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Bircham Park by S333

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Owen Pritchard finds the car is still king with this Plymouth car park

In a world that is increasingly fixated on sustainable transport, the car is becoming a much-vilified mode of transport responsible for myriad environmental ills and the congestion in our gridlocked cities. So it comes as a bit of a surprise that two car parks have been lauded for their architectural qualities in this year’s RIBA Regional Awards. The fact remains that outside of large cities with efficient modes of public transport, car ownership is pretty much a necessity – especially in the south-west of England with its winding roads and dispersed urban centres.

Derriford is just north of Plymouth. Its hospital is the largest in the region and has more than 1,000 beds. Sat on the northern side of a lush green valley, it is a beast of a building with little charm or architectural merit; a dense complex of joyless lumps. It does, of course, provide a vital service, and the new Bircham Park car park, office and retail building, designed by London-based architect S333, is the first building of a new 6.5ha masterplan that sits adjacent to the hospital.

The trendy ‘couture’ ideas of the likes of OMA are now hitting the UK high street

The precedent here doesn’t bode too well. Immediately south of the new building on the other side of the valley is the Western Morning News building by Grimshaw, known as The Ship. It stands forlornly, unused since 2013, as it waits to learn its fate – listing or demolition. It’s the only building of any interest on the south side of the valley, sat in a business park of anonymous warehouse buildings that are home to medical research companies, pet hospitals and the Territorial Army.

The NHS trust that owns the land knows that the leases on these buildings are soon to expire, and plans to move tenants to new – as yet unbuilt – facilities in the new masterplan. It then plans to sell off the vacant land for new housing.

Bircham Park

Where The Ship may have been a false start, Bircham Park is a new attempt to introduce architectural quality and considered urban planning. The building sits at the extremity of the masterplanned area, which follows contours that drop around 20m. It occupies what used to be a surface car park. From a distance it appears as an abstraction of the landscape it occupies, divided into distinct strata of ordered forms and ad-hoc cladding. Designed around a scissor section for the car park ramps, the structure kinks up and down slightly, the horizontal elements of the slab traced with the dark blue cladding.

The facades are split into three using a series of materials that divide the building into strata. The upper floors are wrapped with a screen of pine logs, the middle two floors are adorned in a lattice of powder-coated metal poles, and the lower floors are criss-crossed with wires that will eventually be obscured with climbing plants and roses. These screens change appearance depending on your proximity to the building and the angle of viewing, playing games with porosity and solidness. The building has earned the sci-fi nickname The Enterprise because of the way that, at night, light escapes the interior.

Bircham Park

Different materials define each stretch of the car park

The severe drop across the site has allowed the architect to wrap a balcony around the building’s second floor, providing deck access to the car park from the office entrance level and a generous balcony outside the retail units that face west. Once the retail units are occupied, and when the weather allows, it will offer a place to eat and drink and take in the views across the valley.

Facing north towards the rest of the masterplan site are more retail units and the offices spaces stacked atop each other. On a wedge of the plan adjacent to a road that currently leads nowhere, the architect has found space for two ample offices currently occupied by a medical research company, the uppermost floor opening out on to an internal courtyard. The fitout is familiar fare, endemic of a Design & Build contract, but the office is proving popular and there is a plan to increase capacity by adding prefabricated units to the roof. S333 anticipated this might happen and the engineer ensured there was capacity within the structure to accommodate this.

Bircham Park

An internal courtyard provides the office space with a dual aspect

There is something familiar about this building. It is a rational and thoughtful response to a tricky site and has taken a typology that is dealt with in an often-perfunctory way and added office and retail to create an incubator of ideas for the rest of the masterplan. It comes as no surprise that S333 director Dominic Papa worked in the Netherlands before setting up his office in the UK, having worked on the Utrecht University library with Wiel Arets – he speaks highly of the work of that canon.

This building addresses its purpose and context with great skill – the once trendy ‘couture’ ideas that typified the output of the likes of OMA 15 or so years ago are now hitting the UK high street. It hints that the wider site will serve the extended needs of the hospital and the community by bringing together the necessary elements of a town centre. The familiar language of the early millennium speaks volumes here and may, should the rest of the development continue with the same rigour, mark a new era for Derriford – but the once-lauded neighbour across the valley serves as a stark warning.

The brief

The project lies north of Plymouth city centre and is the first phase of the 6.5ha North West Quadrant. This is a mixed-use development integrating the future healthcare needs for the adjacent Derriford Hospital with residential and retail.

The brief was to reduce hospital parking across the site to release further land for development; improve patients’ and staff’s arrival experience with a visitor hub – services, amenities and secure parking – for the 11,000 staff, patients and visitors that use the hospital daily.

The project, procured during the recession, had to meet a building budget of £490/m2

Dominic Papa, director, S333

Architect’s view

The building combines offices and retail with a car park building to create a new compact typology.

To further optimise this strategy it has been designed to carry a further two floors of offices around a garden courtyard to accommodate future healthcare needs.

The topography, with its significant change in levels, drove the design. A high-pressure gas main to the west, and the steep eastern road restricted the size of the footprint. The car park uses a scissor section that follows the slope, reducing the excavation costs.

Dual entrances deliver cars at different levels controlling congestion. The slope is used to ‘hide’ six storeys of parking in the valley. At the top of the site a more modest three storeys of offices, restaurants and cafés address a new street.

Frontages are activated by wrapping the offices, restaurants and cafés around the perimeter. In addition a management suite is located at the south-west corner. A glazed lobby on the north-eastern corner gives pedestrian entry to both offices and car park. This is clearly visible from the hospital and when arriving by car. In between there are permeable, screened elevations with well-lit interiors behind.

The topography provides level access to different parts of the building ensuring safety and convenience. All entrances are highly visible and are well lit. Large-scale graphics, colour, and lighting give clear orientation at entry points and around the deep plan for the visually impaired.

One dominant level separates the visitor and staff parking. At the level of the new street it extends east and south to form a walkway around the building. To the west it forms Outlook Terrace, a sunny public belvedere containing restaurants and cafés overlooking Bircham Valley and a future park. The park will link the larger masterplan to the valley as part of a sequence of landscaped courts and gardens.

Dominic Papa, director, S333

Engineer’s view

This project began as two separate buildings, each housing 300 parking spaces, excavated deep into the sloping site with perimeter retail and office units at ground level and residential above.

However, early dialogue and sketching of ideas with S333 and a detailed engineering analysis of the physical constraints imposed by the sloping site, favoured a single 600-space car park with terraced lower storeys and shallow foundations, closely following the slope of the slate bedrock. This was shown to be the most economical and environmentally sensitive approach, avoiding excessive excavation. Most of the retail and office accommodation was at the top end of the site with a provision for two further levels of offices on the roof as a future extension.

The challenge was to develop a structural concept to accommodate the different uses, while providing an efficient car parking and circulation layout within the building’s restricted planning height.

An in-situ solid reinforced concrete flat slab provided the shallow construction depth needed with flexibility to form a folded plate structure incorporating parking on the ramped slabs. Working as a team, we designed a structural grid to fit with the discipline required for the car parking and the roof top office extension, avoiding transfer structures and optimising the design of the frame and slabs, to meet cost and buildability targets.

The building is split structurally into two independent, self-stable, parts; the exposed uninsulated car park separated by a joint from the internal insulated structure to the offices and retail, to allow for differential thermal and shrinkage movements.

A large attenuation tank below the car park enables significantly reduced storm water flows to be discharged from the building into the main sewers as part of a sustainable drainage strategy for the overall site.

David Johncox, partner, Alan Baxter Associates


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