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Hipness on a budget: Cartwright Pickard’s XYZ office in Manchester

Cartwright pickard’s xyz building 5
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Cartwright Pickard’s XYZ building in Manchester stands apart from its slick corporate neighbours, writes Rob Wilson. Photography by Hufton + Crow

Midweek, late morning and central Manchester is rammed. I was determined to avoid the overused ‘Northern Powerhouse’ moniker, but there does seem to be a renewed energy on the city’s streets. Greater Manchester has just elected its first mayor, and with cultural venues like Rem Koolhaas’s £110 million-Factory arts complex in the pipeline, and transport improvements such as the ‘Northern hub’ for rail being planned, there’s a lot of development and change in the air.

One area that epitomises this resurgence is Spinningfields, sitting between Deansgate and the River Irwell, where Allied London has been developing a 9ha site. This phased development of 20 buildings, mixing offices with retail, originated in a 1997 initiative to establish a new central business district in the wake of the IRA bombing the previous year. The area still feels a little dead compared with the buzzing drag of Deansgate, laid out with a generic mix of corporate offices and branded retail. But being situated so centrally, with a major pedestrian route down to a bridge across the Irwell to Salford and Salford Central station, it’s an area woven in to the warp and weft of Greater Manchester. Spinningfields is also home to cultural venues such as the People’s History Museum and The John Rylands Library, as well as Manchester’s reworked legal district, so the signs are good that it will bed down. 

Cartwright pickard’s xyz building

Of the final two buildings to complete, One Spinningfields, by SimpsonHaugh and Partners, is 19 storeys of glossy glass, evidently a ‘signature’ building for the area, prelet to tenants such as PricewaterhouseCoopers. But the other building, the just-completed XYZ, has been deliberately pitched at providing ‘a different mix with the corporates’, as Ross Ogilvie, associate director at Cartwright Pickard, the building’s architect, describes it.  

The idea for the building came out of research conducted in the States by Allied London, on how to rethink future office space. Using US models, it looked at how to provide Grade A accommodation but in stripped down form, as flexible and raw as possible, with the potential to attract tenants from the burgeoning TMT (technology, media and telecommunications) sector. 

This less glossy, more back-to-basics model – part of Allied London’s strategy to attract a wider range of tenants to leaven the area’s mix – is not such a radical reinvention, just a different commercial model: cheaper build, lower rents. A win-win combination of low-cost yet upped appeal to the emerging creative and tech industries – hipness on a budget.

The trend originated in the success of retrofit projects which turned industrial buildings into popular office space, notably Derwent London’s Tea Building in Shoreditch, converted by AHMM between 2002 and 2007, and inspired by US examples. As such it is a model much better suited to Manchester, with its ample stock of large-scale ex-industrial buildings, than to London.

Cartwright pickard’s xyz building 3

Cartwright Pickard approached the brief from scratch. ‘We wanted to avoid the waste associated with the typical Cat A and Cat B office space,’ says Ogilvie. ‘Space that would appeal to the TMT sector but also attract more corporate clients looking for a different model.’ 

The building sits on a prominent long skinny site, adjacent to Hardman Boulevard, the main route to the pedestrian bridge. It is laid out over eight floors, with two basements, providing over 22,000m2 of office space, on a 1.5m structural grid, with perimeter columns at 3m centres. The two top floors, one a mezzanine, are stepped back to create upper terraces.

Its guts generate its looks – contrasting with the slick wrapping of adjacent buildings

To reduce costs, it is built with an in-situ concrete-frame, marking it out in an area of otherwise steel-frame buildings. Internal surfaces are high-quality self-finished – in particular in-situ concrete, which is finely board-shuttered on the two lower floors’ services core, like Modernist rustication. This means it can remain exposed, minimising the material needed and waste involved in a typical Class A office fit-out. 

In layout, this main service and circulation core sits central to the length of the floorplates, but is mimimised in area and brought hard up against the western façade. This ensures maximum freedom of arrangement for open lettable space, while reducing solar gain to the office floors, with each level designed to be easily divided up between four tenants per floor. 

Cartwright pickard’s xyz building 6

The columns and floorplates, expressed as a thick grid on the façade, offer the opportunity for further subdivision of floors, potentially shared by smaller start-ups or co-working spaces. Importantly, floor to ceiling heights are a generous 3.5m, enabled by slim pre-tensioned slabs, and topped and tailed by a 450mm floor void and notional 500mm ceiling void. These allow for a choice of three different servicing patterns and strategies for each tenant: using raised access floors or ceiling-mounted systems, as well as space to fit extra ventilation. Glazed corners to the main floorplates provide small accents, freeing up their orthogonals. Externally they give a poise to the building from the second floor up, below which the corners are chamfered off to ease passage around the building at street level.

All the internal layout decisions nicely inform and define the façade. Its guts generate its looks – contrasting with the slick glazed wrapping of adjacent buildings – even if these looks are relatively downbeat. Not so happily, the grid of the in-situ concrete frame is clad in slightly tan, slightly textured pre-cast concrete panels which give the façades a thin and etiolated feel. It’s a missed opportunity to up the rawness factor. Heavily textured concrete panels could perhaps have sent out a much stronger message of intent. In addition, while the east façade has a elongated simplicity, the west – effectively the main – façade, reads awkwardly. Its double storeys at chamfered base and stepped-back upper terrace level are too substantial as to comfortably balance off the five storeys in between.  

More strange, are the series of six over-scaled white ‘bobbins’, looking like giant lampshades, or enormous blowsy table-umbrellas, which flank that main entrance. They seem very out of step with the ‘frugal’ aesthetic that Cartwright Pickard talks of. 

Cartwright pickard’s xyz building 4

This aesthetic comes together on the interior, with the central generic floorplates from two to six, topped and tailed by atypical floor arrangements on the basement, ground, first, seventh and eighth levels. The off-centre non-aligned entrance doors to east and west, create a diagonal public cut-through in the building, off which a long ramp drops to the basement, while an open-plan café, designed to be a communal workspace, balances with a compartmentalised restaurant concession. A helical stairwell, drops down to showers and a gym, over which the entrance diagonal reads as a bridge. Also above this, the first floor slab is cut, hollowing out a three-storey void, which gives a sense of drama and spatial release on entering. Meanwhile the bank of lifts, with their textured concrete surface, provides a richer ‘façade’ to the building than that experienced outside. 

Helical stairs appear again at the top, linking the two upper floors, with a long west-facing terrace and pocket corner terraces looking east. The main stairwell is carefully articulated, its tightness in plan creatively opened out by using refuge points on landings to create moments of stasis, while views up and down give a sense of theatricality. However there are places where the tight budget shows, and the industrial aesthetic slips from raw to shoddy – such as in the exposed slip-cast finish of the escape cores. 

While the hype for this new building as ‘a new, radical landmark of cutting edge working culture’ is unjustified, there is a genuine if compromised attempt to rethink the office here. This is a good, practical workplace building; a thoughtful reworking of the spec office model, with Cartwright Pickard mostly getting it right as to where to accent quality and architectural incident, and so lifting the whole. 

Cartwright pickards xyz building plans

Architect’s view

XYZ uses concrete for its inherent thermal, fire, acoustic and structural qualities and provides a distinctive raw, industrial self-finish. This was the client’s first concrete building in Spinningfields, and we were challenged to experiment with different techniques, methods of construction and finishes. The exposed concrete frame required careful coordination and is left exposed wherever possible. Precast concrete cladding is used externally, and the simple but rigorous architecture is inspired by the robust, long life and flexibility of Manchester’s historical industrial mill buildings. Silver anodised aluminium, whitewashed oak linings and monochromatic finishes make up a modest palette of materials used throughout.

XYZ was constructed on a relatively tight urban site with specific net area requirements to meet viability. Despite these restrictions, we looked to create moments of architectural delight and drama, promoting impromptu interactions such as in the triple-height void and bridge link and the double-storey switchback feature stair. Levels 7 and 7m are linked by feature helical stairs within a double-height space, which added additional net floor area along with access to external linear terraces and ‘corner pocket parks’.

A typical office floor has a generous 3.5m floor to soffit with a 500mm floor void. Each 20,000m2 floorplate can accommodate up to four tenants, using any of the three servicing options offered: ceiling mounted fan coil, active chilled beams, or below-floor displacement system. 

Rob Phillips, project architect, Cartwright Pickard

Cartwright pickard’s xyz building section aa

Engineer’s view

The design of a staged construction sequence, comprising the installation of a two-storey secant piled wall as part of the enabling package, separate from the main contract, required careful design integration. Difficult ground conditions comprising high ground water levels and a geological fault running beneath the site required a holistic approach to the substructure design.

The use of post-tensioned slabs to upper floor plates allowed large open-plan spans, minimising internal columns. To accommodate transfer structures at various levels, discrete upstand beams contained within the raised access floor maintained a flush slab soffit to the floor below. Vertical riser distribution for services integration into the structural core wall configuration minimised intrusion into lettable space. 

All structural columns and slab, beam and wall structures are exposed, meaning proportion and finish were paramount. This required early consideration of the positioning of construction joints to ensure they were not visible. Movement joints within the structure were avoided by incorporating pour strips between the PT slabs and in-situ concrete stability cores. This allowed initial shrinkage and axial shortening loads due to applied pre-stresses not being transferred into the cores. Formwork tie holes through the concrete walls to the central core were positioned and coordinated with the formwork designer, ensuring symmetry, regular layouts and a maintained visual pattern over the height of the central core.

Real-time monitoring of ground water levels provided us with a very accurate insight into actual basement water pressure values. The monitoring informed the contractor of de-watering requirements, so allowing cost and programme risk mitigation.

Paul White, RoC Consulting, geotechnical, civil and structural engineers

Cartwright pickard’s xyz building 2


The elevations are simple and elegant, with strong, expressed precast cladding panels, based on a rigorous structural grid, allowing the building to be simply segregated horizontally and vertically, depending on tenant space requirements. 

The external material palette was limited to precast concrete, glass, and silver anodised aluminium. The concrete has a medium-grit blasted finish to give a more textured appearance and to improve weathering. The precast is made from a series of individual ‘sticks’, with the vertical elements hung from the top, fixed into cast-in Halfen channels in the concrete frame, and pinned in place at the bottom – this process then repeats up the building. The horizontals are then doweled into the sides of the verticals at each floor level. 

The cast-in Halfen channels required extensive consultation and co-ordination with a number of subcontractors to ensure loadings, forces and setting-out were carefully considered and worked for the post-tensioned slabs, curtain walling bracketry and the main structural frame. Early engagement from all parties enabled us to capture and set out the necessary recesses, notches and cast-in channels as the concrete frame was being constructed.

A standard office floor-to-floor is 4.2m. There is a 450mm floor void, a 500mm notional services zone at ceiling level to accommodate services, and a 250mm post-tensioned concrete slab. The latter keeps the overall depth low, thereby maximising floor-to-ceiling heights, as well as allowing large spans between columns. Within the curtain walling we introduced a transom, 500mm below the soffit, incorporating micro-louvres to provide additional ventilation, should it be required.

We used large panes of glass on the corners of the building – a Shüco system with an angled corner transom and silicone corner joint – which provides natural daylight, views out of the building, and an almost seamless transition when viewed externally.

Rob Phillips, project architect, Cartwright Pickard

Cartwright pickards xyz building detail

Project data

Start on site July 2014
Completion October 2016
Gross internal flo or area 22,040m²
Form of contract or procurement route Single stage Design and Build on a negotiated contract sum. JCT D+B 2011 Contract with client amendments
Construction cost £28 million total cost shell and core
Construction cost per m² £1,318 for shell and core, including the basement, limited Cat A works such as toilets, landlord lobbies, ground floor finishes and includes all PAR/EAIs raised to date
Architect Cartwright Pickard
Client Allied London
Structural engineer RoC Consulting
M&E consultant Sweco
Quantity surveyor Aecom
Acoustic engineer Sandy Brown Associates
Landscape architect Hyland Edgar Driver
Sustainability/BREEAM assessor Sweco 
Project manager Gardiner & Theobald
CDM co-ordinator Gardiner & Theobald
Approved building inspector Manchester City Council
Main contractor McLaren Construction
CAD software used MicroStation
Annual CO2 emissions 17.2 kg/m² (estimate) 

The XYZ building was featured
in the Workplaces issue


000 cvr shopify 170511


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