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Architects Co-Partnership has taken an intelligent strategic approach to the design of a headquarters and distribution centre for Levi Strauss outside Northampton. Do the details live up to it? by Jeremy Melvin. Photographs by Philip Bier

Brand management is modern day alchemy. If not exactly turning lead into gold, it does persuade people the world over to pay a premium for a brown-coloured liquid with bubbles in it, metal boxes with three- pointed stars on their hoods, and scraps of denim with the right tog on the back. Much of this premium is the result of the skilful manipulation of images to turn latent belief systems into desire, but if the goods were not immediately and universally available, the cleverest advertising in the world would come to nought. The kaleidoscope of distribution centres lining the Midlands motorway belt, such as Architects Co-Partnership's (acp) for Levi Strauss (carried out as a design-and-build project with Fluor Daniel as project manager) outside Northampton, is the key to satisfying these desires. Allowing procurement in the cheapest markets and rapid meeting of orders in wealthiest ones, they are invisible links in the well-greased mechanism of the Affluent Society.

Invisible is a relative term. For the centres are not, strictly speaking, impossible to see. Indeed, they have an effective, if crude, strategy for visibility; stay close to the motorway, and put your logo on a wall facing it. But they have sunk below the architectural safety net: despite their evident importance to modern life, architects have scarcely devised the means to humanise them.

Two elements help the Levi's complex take a tentative step down this path. One is the inclusion of a headquarters office, a building type which long ago proved itself susceptible to 'Architecture'; the other is that the distribution centre's tripartite division into loading dock, sorting area and store contains the seeds of a relationship between function and form of the sort which underlies many architectural typologies. How else could one account for the compositional decisions whereby the store is twice the height - 20m - and two-thirds of the footprint of the sorting area.

Sorting needs more space and time than storage; sorting demands a large plan area whereas storage can grow upwards. This is another latent condition in architectural evolution. Goods travel from the loading bay to the storage area where they can be tightly packed; then, to satisfy particular orders, individual teams are taken back into the sorting area on a continually moving belt, which drops them into a bay where they can be packed and moved into the loading bay for delivery. The time which goods might spend in storage varies, but from the point of selection for an order, their time and movement is precisely measured. Forty-eight hours from the time of placing an order is the maximum it takes for a retailer in mainland uk to receive their goods. Everything is recorded by computer. The cost of the storage and sorting mechanism dwarfs construction, and is a similar figure to the value of stock.

acp has done several distribution centres and the experience shows. Its strategic decisions have a logic: placing the high storage block towards the centre of the park makes basic compositional sense; landscaping and breaking the walls into two horizontal bands of a ribbed plinth and a smooth upper part helps to mediate the inevitable bulk. The office block, which also contains the main entrance for all staff and visitors, is easily seen from the approach road. Its design, too, has a basic logic. It is trapezoidal on plan, which allows a pleasant and usable atrium where all 600 employees can gather, and gives end conditions which would permit a few cellular offices without ruining the prevailing open plan layout. Its most telling success is the upper-floor offices where strong colours, generous light and views across rolling farmland make a congenial workspace.

It is, though, a building which gives rise to mixed emotions. Its generosity of space is immediately apparent; features like the good-sized canteen, identical wc specification for office and warehouse workers, general bonhomie among the staff, and the plaque which proclaims that 'Bob Haas, great great grand nephew of Levi Strauss opened the building on the 15 March 1999' give the sense of a company which treats its staff well. Yet the building also has compromises. The suspended-ceiling system in the hall, the cheap skirtings around the atrium floor, solid balustrades which should have been glass, wall-mounted rainwater pipes, crude external blockwork and cruder movement-joints - all betray the problems of procuring through design and build.

One can see the attraction of such a route for such a client. When the stock and handling mechanisms each represent twice the construction cost, it must be tempting to hand everything to do with the building over to someone else, and get on with brand management, something that really makes money. The brand management teams work elsewhere, in Brussels and London, and what signs of it there are, are an afterthought by another designer. That brand identity is not integrated with the building design is hardly acp's fault; rather it is evidence of an enormous credibility gap in the construction industry that one of the world's most successful companies should fail to grasp the potential of buildings to add value and quality to its processes.

CLIENT:

Levi Strauss

ARCHITECT:

Architects Co-Partnership

PROJECT MANAGER:

Fluor Daniel

SERVICE ENGINEER:

Fluor Daniel

STRUCTURAL ENGINEER:

Edward Roscoe Associates

CONTRACTOR:

Weldon (groundworks), Conder Structures (warehouse), Jarvis Construction (offices)

ELECTRICAL WORKS (EXCLUDING OFFICE BUILDING):

Mitie

ELECTRICAL WORKS IN OFFICE BUILDING:

Brightside

PROJECT MANAGER INTERIOR FIT-OUT:

Shire Business Interiors

SUB-CONTRACTORS AND SUPPLIERS

ramp balustrades Access Design & Engineering, stairs & balustrades Adey, catering equipment Alliance Design Services, block/slab paving Blockways, mezzanine fascia Brennan Building & Civil Engineers, curtain walling cap Aluminium Systems, precast concrete floor beams Colman Precast Concrete, Tarkott Flooring Davies Floorcare, Taskmaster Doors Doors & Hardware, groundworks Dunne bg Construction, drilling/chasing East Midlands Diamond Drilling, mastic asphalt roof Ellamastic Asphalt, raised floors Flooring Services Group, temporary site services Gazeway Plant Hire, glazing Glass Northampton, cleaning Green Bros, Mansafe System HCL Safety, mastic sealant Hookings Mastics Midlands, steelwork Johnson Steel Structures, groundworks Lecron, carpentry/joinery M&G, scaffolding Midland Scaffolding Services, glazed clearline screen Neslo, acoustic louvres Noico, lightning protection Omega Furso Contracting, saw cutting Philmore Contracting, road lining Riggott, tarmacadam Roman Roads, suspended ceilings rpr Linings, painting/decorating Sanderson ca, handrail Sapphire Scaffolding, sanitaryware Simm H E & Son, fire board protection Star Installation, plastering/stud partitions Swift Contracting, wall & floor tiling Telling, Altroscreed floor Veitchi, brickwork Walters & Poades, Stramit roofing Welwood Roofing Services interior design, John Evans Interior Designers, Checkland Kindleysydes

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