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Re-thinking the local authority HQ

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Through this new workplace Camden has developed new ways of working, says Rab Bennetts

Any conversation about the architectural form of Camden Council’s new 5 Pancras Square building must start with the King’s Cross development’s masterplan, which prescribes the outline, height and density for each development plot.

With the emphasis on the public realm, which was given priority by Argent at King’s Cross and in previous schemes such as Brindleyplace in Birmingham, the buildings inevitably – and rightly in our view – play the supporting role.

For a hard-pressed local authority such as Camden, the notion of a highly sustainable but undemonstrative new building is appropriate. It was funded through property disposals and increased efficiency, with no cost to the public purse at a time of deep recession. It is not a town hall (those facilities remain on the Euston Road), but an administrative headquarters combined with public facilities that dramatically improve the service to the local community; and it was developed under the constant scrutiny of politicians and the press – it simply had to be delivered on time and budget.  The corner location is also significant, as the building has less allegiance to its commercial neighbours than to the wider community of Camden itself, expressed in the contrast between its modest presence on Pancras Square and the outward-facing facades on Pancras Way and Goods Way.

The building is a near-cube, with a clear division between the 10 office floors and its base of four public levels, which contain public-facing council services, a library, café, leisure centre and two swimming pools.

Room heights, daylight, variety in work settings and colour add to the sense of wellbeing

However, the form is not as simple as it looks. A grid of substantial transfer beams at second floor level allows a regular concrete structure for the offices to sit astride long spans for the swimming pools, two large fitness studios and the main gym.  The library and public services are suspended from the transfer structure, leaving voids around the perimeter for a double-height café overlooking Camley Street Park, for a triple-height entrance hall that embraces the level changes between square and street, and for views into the main pool in the basement from pavement level.  The spatial diversity of the lower levels continues above, with a soaring atrium that brings light to the centre of the workspace. Several fully-glazed two-storey indents in the facades and a top-floor terrace provide compositional variety and some spectacular views over St Pancras and the low hills of north London.

In both the public and administration areas legibility is paramount, not only for elementary wayfinding but for visual connections within a workforce previously fragmented across separate properties. Camden’s workplace evolves from the New Ways of  Working programme developed by Bennetts Associates for other local authorities, based on desk-sharing combined with a wide range of generous break-out spaces. Taller-than-normal room heights, good daylight, variety in work settings and use of colour add to the overall sense of wellbeing.

The connection between wellbeing and sustainability is of course intentional, but this project surpasses all previous measurements such as BREEAM, for which it had a post-completion score of 97.6 per cent.  We have been pursuing passive design techniques for more than 20 years, but here it is greatly enhanced by local power generation from within the King’s Cross development.  The rigour required by high levels of sustainability is reflected in the building’s architectural language, with the concrete structure exposed for its thermal mass internally and bronze-anodised louvre panels angled against the late afternoon sun externally. Five Pancras Square is well-crafted and highly functional but is designed to lift the spirit and transform the relationship between a local authority and the people it serves.

Rab Bennetts is founding director of Bennetts Associates

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