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A steal in steel city: SOAR Works by 00:/

00:/’s restyled, low-budget SOAR Works has revived local enterprise in a tough area of Sheffield, writes Laura Mark. Photography by Anthony Coleman

Developed after the slum clearances of the 1930s, Parson Cross is a suburb of semi-detached housing in the north of Sheffield. Today it is badged as ‘disadvantaged’ - it plays host to the largest number of benefit claimants in Sheffield - and has been earmarked for extensive regeneration.

All the obvious signs are in place. A new supermarket with associated road improvements and landscaping, a new library, designed by Danish architect Schmidt Hammer Lassen, despite closures elsewhere in the city. And alongside the regeneration, Parson Cross is also being rebranded. The library for example, is called a ‘learning centre’. The newest addition is SOAR Works, designed by the unpronounceable 00:/, a London-based practice best known for its Silicon Roundabout proposals.

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SOAR Works is signposted as you drive past the supermarket and learning centre, and along the suburban streets lined with local-authority housing. All roads lead to this new building - in essence a local enterprise centre - nestled on a tight site bounded by housing to the north and a row of shops to the south.

Created by community regeneration charity SOAR, this building has been branded just like the library-cum-learning centre. It is not an office building, not a conference centre - it is a ‘works’. Sheffield used to be full of industry, of ‘little mesters’ workshops which were places for self-employed craftsmen. The works harks back to this, creating a new, modern workplace, but in a way which is tangible and acceptable to the local community it is intended to serve.
00:/ has a track record in projects that mix branding, regeneration and community - the Hub Westminster complex, where the practice itself is based, is a prime example - so SOAR Works, its largest project to date, is a natural progression. At SOAR Works, the practice did more than just design a building; it also helped evolve the business model and build the centre’s identity. Both the name and logo were part of the practice’s original competition submission.
The practice, which has been going since 2005, is probably better known for its research than for built schemes. Founder David Saxby says that of the 25 staff and collaborators, of which 10 are architects, perhaps only six are actually working towards the ‘delivery of a building any time soon’. But he adds: ‘This blurred edge is key to our way of working’.

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Initially the brief for the 3,600m² building was to maximise the lettable area by making best use of cellular office space. But through cranking the plan, 00:/ managed to create a central atrium at no extra cost and with no loss of lettable area. This atrium space has made the project, becoming a central hub and galvanising a sense of community. It is hard to imagine the scheme working without it. Meetings take place there, and residents come to enjoy bacon butties from the atrium’s café.

A familiar piece of Sheffield artwork was also used in the atrium - a glass wall that had originally formed the exterior of Persistence Works, an art space in the city centre which Saxby worked on while at Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios. After several years’ exposure to the elements, the glass had started to break and had to be removed, then sat in storage. But it has been recycled here, forming a tactile finish to the atrium space. It looks expensive, but the practice’s willingness to adapt and reuse existing materials meant that they got it for free.

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It is this clever use of materials which has lifted the building above the ordinary. A grant-funded project for a charity, the budget was fixed, and tight. Delivered for just £1,100/m², it could have suffered, but costs were kept down by using off-the-shelf components. Spending was targeted on elements that would most enhance users’ experience of the building. ‘Elements of the building which you touch, in the kitchen and the toilets for example, are high quality and robust. This is where the money was spent,’ says project architect Sarah Hollingworth. The structure and skin of the building however is raw: the steel frame has been left exposed; the walls are concrete block while the ribbed soffits are galvanised.

The robust finish relates as much to aesthetic choices and budget as it does to SOAR Works’ location: vandalism is a problem in Parson Cross. The architectural solution is simple but effective. Perforated security shutters not only form the facades but animate them too, each business moving its shutters independently of the others. It doesn’t look cheap, but it is.

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The client was aware of the changing nature of workplaces, and 00:/ has given it an adaptable building: load-bearing walls within the wings have been kept to a minimum, while services were cleverly designed to allow adaptations to unit sizes in the future. Since opening in 2011, occupancy rates within SOAR Works have stayed high. A previous enterprise centre in the city had failed a few years earlier, and Hollingworth blames the lack of a mixture of offices and industry for its demise. SOAR Works is currently 72 per cent let, and 40 per cent of tenants live within the centre’s postcode area. This is something which SOAR Works has got right. Almost. The building contains offices of varying sizes, artist studios, meeting rooms and light-industrial units, but the empty units are the largest ones. The most prominent ground-floor unit, located at the building’s apex, is yet to be let, although SOAR Works is in discussion with a hairdressers run by the local college to take it over.

00:/ is now working on a sister project - another enterprise centre in the similarly ‘disadvantaged’ Manor area of Sheffield. The £2.5 million project is due to complete next month. Before then however, the practice might want to think about a rebrand itself. Unofficially it has dropped ‘:/’ from its title. ‘It only ever confuses,’ says Saxby. ‘00:/ ended up being about as egoless as we could conceive without being nihilist; we felt the double digits have a certain pregnant potential. In a way we have realised that the name doesn’t matter anymore; increasingly, it’s how we behave that is important.’

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