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The best of health

building study

Shedkm and Michael Jones have applied an approach of 'simplicity, logic and style'to good effect at Ashfield Healthcare's office and training building at Ashby, Leicestershire Ashfield

Healthcare's building deserves a better context than the estate of crude brick retail sheds it borders. Architect Shedkm has done what it can to distance the building from its neighbours, setting it back from the road at the front as far as the earth berm behind would allow, and addressing the balancing pond at the south-east end, with planting to grow up to obscure the main Nottingham Road beyond. A small compensation was the absence of problems with planning permission.

Facing the building, you see instead the long, low, white crafted lines of a latter-day Case Study House writ large; its floatingabove-the-ground achieved with 'V' pilotis, providing undercroft parking. Coming obliquely from the reception area is a marble-faced wall, at first encased in a glass box with bright yellow stairs, then flowing on to wrap a drum containing an auditorium.

Ashfield Healthcare originally approached sole-practitioner Michael Jones, among others, but it was too large a project for him, so Jones contacted Shedkm and the two worked together on this, the competition-winning scheme. Ashfield Healthcare provides and trains sales teams for the pharmaceutical industry, so this headquarters building is a mix of offices at one end and sales training at the other, the two meeting in a central reception and restaurant area. The competition-stage design has undergone some development from the more free-flowing space originally envisaged. Pressure to increase office area added three further 6m bays to the office end - beneficially increasing its long, low lines - but curtailed the exterior promenade that was to run the full length of the back (south-west) of the building, replaced by projecting individual room balconies. To suit the client, the office layout is also more cellular and more distinctly separated from the training areas than originally envisaged.

Treating the roof of a building as the fifth facade is familiar enough; less so is treating the slab soffit in this way. The main arrival routes are, on foot, to the front entrance and, by car, to the open-sided undercroft. Shedkm's characteristic attention to detail is noticeable here, with service runs attached to the slab soffit obedient to grids, exactly fixed to the neat concrete. (It is only inside the building that screw heads are required to line up. ) From this undercroft there was to have been a glazed staircase rising to the heart of the reception area; now you walk out to the front entrance (which perhaps explains why, when I visited, there were more cars in the 'overflow' car park at the front of the building than in the undercroft).

The yellow stairs (or a lift) rise to the reception area - a simple stone and plaster volume with a translucent Reglit glass-plank wall to the front bringing daylight animation but no view of the nondescript buildings beyond. This tension, between what Shedkm described at competition stage as a 'Californian-style open-plan environment' and the lack of a landscape for the building to address, has been a constant challenge, interestingly resolved. The architect has made the inside-outside connection partly by letting materials run through, such as the entrance stone wall and the white steel, and partly by bringing daylight into the building much more than the view.Only along the pre-existing balancing pond and the planted earth berm at the rear is the outdoor embraced, with a promenade deck or individual room balconies. For the rest, daylight is brought into the building and a sense of openness achieved in a whole variety of ways.

Floor-to-ceiling glazing is used for much of the training area and throughout the offices. Where there are decks and balconies (of balau with iroko balustrading) there are glass sliding doors. But on the front of the building, one face of the oriel windows looks along the facade, while the other is shielded from the prospect of the estate by vertical blinds. (In the competition scheme these blind-screened planes were largely solid. ) Down the centre 'boulevard' of this 33mdeep building are rooflights in the relatively open training area and a low-pitched Reglit glass-plank roof in the office area. For the training area, most of the spaces are pulled back from the facades as pods with a flow of space around them. In the offices, baydividers are 400mm-deep storage walls, opening either side (and occasionally glass block walls). But partitioning parallel to the long facades is all full-height glass. With the solidness of the dividers, your orientation is channelled across the building, to the light.

There is more sense of dividing elements set in space than of room enclosures.

This building is thoroughly worked out, which started with sessions by the architect observing how the client organisation worked, and followed a tight schedule - appointed in March 2001, the design was delivered by June and on site in September, with phased occupation completed by Christmas 2002.

As you might expect of Shedkm, space planning follows a tightly controlled orthogonal logic, working with a 3m planning grid (6m structural), dividing much of the building into 6m bays. This metric is reinforced visually by a 3m floor-to-ceiling height, except in the boulevard. On plan, two central 6m bays are used for the entrance, stores, WCs, kitchen and IT room.Most training rooms are 3m or 6m wide, often with the potential to double in width via folding partitions. The circular auditorium is reached by a ramp down to auditorium floor level, so that the raked seating could be removed by a future tenant to allow flat-floor uses of the space.

The whole training suite and restaurant can also be let out to other organisations, which partly explains the introduction of translucent glass double doors across the boulevard to separate the offices area. Once through these, 3m strips either side of the 3m boulevard contain WC pods, small meetings rooms, seating areas, drinks points and, at the end, shower pods. Behind these strips, through glazed screens, are more meeting rooms and offices, some enclosed, with the directors' cellular offices along the front of the building behind the oriel windows.

Generally, there is underfloor heating with comfort cooling from chilled beams.

Fan coil units are used in densely-occupied spaces, such as the boardroom, auditorium and training rooms.

Bright colour has been used only sparingly among a largely monochrome palette; a quietness the client gradually came to embrace. Many of the fixtures are by the architect. The client brought much of the furniture from four Ashby locations it had previously occupied. But this is not the old story about spoiling the ship, it is more about cash flow. New furniture will come in time.

The client has been committed to investing in this building; a building which clients are shown around and which is used to communicate the sort of organisation Ashfield Healthcare is. It is money well spent.

Costs The analysis is based on the tender SUBSTRUCTURE FOUNDATIONS/SLABS £36.55/m 2Mass/reinforced concrete foundations and stanchion bases. Granular filling to make up levels SUPERSTRUCTURE FRAME £135.40/m 2Fire-engineered wide-span steel frame UPPER FLOORS £52.78/m 2Precast hollow plank floors with structural topping ROOF £95.06/m 2Precast hollow plank roofs with structural topping.

concrete planks Achaeson and Glover; roof waterproofing (Alumasc Hydrotech) Apex Roofing;

aluminium louvres Kingfisher; aluminium trapezoidal cladding Industrial Hi-tech; Italian marble JW Smith; Reglit glazing, slate (Stonell), tiling (Swedecore) Tilemasters;

structural glazing, aluminium sliding door system (Raynaers), aluminium curtain walling (Schuco), frameless glass partitions James Gibbons;

architectural steelwork Glendales; specialist joinery Specialist Joinery Services, Carlton Smith; wall/soffit plasterwork (British Gypsum) P Lloyd & Son;

carpet (Westbond)M&W Interiors; rubber Freudenberg; ironmongery Higrade; catering equipment Pochin; lighting (Kreon, IGuzzini), electrical installation Halsall Electrical;

underfloor heating (Isocrete), mechanical installation Star Building Services; lift Kone;

acoustic sliding partitions Movawall; blinds Relyablind;

external landscape Coverton; Tarmac Roman Roads; external planting Horetech; audiovisual Nottingham AV

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