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A bid to build a better Britain

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Win or lose, Britain's Olympic bid offers the opportunity for wide-scale regeneration across London. But, as David Taylor reports from the AJ/BCO spring conference, there are many hurdles to leap over first. Photographs by Charles Glover

What kind of landscape will emerge from London's bid to host the 2012 Olympic Games? How will the Thames Gateway and Lower Lea Valley benefit in terms of an improved transport infrastructure and a more beautiful environment, with better buildings? And what can the construction industry do to make sure the capital wins the gold medal, rather than the wooden spoon?

All these questions and more were tackled last week at a thought-provoking conference in London called 'Gold Standard - Creating Olympic Standard Office Buildings'. The day began with a call to arms from chairman Tim Battle. Win or lose the upcoming play-off with Olympic rival Paris, he said, London stands to gain enormously. And 'UK plc', said Battle, 'has the edge' because of this opportunity for wide-scale regeneration.

Defining excellence But to drive such renewal, developers, particularly of office buildings, need to define 'excellent' schemes, said keynote speaker Gerald Kaye of Helical Bar. Those looking for long-term value should pursue projects which are adaptable, quick and cost-effective to refurbish, but these are not necessarily the same ones that pick up architectural awards.

Some might not be as cost-effective as others, but will serve to enhance the developer's reputation through good design: profits can be made on the next project. And some good schemes in the right place can be a disaster at the wrong time - witness Canary Wharf before the Jubilee Line Extension.

Vitruvian principles of commodity, firmness and delight still hold good. But Kaye suggested one sustainability 'nut' still has to be cracked. 'Natural ventilation might work on a greenfield site, but it won't be realistic in an urban situation until cars run quieter and with cleaner fuel, and IT equipment produces less heat, ' he said.

Finally, the move from partitioned offices to open plan, and to large floorplates with few columns, was now widespread, but hot-desking and home-working remained unproven, said Kaye.After Enron, he claimed, more firms wanted staff where they could 'control' them.

Work and play Andy Rubin of design firm Pentland showed his headquarters, designed by GHM Rock Townsend on a large 'oasis' of a site in North Finchley. It wasn't Soho, explained Rubin, so it had to work hard to retain staff. Cue a free gym, coffee bar, games room, flagship shop and themed meeting rooms (one 'the tropical beach', another where only 'positive' feelings were allowed). 'It's about attracting and retaining the best people, ' said Rubin.

Leslie Perrin sought to create a sea-change in the culture of law firm Osborn Clark through its new headquarters on Bristol's Temple Quay. A large atrium has improved communication and even the partners are now working open plan. Three distinct cultures from its previous three 'crap' Bristol buildings had been integrated into one.

Transports of delight How will transport play a part in Olympic success? Adrian Montague of Network Rail had just delivered his 100,000-word report on CrossRail to Alistair Darling. He said that while its contents were secret, it was 'only natural' that 'new ways of funding' for the potential £10 billion cost, such as Alternative Funding Mechanisms (AFMs), would be investigated, and introducing them might be 'politically easier' than general taxation.

'There is no firm line inside government on the use of AFMs, ' he said. The Channel Tunnel Rail Link, he added, was the 'antidote to Treasury sceptics who feel we cannot build big projects on time and to budget'; according to John Prescott it is currently both.Was Montague softening up his developer audience for when it might have to foot much of the CrossRail bill? It sounded like it.

Robert John of the Canary Wharf Group knew all about transport's impact on property, having lobbied for the Jubilee Line extension.

'Such a large investment needed more than a transport argument, ' he revealed. The government needed to be convinced it would trigger jobs and regeneration. The scheme was approved on those grounds. But then, using government econometrics, neither the Victoria Line nor the Jubilee Line would have been built. He is now modelling CrossRail's potential effects and has found them to be 'very significant' in the Thames Gateway, an area of 'multiple deprivation'. Might businesses pay more, since burdening homeowners might result in unhappy voters?

For Tony Winterbottom of the London Development Agency, not going for CrossRail would stifle or even reverse growth. It is currently 'virtually impossible' to cross the Lea Valley, he claimed, and access within the area between Canary Wharf and Stratford City is 'indescribably bad'. He said the Olympics will quicken regeneration, leaving a legacy of the largest urban park in Europe, extensive new housing and 200,000 square metres of office accommodation, with Lea Valley as the new 'City fringe'. 'Transport is the least of our worries, ' he added.

The limbo line For Development Securities' Julian Barwick and DEGW's Lora Nicolaou, CrossRail was 'very unlikely' to be cancelled, but government not making a decision might be just as damaging. Without a firm 'yes' or 'no', development teams are in limbo and cannot proceed.

The point was picked up by Paul Finch in the next session, 'East Side Story'. This was politics and planning.Were we squandering an opportunity to the east or grabbing it with both hands? Was the contamination, the increasingly problematic flood plain and the sea of pylons worth the effort?

Tony Travers of the London School of Economics believed the Thames Gateway was part of the solution to 'endlessly spreading out into the Green Belt' - what he called 'urban splatter'. 'The success of the east is of more than local importance, ' he said, 'but we shouldn't delude ourselves that it can be planned in quite the easy way politicians would have us believe.'

Argent Estates' Roger Madelin said all development was getting harder, with more expectation to provide hospitals, schools and other infrastructure: fewer people were doing it as a result. 'We build empty buildings and wait to get lucky, ' he said. 'If you don't get lucky for a long time it can get very painful very quickly.'

Travers suggested Heathrow's effect to the west had been 'magnetic'. And Finch reminded the audience of another, aborted plan to do the same to the east: RIBA pastpresident Fred Pooley's Maplin Sands. That, though, fell 'foul' of the RSPB.

Pitching it right Ziona Strelitz introduced two more BCO award-winning buildings which demonstrated that 'off-pitch' sites could produce 'great developments' too. The Tun in Edinburgh by Alan Murray Architects was on a difficult, sloping World Heritage site near the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood, development adviser John McGregor said, and developer Whiteburn had little track record of schemes of this size. Yet, after a 'Euro dash' to see similar schemes in The Hague and Copenhagen, a successful scheme has emerged, with tenants including the BBC. For Andrew Murdoch of Fitzroy Robinson, its form could be memorably summarised: it appeared to be 'humped from below by her brash neighbour, and is so delighted by the attention she's receiving, that her roof has literally blown off '.

Introduced by Development Securities' Wally Kumar as a good example of a large floorplate, high-quality office building on another difficult, locked site in Paddington, 3 Sheldon Square was also a commercial success. 'Paddington is now very much on the map, ' he said. But for Murdoch, Siddell Gibson's building was 'a poor landmark to the west' and eclipsed by the work of Farrell and Rogers nearby. Faults for him included floor-to-ceiling glazing, displaying office 'detritus' to all; blinds that gave the appearance of a washing line with different sized clothes; and all four elevations being the same ('two fingers to the green agenda').

For Chelsfield managing director Nigel Hugill, good access from new office buildings to public transport was key, as was the trend to clustering. 'The holy grail of sustainability is the mixed-use building, ' he said. 'But if people are serious about sustainable development they should make travel much more expensive.' AYH's David Thompson argued that 'outside the highly successful office locations the city is decaying - the solution is not to keep moving people further and further away'.

Lend Lease's Richard Powell said the UK does consider green options, 'but we're playing at it compared with places like Australia'.

A new map Where might the next big office locations be?

Madelin described King's Cross as 'the new Clerkenwell' and 'the best location in London'; CBRE's Chris Lacey gave a detailed look at the Olympic legacy for areas like Stratford City, Greenwich Peninsula and the Lower Lea Valley. Arup Associates' Michael Lowe talked about Battersea as a future magnet for growth - the 15ha power station site will be home to 400,000 square metres of space and will have an 'enormous' impact, with its 75,000 square metres of offices, two hotels and major housing, close to the Vauxhall transport hub.

One thing was certain from all of the day's deliberations: where grand projects such as the preparation for a successful Olympic bid are concerned, the amount of lobbying, cajoling and groundwork required to leap over all the hurdles will take a major effort. CrossRail, and any definite, realistic, and affordable new transport infrastructure will undoubtedly help, but the political will must be there, as coach. It looks like it might be a marathon, not a sprint.

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