glass installers were used to working with glass but not with Panelite. And over time, they became experts because there was so much of it; but also they were very, very detail-oriented. In terms of maintenance and long term, we were able to utilize the specifications well to communicate to the owner. Frankly, it’s a very low-maintenance material and doesn’t change over time. Panelite is quite straightforward from a long-term maintenance perspective. So that was not a challenge for the project.

EB: That’s good to know. And I’m glad we have a new Panelite expert.

MGN: We developed the whole design in Rhino and drew it in Revit. A lot of time was spent with your team really working through the details to make them straightforward. The different detail options were very helpful – the way the panels come together with the tongue and groove joint, or with a perfect prefabricated corner. There were so many ways we could use it that were precise and could yield minimal tolerances. That also speaks to long-term maintenance; if you have a sealed joint, there’s no porosity there. Without having to have heavy silicone joints, we were able to achieve this in a very beautiful, precise way.

EB: That’s an excellent point. In a project like this, it helps so much to have that combination of fixed details like the prefabricated miters, and the ability to do some of the cutting on-site so that you can adapt to the site conditions and maintain absolute precision.

MGN: Having clear information about what had to be done in the factory and what could be done in the field was obviously essential. And we made a bench to sit on, so the structural aspect also needed to be properly understood and executed. The surprise for me was the power of the experience with these large volumetric elements have with the individuality of the moments that we were trying to achieve. They are beautiful. I wish more people could see it because as you know, it’s a private space.

EB: Right. Do you have any additional comments on any feedback from the end-users or any stories about using the space?

MGN: I haven’t recently had any feedback. But during the installation and for several years afterward, there was really wonderful feedback. One of the basic premises of using light in space is that Magic Leap’s augmented, mixed reality product is itself about manipulating light. It’s about a new way of seeing the world. So there was a wonderful simpatico between the engineers and us as the designers in recognizing that this play on light was a creative expression of their ambition.

EB: Oh, that’s wonderful. For my last project question, I want to be very upfront. We aim to learn as much as we can from projects and this one was very complex and challenging. Were there problems or complaints, from any of the teams on the design side, or the installation side, or anything that we can learn from?

MGN: First of all, I just want to say we worked with a great team on your end; people like Ryan Tobin, were just fantastic. Maybe one of the challenges was the stressful environment – we had 13 phases of permitting, we had people moving in during construction with a partial CO. The challenge was more about the schedule than the actual product. On the installation side, I was very fussy and our team was very fussy. If we saw something that wasn’t perfect, we had to address it. I don’t recall, maybe it’s because it’s been a while, but there’s just there’s no overarching sense of any complaints in terms of the installation and things like that. In terms of overall resiliency in the world of materials, having clarity in installation method and in detail opportunities, and what can or can’t be done – that was very helpful because we wanted to keep the price reasonable for the owner and meet their budget.

One other thing I would add is that we complemented the Panelite with wood, which is a very tactile material, and that was just a lovely adjacency. Having that juxtaposition was also key to the success of the experience overall. The warmth of the wood, the warmth of the light, and the play between the two as you walk into the lobby, draw you down the corridor. And there are folks who are working right next to the wood, and folks that work next to the light, so it gave a sense of different neighborhoods. That’s also a strength of the Panelite, its ability to relate to other materials that are very different, and still produce a seamless, cohesive experience.

And the reflectivity of the Panelite surface was very helpful. So we didn’t just consider the application of a particular wall, but we also were mindful of the relationships across the corridor so in some cases, it sort of collapses into an almost non-spatial condition because the reflections are so high, especially when we have the glass in front of the Panelite as well. So that was fun – people would be looking and seeing themselves almost like an animated experience.

EB: I’m thrilled to know that the Magic Leap team is enjoying the space and it certainly is an absolutely gorgeous project. Do you know of any video walkthroughs?

MGN: There are none because of the requirements for security and confidentiality. That was not possible. But just know that the people working there enjoy the panels every day and it’s contributing to the overall quality of their work life. Ultimately, that’s the goal, for them to be happy and feel better about where they work.

EB: That’s a lovely way to put it. On a personal note, I trained to be an architect because I wanted to have a positive impact on people’s lives. So it means a lot to me to hear that for end-users having Panelite in their space is a positive experience. It’s a different way to achieve that goal of having a positive impact other than being an actual designer – to do it through the material.

MGN: Well, yes, I mean, you achieved it. I just have to say thank you for your creativity in that product, because it really does allow us to work with it as a malleable product. And I think that we need more of that innovation. So congratulations on a beautiful product, and we’ve used it to create a beautiful space.

EB: You have! Thank you, Margi, it’s really, it’s an honor to have worked with you over the years, especially on this large project, and I really hope we’ll have more opportunities to work together.

MGN: Likewise. And thank you and everyone at Panelite for helping make it a reality. A magical reality.

Project: Magic Leap HQ
Location: Plantation, FL
Completed: 2018
Architect: Glavovic Studio
Installer: Capital Glass
GC: Butters Construction
Photography: Robin Hill
All drawings and mock-up images courtesy of Glavovic Studio

Other Glavovic Studio projects using Panelite:
Young at Art Museum
Girls Club Art Foundation