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Inside Rare’s new solar-powered Barn X

The Xbox studio's fifth barn boasts advanced sustainability features, and we had a chance to check it out

About a year ago, one of Rare's fans noticed something on Google Maps.

The Xbox developer's offices are at the heart of Manor Park, a huge area of land surrounded by trees, ponds and greenery, which the studio fully owns. It moved there in 2001 and the complex is made up of a central building and four barns – A, B, C and D.

Then last year, Google revealed the existence of a fifth barn, and one substantially bigger than all the others. What is the Sea of Thieves studio up to?

Last week, we got the privilege of visiting Barn X, Rare's new purpose-built, sustainable office that studio boss Craig Duncan describes as "the workspace of the future".

Barn X can hold 85 people, more than double the others

Not to disappoint fans, buy Barn X isn't hiding some super secret Rare game. Nor has the studio been expanding substantially (Duncan says they typically add between 10 to 15 new hires a year). Rather, the new mass timber building is home to the game teams working on the upcoming Everwild, the ongoing Sea of Thieves, plus the firm’s engines and services teams.

"We have a bit of everything in Barn X," Duncan explains. "We have art, we have tech, we have game teams… but we have flexibility.

"We will have the engine team here that will be working with our project teams on all their needs. We will have our services team who will be watching the Sea of Thieves telemetry in real time, and will want to speak to designers and producers literally across the floor. Think about Barn X as 'hey, how do we bring all the teams who need to work together in one space' and then we can use other spaces to do something a bit more bespoke."

Craig Duncan, Rare

Indeed, when Rare’s current studio was first built, each of the barns would house a different team working on a different project, like a Viva Pinata or a Conker or a Perfect Dark. But today, games teams are substantially bigger, and so it was no longer possible to get everyone working on Sea of Thieves in the same building. Barn X is about bringing those teams closer together.

"We have some great spaces, the grounds are great, some of the buildings are great. But we didn’t have the configuration and flexibility that we needed," Duncan adds. "As you know, games are made very differently now to how they were 20 years ago when Rare's campus was designed."

"There is a lot going on in the world right now. Making games is hard. The job we can do is create the best environment for our team."

Craig Duncan, Rare

Barn X can fit 85 employees, more than double any of the other barns. And as Rare hasn’t grown too much (it’s around 200 employees), it means the studio has been able to add a training and development centre, it's expanded its wellbeing area, and increased its meeting and quiet spaces. There’s also plenty of space to hide some secrets, too.

"Before we announced it, Sea of Thieves coming to PS5 was somewhat secret, and the easiest way to keep a secret is to put it behind a locked door," Duncan says.

"We created a key carded space in the bottom of Barn C for that. If we’re working on something secret, I can now create a space that keeps that team separate. That’s not what we’ve done with Barn X. Barn X will be the things that are going on that all the teams know about, because we want the space to be collaborative."

He adds: "Before we built the building, everything felt at capacity and if ever we wanted to move anything, we had to move five things to make it work. Whereas now we have swing space to move teams around and to set-up the right environments."

Rare's campus is surrounded by green spaces and nature

Barn X boasts two floors with a series of meetings rooms at the centre of both (of different sizes and configurations). Many of the rooms are kitted out with two screens, one for demonstrations and the other to feature any remote staff (or co-dev partners) who have dialled in.

"We started this in July 2020," says Sean Hogan, Director of Sustainability and Research at RKD, the Dublin-based sustainability consultants hired for the project. "So we wanted a workspace for the future, but what does a workspace of the future look like in the middle of a global pandemic?"

Sean Hogan, RKD

Duncan adds: "We were at the height of conversations around hybrid work and the future of work. We always assumed, because we know our teams, that they would want to be together. So how do we create a space that feels inviting and people want to be in? But also know that we will have some people not here, and we have co-dev partners, so being able to have something on screen to review, and then also have people on a Teams call... that was something we knew would be important."

Surrounding the core of meeting rooms is where the teams can be found. These workspaces are configurable. All the desks can be moved easily, they can be set to seated or standing positions, and even the lighting can be configured by employee. Then there's the view.

"There isn’t one individual here who doesn’t have a view to the outside"

Sean Hogan, RKD

"There isn't one individual here who doesn’t have a view to the outside, who can't gain access to the outside, and has views of interest and connectivity with the outside," explains Hogan. “But also there’s flexibility to change that all around."

So it's a flexible workplace with modern touches and pretty views, but what makes Barn X noteworthy is how sustainable is. This is a building constructed after Microsoft pledged to be carbon negative by 2030, and to have offset its entire greenhouse gas emissions produced since its founding by 2050.

Therefore, along with Barn X, Rare has constructed its own solar farm on the grounds, featuring 750 square meters of panelling (480 panels in total). We're told it will save them enough electricity to power over 438,000 Xbox Series X consoles... but not quite enough to power its new barn, which just goes to show how much energy it takes to run a AAA studio. Hogan says that the barn is fully monitorable, so that Rare's facilities team can spot areas of excess power consumption and react to it.

"We now have the information and the infrastructure that means we can go and make further steps with sustainability, which we weren’t able to do before," Duncan adds.

Rare’s solar panels are extensive, but still doesn’t power everything

The energy use is the headline element, but the barn features numerous other sustainability features. The building is LEED Gold certified, which is a US award for environmental design and construction, and alongside energy use, it also covers things like materials, good quality acoustics, air filtration and waste disposal.

Condensed water from the chillers used to cool the building is reused to flush toilets. The building is also entirely electric and doesn’t use gas at all. “That may not sound very important, but as the Government continues to decarbonise the grid and move to renewables on an infrastructural level, that reduces down this organisation’s scope 1,2 and 3 emissions,” Hogan explains.

The mass timber building is also made of types of wood that requires limited treatment, and when Rare is finished with the barn (the building has a 60-year service life), the firm can simply take it all down without the need to use a wrecking ball.

"The design team was keen to make sure we didn't have casting fixes, which would mean that in 60 years people can look at the manuals and just take the building down, and set aside materials to reuse or waste," Hogan explains.

But Hogan says it is about balancing the needs of the people alongside these sustainability elements, and cites the importance of having a neurodiverse-friendly environment.

"Like all creative projects, you want stakeholder input," Duncan says. "So we tried to have the right forums to hear from those who were going to use the space. Neurodiversity came up pretty early, and it was something that our team, like sustainability, has a lot of passion for. That is where things like having meeting spaces, quiet spaces, focus areas and places where you can just go and turn off sound and noise…"

There are numerous and various meeting rooms that are full sound proofe

He continues: "There is a lot going on in the world right now. There is a lot going on in this industry. Making games is hard and there are a lot of challenges. The job we can do as a business is create the best environment for our team."

Crucially, Barn X doesn't feel out-of-place with the surroundings. I've visited Rare a few times now and it’s a special site. It is in the middle of nowhere, but it’s also a place where you'll see ducklings hatch, frogs migrate and they even keep their own bees (you can buy Rare honey from reception). There are paths around the grounds, walking meetings are encouraged, and there are benches which contain power sockets and wifi points.

Rare's games have a reputation for being different. They’re often colourful, playful, filled with wildlife and have a certain charm, and if you visit where they’re made, you can immediately see where some of that comes from.

"We pride ourselves at Rare at doing things creatively different," Duncan concludes. "We think about games differently so that we can create experiences that are genuinely new. And the work environment has to encourage that. We need to create a space where people can be themselves, feel natural, feel supported, feel collaborative, and that feeds into the games we make."

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Christopher Dring avatar
Christopher Dring: Chris is a 17-year media veteran specialising in the business of video games. And, erm, Doctor Who
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