Facebook’s forward-thinking tech hub

The technology enhancing Facebook’s new London home is exactly what you’d expect to find inside a social media giant’s offices – reliable systems of the most supreme quality. Zoe Mutter explored the event and broadcast spaces playing a starring role in the hub of innovation.

There’s no greater proof of technology’s power to transform society than the success story of Facebook, the star of Silicon Valley. In the 14 years since Mark Zuckerberg launched the platform in his Harvard University dorm room, Facebook has grown to become one of the most prominent companies in the world, with offices in North and Latin America, Europe, Asia and the South Pacific, the Middle East and Africa.

To coincide with the social media giant celebrating its 10th year in the UK, the company set out to create a new tech hub for its employees at a seven-storey location in the centre of London. The UK is one of Facebook’s largest bases outside the US and it’s where the Workspace collaborative platform and software products for the Oculus virtual reality headset are developed.

A commitment to London

Whenever the tech-focused, forward-thinking company opens a new office the equipment chosen to enhance the multitude of spaces employees rely on must be of the most innovative variety. The two-year project at the 24,000 sq ft building in Rathbone Square comprised a complete building refit to transform the event and meeting spaces and create an inspirational and productive environment, complete with agile workspaces for the additional 800 staff Facebook was set to hire. As well as housing developers, engineers and sales staff, the new offices will also act as a base for LDN_LAB, Facebook’s first start-up incubator, to share expertise, technical resources and provide mentorship for new tech companies.

“Our latest office is a result of the organic growth of the company within this region,” says Morgan Cameron, AV design and deployment engineer, enterprise engineering for Facebook, who led the technical side of the event spaces. “The London office is also now home to the largest engineering team outside the US; and with spaces like the incubator lab we are showing our commitment to London and its entrepreneurial ecosystem.”

Collaborative spaces are also integral to Facebook’s internal culture. Cameron continues: “Event spaces and 100 per cent VC density creates an environment that promotes efficiency and collaboration. Reliability is always paramount.”

Promote, inspire and communicate

The scale of the project presented Cameron’s team with the chance to create aesthetic and integration solutions that incorporate many firsts for their builds.

“Our spaces are used to promote, inspire and communicate our company’s missions and values,” he says. “I wanted these areas to wow our audience, giving our speakers a familiar setting whilst increasing production level. Above all, my aim was to bring our spaces in line with the quality and creativeness that our worldwide offices are famous for.”

With an interior designed by renowned architect Frank Gehry, Rathbone Square consists of four main areas spread over two floors: two dedicated event spaces, one café / event space and one managed studio and green room. The largest area in the new offices – the town hall space – can be found in most of Facebook’s locations across the globe.

Facebook’s core AV Design Team responsible for Rathbone Square consisted of engineers Rory Toms, Emily Tang and Cameron. As well as focusing on ergonomics and finishes to create a comfortable and pleasant working environment, the company’s aim is to provide flexible, reliable and familiar systems in all of their projects. The spaces are used by internal teams and external partners so they need to cater for events of all production scope and scale.

“During the design stages, we were conscious that our previous office had very limited space for event purposes and was technically ageing,” says Cameron. “We were eager to build spaces that could bring many of our offsite events back in-house. With our family of brands being so diverse we have catered for our internal event departments, providing these teams with flexible and technically powerful spaces.

“Our baseline technology standards have been built up over the last five years to ensure a seamless experience for our presenters and event technicians, regardless of which campus they work in. This approach gives us the building blocks for each project, leaving scope for us to react to new technology or industry trends.”

Left to right: Jose Amaral; Perry Rogantin; Andre Steed; Mitchell Peters; Agustin Farias; Jorge Miguel; and Morgan Cameron, AV design and deployment engineer, enterprise engineering at Facebook

Developing partnerships

Traditionally Facebook has relied on tech solutions provider Diversified to design and integrate technology in their event spaces. But as the company is based in the US, Facebook also teamed up with AVMI – a local partner and integrator in the UK – to refurb the London office.

AVMI’s relationship with Facebook began a year prior to the Rathbone Square project, when they worked on smaller meeting room installations in Berlin and Zurich. Following this, Alex Crewdson, account director at AVMI, invited Facebook to visit the sites of other clients it had completed work for, including broadcast level projects.

“The fact we had the skillset to merge the two areas made us the right choice to work on the AV and broadcast hybrid project,” says Crewdson.

Cameron adds: “We have a long-standing relationship with Diversified. They have played a huge role in the development of our event space environment over the last five years and are a valued partner, but with an installation of this scale it was paramount to the project to have a UK-based team on the ground. We felt AVMI’s scale, previous experience and passion were well suited to a project of this size. They invested internally to train their engineers on some of our systems they had not previously worked with. This shows dedication to a project and a focus on success. We have been very impressed with both their engineering prowess and installation quality.”

When AVMI joined the project, Facebook and Diversified had already completed the majority of the design work and selected all equipment. Principal onsite integrators, AVMI worked in conjunction with Diversified to provide all integration labour, a portion of the hardware and technical staff to help with rack building, integration, commissioning and design work. They also suggested UK-based equipment alternatives if needed.

Supersized LED & audience cameras

Rathbone Square features Facebook’s largest deployment of LED. As the company moves away from traditional videowalls and projection it opted for Planar’s DL2 range of tiles in 1.5mm and 1.8mm pixel pitch. Already featuring in other Facebook office locations, Planar displays were chosen once again due to their front serviceability, picture quality and ability to be remotely powered. A total of 219 panels feature across three different spaces, with the largest wall being an ultra-wide coming in at over nine metres long.

The largest event space can accommodate 2,000 people and features multiple supporting pillars, so larger LED walls with Planar repeater screens were necessary to cover dead spots in the room. The second largest event space’s triple width 1.5mm screen – three HD images next to each other – allows content to be moved between them during dynamic meetings. A single 1.8mm 1080p Planar videowall was chosen for the final and smallest event space.

Each screen features a dedicated H-frame to make adjustments possible and the videowalls were spaced away from the wall by 12mm for lighting panel surrounds. Custom-made light box surrounds were developed to house the LED display, providing edge protection and offering creative flexibility to match on-screen content or brand identity.

“Using addressable pixel LED tape and driven by a Pharos LPC X server, we were able to pre-program complex scenes that are easily triggered from the FOH Crestron panel,” says Cameron.

The image quality, small form factor and integration capabilities of Panasonic’s AW-130 HD integrated cameras made them a valuable tool in the event spaces. For additional functionality a wide-angle camera adaptor was added to the audience camera so technicians could quickly pick out audience members during Q&A sessions via a touch screen interface at front of house.

A supreme broadcast environment

In addition to the trio of event spaces, Facebook’s new London home boasts a state of the art broadcast studio and green room which is futureproofed to ensure additional equipment can be added as required. The project brief outlined the requirement for an event space that was large enough to accommodate all employees whilst offering the highest quality broadcasts using Facebook Live, recordings and webinars.

“This is one of the most technically complex spaces outside the US. Facebook wasn’t adamant about technology being hidden, it just needed to be fully functional,” says Crewdson. “The look they went for is very open. All the cabling is on trays and exposed which meant we had to be extremely neat with our cabling. There is no full ceiling, the repeater screens are positioned around the room and the bracketry going right up to the slab is visible.”

The broadcast set-up features Grass Valley Miranda, offering fast and scalable SDI routing and vision mixing; Riedel Mediornet for video transport over fibre and Bolero for communications. Other key elements of the system include Korona K frame vision switching, Analog Way Ascender 48 video processioning, Dante and MADI audio, Adder KVM, custom FOH and control room desks from Laguna.

“The racks built in this space are some of the most beautifully crafted and complex equipment racks I have ever seen, with hundreds of connections all neatly loomed,” says Crewdson.

Controlling complex event spaces

All the spaces are linked via a central control room with all centralised audio and video sources available in each location. Each space has been designed to allow local or remote control of the core AV components. Each space can then operate with a minimal crew when less technically demanding shows are taking place.

“As all the spaces can be controlled from this central control room – featuring cameras, program and stream video switching, lighting control, engineering control, live stream moderation, comms, studio audio and KVM control – this means we can run events in all of our four main spaces concurrently,” says Cameron, who wanted to make the control room as comfortable as possible because the technicians will spend a lot of time in the space.

He explains: “The room has been painted with 18 per cent grey to improve colour calibration between screens and the human eye. The room also has fully dimmable lighting and carpet was requested for that extra element of hygge.”

The managed studio and green room are tethered to Facebook’s system backbone and feature a custom-made dedicated control and edit desk with I/O panels in both rooms. A paint monitor, Grass Valley routing panel, audio links, comms and fibre network tie lines are available for live production. The integrated event spaces are currently operator-led, but DIY-style event spaces will be installed in the future, featuring many pre-set configurations that can be accessed easily.

The sound of success

One of the standout features of Facebook’s new spaces is the audio set-up which is predominantly based around Meyer Sound, from the amplifiers through to the Galileo processing. The manufacturer’s products were the first choice for the new space, having already been adopted in Facebook’s other offices with great success.

At Rathbone Square the speakers’ main function is programmed sound and voice reinforcement. According to Cameron, they deliver the desired “sound quality, punch, remote power and top of the line processing capabilities.”
“It is the best sounding space I’ve ever experienced; the audio quality is incredible,” adds Crewdson.

AVMI worked closely with Meyer Sound on perfecting the direction of the speakers to ensure there were no dead spots when walking the spaces. The speakers were in a landscape orientation so the direction of sound needed to be altered, rotating the horns by 90 degrees.

Audio mixing was to be carried out using a mixture of Yamaha’s CL1 and CL3 desks running over a Dante network. The full featured digital desk offers a wealth of features to suit the flexible space.

A selection of Shure ULXD handheld digital wireless systems, lapel microphones and headsets were added to the audio line-up, the majority of which were roving mics to cater for employees walking around the stage while they present.

An illuminating setting

Facebook has invested in a fully integrated production lighting system across all the spaces at Rathbone Square to enhance the company’s production capability. All lighting fixtures, control and cabling was handled by theatre and architectural consultancy Charcoalblue and AC Special Projects.

Working with the two companies, Facebook deployed a fully centralised sACN lighting system running on a Luminex network. This additional level of control allowed them to pre-program complex lighting scenes that can be easily triggered by technicians. For on-the-fly control and bespoke show configuration the Chamsys MQ series of lighting desks were selected along with Pharos lighting control.

“Our dedicated spaces have full RGBW house lighting installed onto lighting data track, giving us full control of the mood of the room and allowing for fixture specific control if required,” says Cameron. “The data tracks give us the flexibility to move the lights with minimal effort.”

The flexibility of the rig offers the Facebook team a good baseline to cater for as many event scenarios as possible. The stage lighting uses three types of fixtures: Rosco Silks, ETC Iridieons and GLP Impression X4 bars. GLP X4s line the outer walls of the room and offer the ability to move light around the space when required. The X4s are also available in white so they can blend into the café space.

Due to the space’s low ceilings the fixtures needed to be compact with a large zoom angle. As the multi-purpose space will be used for filming and broadcast the lights also had to work well on camera.

Tech challenges and cabling concerns

Trying to build broadcast ready spaces within an office environment was one of the greatest challenges for Cameron and his team.

“With the simultaneous launch of all spaces and bookings from the day of opening we were under huge pressure to get the entire system online and ready within a very tight schedule. Integrating such a specialised system over several floors requires a huge amount of cross functional collaboration,” he says.

Early handover of the spaces, communication, detailed documentation and strategic installations phases were key to the success of the build. The general infrastructure and sequencing requirements for a build of this scale are not common within Facebook’s environment.

“We have never launched a facility of this scale, so we were in uncharted territory both technically, logistically and architecturally,” adds Cameron.

The project was particularly demanding in terms of logistics, initially requiring the site manager to check and relocate 150 palette loads of AV equipment to the designated areas. The cable pull – 850 AV cables totalling over 31km in length – was completed in 42 days and the longest run was 90m through a challenging route of high level basket and corridors.

Once all the cabling was installed and loomed back to the rack room using cable combs, a staggering 12,000 cable ties that had been used to temporarily tie bundles into signal type were cut out and replaced with Velcro ties, as specified by Facebook. The rack rooms alone contain eight full size racks and 12km of SDI cabling, with 32km of cabling fixed across the entire site.

AVMI worked to very tight timescales and the team had to build the rack on site, loading them with kit and cabling them in the offices. For quality control purposes, the company normally builds the racks off site in an environment where every consumable is to hand.

Some equipment also needed to be shipped across from the US. As AVMI and Diversified were supplying all the hardware this required careful coordination to make sure it was in the office in time to be built.

“The first fixed cabling was a huge task, just due to the quantity of cable. We needed to get on site within a couple of weeks of being appointed and work had to start immediately,” says Crewdson. “Another challenge was the amount of other tradespeople on site who were also working to a tight deadline.”

Best in class

Technology is an integral part to all of Facebook’s builds, highlights Cameron: “It connects us and allows us to work collaboratively at a global scale. We work in a very fast paced environment and are constantly looking at new technological solutions.”

The way in which the spaces at Rathbone Square have been designed, incorporating everything from broadcast studios through to event spaces, has resulted in an abundance of inputs and outputs which mean the offices can be scaled up or down as needed in future.

“Reliability is always the key performance indicator for any technology we deploy. At Rathbone Square we have landed on product lines that work well together and will deliver technically for the wide range of different events we host. Many of these are brands we have worked with over the development of our spaces globally and we believe their products are reliable and meet our specific requirements.”

Having now experienced the meticulous process of creating Facebook’s innovation-enhanced spaces first hand, Crewdson agrees there is no room for compromise when it comes to the products they use. “It is always best in class,” he agrees. “They go with the right product for the job, so the quality of the system is the best we’ve worked on.”






To see more images of Facebook’s new offices take a look at our photo gallery (image credit: Sue Foll)…

Ben Lister (PA Wire)

Ben Lister (PA Wire)

Ben Lister (PA Wire)

Ben Lister (PA Wire)

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