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Sounding the design drum

Evesham Micros designs and sells hardware, the components for which are mostly resourced abroad, and sells software and the necessary technical backup for the completed systems. Some 300 new systems leave its factory every day, and in 1998 its turnover exceeded £57 million. It has grown at 25 per cent per year since its foundation in 1983 and now employs over 400 people. The new headquarters replaces three outworn buildings around Evesham.

Rod Robinson Associates was appointed in 1995 after winning a private ideas competition mainly, it seems, because its was the only scheme to allow for future expansion. Fortunately, the practice was then commissioned to audit Evesham's existing operation which allowed it to establish a relationship with the client, rewrite the brief and redesign the building. Although experienced in other commercial work, Rod Robinson Associates had not previously designed offices, yet in the realisation it is the offices which have received most design attention. Building work started in 1997 and was completed in August 1998 with a hybrid design/ build cum management contract.

The site chosen is on Vale Business Park, one of those bleak wastelands beyond the Noddy boxes, supermarkets, petrol stations and the ring-road which current local plans reserve for industry. It is a non-place and, although the planners declared themselves anxious to promote 'quality' development, the site offered few clues to the architectural solution, and the architecture of its future neighbours was unknown.

The brief neatly divides the building into two almost equal parts. The warehouse is just that, windowless and the domain of forklift trucks and big cardboard packages on steel racking, enclosing the computer assembly area which is distinctly low-tech and a surprisingly small part of the volume. The offices are the precise opposite - light, airy, open-plan and intended to be seen. It is where these two volumes meet which gives the basis for the planning and technical solution to the building and its architectural parti. This zone joining the two functions forms a fat spine wall which conveniently contains all the services, ducts, plumbing, kitchen and lift which are shared by both halves of the building and through which they are connected. The spine runs north-south parallel to the estate access road on the east and sets out the orthogonal for the gridded-plan - office zone to the east and warehouse zone to the west. The two-storey office zone is then divided roughly in half, leaving a broad inner street or atrium roofed in a shallow barrel vault and occupied at its upper, south end by the cafe which turns south-west to face the only decent view.

Thus the east, and part of the north, elevations are a simple grid of horizontally proportioned office windows punctuated at regular intervals by semi-circular escape staircases and the grid of round concrete columns to the ground floor. This is hardly high-tech, but the long, grey elevation particularly has a calm elegance which speaks the language of corporate headquarters. The warehouse is clad in neat, horizontally ribbed silver aluminium. The ends of the spine are expressed in white fairfaced blockwork with, at the south end, its thickness expressed as panels of louvres. At the north-west corner, where the warehouse turns into the single-storey showroom and the cladding to flat grey panels, these forms collide into the main entrance with its double-height glazed drum and shallow domed roof. This form is easy to justify on plan but the geometry seems over- complicated, the junctions too frenetic and the bow-string columns and Planar glazing too skinny compared with the bolder details of the office. Perhaps just the slightly trendy bridge and cubic bolted glass lobby would have been enough here.

Internally, the drum is suitably grand and the void is rescued by the sweeping steel-and-oak staircase and diagonal bridge. From here the whole parti is revealed in section. Office life is visible through glazed partitions, the cafe seen and heard at the far end and the whole space has a 'buzz' which reflects the type and age of the business. The details, both large and small, reinforce this atmosphere. The round concrete columns and heavy coffered soffit slabs are painted white, the carpets are sea-green and the joinery executed in ash. The meeting rooms and tea kitchens are part of the atrium space contained in a little ash-clad tower which is both private and public. The office partitions have oval ash mullions on a 1.5m grid, holding doors within matching ash panels or clear or etched glass which never reach the ceiling, leaving a gap for natural cross-ventilation. It is this consistent direct elegance that makes the architecture of the space, proving it unnecessary to resort to gimmicks or architectural gymnastics.

A building so full of computers requires a clear strategy for heating, ventilating and lighting. This has been achieved in a remarkably simple manner, and only the internal meeting rooms and service spaces are mechanically ventilated. Solar heat gain and glare are controlled by fixed external louvres and fritted glass. Fresh air is admitted through top-hung windows and moved through a stack effect into the atrium from which it is either expelled or recovered within the spine. Background heating is provided by conventional hot-water radiators. The dense concrete structure acts as a thermal mass, and is cooled at night by admitting cold air through louvres in the facade and out through the atrium. In summer, air cooled by the pond can be admitted through the entrance doors. The lighting to the offices is a tidy but conventional mixture of low-energy lamps and fluorescent uplighters and one wonders if, with such generous areas of external glazing, an energy-management system could have allowed the offices and atrium to be only naturally lit more often.

It is much to the architect's credit that he has produced a building which, despite tortuous procurement procedures, retains the strength of its parti and the delight of its details. Evesham has already commissioned a second phase which will enlarge the warehouse and add a further block of offices, extruding the section southwards. This will certainly improve the proportions of the east elevation but, as the whole estate develops, the views out will not improve. The internal street will become more important and Evesham will need to learn how to occupy this to give more animated internalised views. However good the design of the individual building, the immediate context of the estate is becoming merely a scruffy collection of grim tin sheds surrounded by roads and car parks. At this level Vale Business Park fails as do all such estates outside every provincial town in the country. Evesham Micros deserves much better.

Jeremy Gould is an architect and teaches at Bath University

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