A stones throw from the railway station in the Piccadilly Basin area of the city sits BDP’s Manchester HQ. The building is hard to miss. Standing six floors high with one half wrapped in a gleaming stainless steel shell, its ultra-modern look seems slightly at odds with the industrial mills that surround it. The building was designed by BDP for BDP and they are extremely pleased with it. As well they might be. Completed towards the end of 2008, it has so far scooped four awards, including an RIBA and BCO award. The building has also been certified a carbon neutral development. This success is vindication of the risk that the company took designing their own office: a ham-fisted effort would have left the company working in an expensive monument to their own folly.
“You really do put your balls on the line when you design your own building. You have to get it right,” says Stephen Redfern, executive director of BDP north. There was considerable pressure from above: “Our chairman said to us that this has to be a RIBA-award-winning building.” The move to Piccadilly Basin highlights BDP’s desire to reinvent the way it was perceived in Manchester. Its previous occupancy was half-way up Sunlight House, a 1920s Art Deco concoction that looked good from the outside, but in reality was hopelessly outdated. “It was a fairly anonymous building and it did nothing for us in terms of attracting and holding onto new staff,” says Redfern. Rightly or wrongly, BDP has been portrayed in the past as a company struggling with its identity. In an effort to combat this, the company dismissed moving to the city’s more upmarket districts of Spinning Fields or Broadgate. “They were not natural areas for us,” explains Redfern. “Too corporate, plus we didn’t want to pay those sorts of rents.” BDP looked instead to the more ‘edgy’ parts of the city. Steeped in the heritage of the Industrial Revolution, and already the focus of regeneration initiatives, Piccadilly Basin was a much closer match.
The site held its own set of challenges, however, as the company needed 3,000 sq m of office space to house its 260 staff members. The area, formerly a car park, only measured 2,325 sq m, so some radical architectural gymnastics were needed. Planning restrictions forbade simply chucking another floor on top, so the designers turned to a cantilever system to maximise the space. On the north side of the building, the glazed facade overlooking the Rochdale Canal rises vertically before jutting out 1.85m over the canal between the first and third floors.This effect is mirrored on the side facing Ducie Street. Concrete columns built directly onto the reinforced retaining wall allow the floor space to be extended by 1,750 sq m and create the impressive curve that forms the roof of the building.
On the east end of the building, a transparent staircase dangles outside of the building’s main structure, clawing back precious square meterage. Aesthetically, the building has something of a split personality. Undoubtedly the most striking aspect of the building is the punctuated steel facade, which serves to minimise solar heat and reduce noise coming from the street below. By contrast, the glazed northern elevation overlooking the canals is designed to take maximum advantage of the northern light and lessen the need for artificial lighting. These two opposing halves imbue the building with both a sense of warmth and modernity and a hard-nosed nod to the area’s industrial past. Sustainability is something of a mantra for BDP and a key aspect of the brief was to create an ‘exemplar’ sustainable building.
To go about this, it plumped for a combination of natural ventilation and utilising the thermal mass of the building’s exposed concrete frame. Sensors on either end of the floor monitor the building’s temperature and feed the information back to the Building Maintenance System (BMS). The BMS opens or closes the louvres on the south side and both the louvres and windows on the side facing the canal. During the peak temperatures of the summer months, the vents automatically open at night, cooling the concrete, which in turn absorbs the heat of the office during the day. “It is fascinating to see the building react to its microclimate and it has been an education for our staff on how their actions affect the building’s temperature,” says Redfern. “This is healthier because people feel they have more control over their local environment.”
BDP has also tried hard to create a less hierarchical and more fluid working environment. The work cubicles of the previous office have been dispensed with in favour of bench-type desks partitioned by glass-topped cabinets. At the entry point of each of floor is a breakout space with coffee tables and individual glazed booths – nicknamed ‘monk cells’ – for privacy. The top floor has double the headroom of the other floors, creating a strangely hushed atmosphere. Above the work areas there are air-filled plastic domes that open up at the flick of a switch to let in fresh air.
“We based it around the idea of getting directors out of rooms and into teams – basically, to try and flatten the whole thing out,” says Gavin Elliot, head of the Manchester office. To that end, everything is designed to encourage interaction between different echelons of the workforce, right down to the open plan tea points where staff can make a brew. Add to this cuddly mix the deck chairs on top of the building, for those hardy enough to brave Manchester’s famously inclement weather, and you have a very people-friendly working environment. “We want them to feel pampered and loved and pleased to come into work each day. In the middle of a recession the building has been a fantastic tool in keeping up morale,” says Elliot.
The only awkward feature is the reception area. BDP took the decision to forgo the traditional receptionist in favour of a concierge-style meeter and greeter. The result is a curiously minimalist space, which feels a little cold. “Some people like it, some don’t,” admits Redfern. “We did have some Le Corbusier day beds there, but people didn’t really know whether to sit down or stand up. They ended up just hovering. It needs a rethink.”
What is impressive is the amount of thought that has gone into some of the finer details of the building. The canteen floor, for example, is made up of thousands of end-grain wooden blocks, subtly echoing the cobbled walkway running alongside the nearby canal. Equally, the exposed concrete soffits on the ceiling were meticulously planned out: “We didn’t have the luxury of suspended ceilings to hide all the crap and clutter. All the holes, the lighting tracks, switching and cable runs were all designed in,” says Redfern.“It is quite a complex coordination of architecture, structure and services. But that is what we delight in because it’s what we do.”