Canon (UK)'s new headquarters building brings together all the company's support functions under one roof, furthering its philosophy of kyosei - harmonious co-operation for the common good. It is designed to support several other agendas too, environmental and working efficiency among them. And did I mention beauty?
The starting point is an enviable setting, a quiet 11.3ha of south-sloping parkland on the North Downs. The design exploits the contours of the south-facing ridge, introducing glass, steel, stone and creamy-yellow stock bricks to create an unmistakably modern, but warm and interesting, building - one that reflects the proportional elegance of the original Regency lodge. This is the only element to be retained from the previous accretion of office buildings; everything else was demolished and the materials re-used wherever possible, another signpost to the green agenda at work.
Architect David Richmond was already familiar with the site, having worked on a previous scheme for speculative offices prior to the sale of the site to Canon. The winning design develops much of the original thinking - particularly on low-energy and natural ventilation, and in detail and quality it bears the mark of a consistent vision from start to finish.
The new headquarters provides some 12,500m 2of space for 550 staff, so it is a building of considerable scale, but it does not overpower. The design works with the site contours, providing a group of three new brick and glass office wings along the east-west axis.
The reception is in a new stone-clad cube paired with the Regency lodge. These white 'gateposts' flank the main terrace courtyard which links the different elements of the building, while brick cloisters provide sheltered outdoor circulation between them. A restaurant below the terrace opens into the gardens and also links the main building into the old cellars of the restored lodge, now a training centre.
Each pavilion is different, the central one being the highest; each stands at a slight angle to its neighbour, linked to create a series of courtyards and terraces and a gentle, barely perceptible arc. The arrangement of the pavilions takes advantage of the site's different levels and views, introduces variety, avoids intimidating spaces and retains flexibility by allowing each pavilion to be let separately if required. It also underpins the low-energy strategy.
Light, shade, void and mass
The pavilions are designed with narrow-plan floorplates essential for natural ventilation. The westernmost is a conventional narrow plan; the others have a linear atrium allowing maximum daylight into the tiers of open-plan offices below.
Generous fire- escape provision allows the atria to be unenclosed, making cross ventilation possible and easing communications.
The north elevations are extensively glazed in square bays. By contrast, on the southern elevations the need to prevent overheating and glare from the summer sun has generated a response of brick pier cloisters at ground level, brise soleil at mid-levels and deeply overhanging eaves. Small windows puncture the brickwork mass of the east and west elevations; automatic external louvres prevent glare from low morning and evening sun. The cavity brickwork construction is highly insulated with 70mm Rockwool slabs in the 110mm-wide cavity.
The concrete frame and floor slabs, brickwork masonry and profiled soffits in office areas provide the high thermal mass essential for a low-energy building. Together with other measures, including underfloor air delivery via a raised floor and Canon's own photovoltaic thin film panels on all three roofs, it has helped achieve an 'excellent' BREAM rating.
Load-bearing brick columns, 440mm square, form the colonnades, and their internal faces carry three glazed bricks in different colour permutations - not mere decoration but a code to be deciphered. A maze pattern and chessboard laid into the main atrium floor are other permanent puzzles.
Brickwork elevations were by no means a given in planning terms. 'We could have had brise soleil all the way down, ' says David Richmond. 'But we wanted a massive material with a natural feel that would blend into the landscape.' The original lodge and the predominantly sandy nature of the site gave rise to the golden palette. The specification for the elevations - a pale-yellow stock brick laid in stretcher bond with bucket-handle joints in buff mortar - achieves the monolithic look that Richmond so admires in Italian hill towns. You do not have to search hard to discover evidence of this - the harmony, the massing, the shaded cloisters and the sunny courtyards give the game away.
As soon as you enter the grounds, through a pair of curved brick walls in English garden wall bond, you know there is quality ahead. The roadway to reception, to visitor parking and to the staff parking areas concealed on terraces to the north of the building, is paved in yellow clay pavers, laid in herringbone pattern; the pedestrian paths are in running bond.
Contrasting slate-blue pavers mark out parking spaces and cross paths. This palette, which reflects the grey steel and yellow stock language of the office buildings, is sustained in the stonepaved terrace with its projecting kiosk-like skylights. It is there in the planting too: in the golden Robinia and the purple lavender that are seen against a backdrop of free-standing yellow brick walls and signal the presence of a controlling vision at work.
The cooling and calming effect of water, circulated through the site, is central to Holden Liversedge's landscape design. A long rectangular pool on the cloistered south side of the first pavilion reflects dappled light into the cloister, cascades by the main terrace and the restaurant, and forms small pools within the complex as it descends to a lake in the grounds.
Brick, timber, boulder rock, natural and reconstituted stone, slate and gravel all work together wonderfully - something of a kyosei demonstration project.
Only one existing tree in the grounds was felled, and in further evidence of ecofriendliness, only the grass closest to the building is kept mown short - elsewhere it is 3. Central terrace; 4. Generous fire escape provision allows atria to be unenclosed; 5. Brick pier cloisters; 6. Internal brickwork; 7 and 8. Use of different colours and bonding in paved landscaping allowed to grow as meadow. It is all rather idyllic; the only blot on the landscape is the old sports pavilion at the site's southern extremity.
But this is the subject of the architect's next project and its days are numbered.