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building study Foster and Partners'centre for TAG McLaren at Woking is an impressive theatre for technology

Are you a VIP? You won't be told but you will discover from the way you are directed to enter this building. The VIP, whether a prospective purchaser of the new £350,000 Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren or a major business partner, will enjoy the semicircular drive that sweeps round the lake edge opposite the main facade, finally to cross the water and reach the entrance. There the car will be valet-parked; people who are serious about cars drive themselves.

The circular plan of the factory plus complementary lake is echoed in the circular Visitor and Learning Centre and in the gravelled entrance circle where VIPs leave their horseless carriages, also inside in circular lifts and landings. The line of the principal facade arcing away from the entrance snakes across the lake, fronting 'the big space' - big both physically and architecturally. 'Foyer' seems too small a term for this single, building-height volume that extends 200m across the lake front from the entrance, terminating in restaurants and a fitness centre.

The length and curvatures of its facade mean that often the lake and landscape beyond are viewed obliquely through it. Foster's early computer modelling of the facade, which had conventional wind-posts, showed that a lot of the more sidelong views out would be obscured by runs of these posts. So the structural logic has been changed to horizontal 12m windblades supported off columns, with the vertical structure pared down to silicone jointing of the suspended glazing and elliptical stainless steel tie rods, as used on the F1 cars. There are several different shapes of windblade needed to follow the snaking plan but the glazing itself is faceted in flat panels, which at this scale read as a continuous curve (see Working Details, pages 42-43).

As impressively done is the adjoining snaking, raised VIP walkway, punctuated by hydraulic lifts, its largely 2D cladding panels still allowing it to read as a 3D object. Deeper into the building are the glazed, double-height industrial spaces with offices above; on plan, eight fingers 18m wide with 6m streets between.

Glass-fronting of these spaces onto the foyer, apart from fire and other practical containment, is part of an industrial and commercial story that is more complex than the relatively straightforward housing of manufacturing we have seen in recent industrial buildings - Wilford's Sto (AJ 29.1.04) and Grimshaw's Rolls-Royce (AJ 5.2.04). This new building is consolidating the activities of the McLaren Group from some 18 sites around Woking. So the new building includes industrial space for automotive electronics and advanced composites and office space for the marketing and corporate hospitality companies. Several fingers of the plan are home to the new joint venture with DaimlerChrysler to build the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren car. Other fingers will shortly be occupied by the Formula One team.

F1 cars are developed and built for each race in hygienic conditions that more resemble bio-labs than the average shop floor. This approach continues through all the fingers.

The prospective car owner is very visibly part of the same precision engineering and attention to detail as F1. All processes intentionally bear close inspection. McLaren's choice of insistent white, including floor tiles, continues through to the customdesigned workbenches and storage units.

Attention to detail is meticulous. Only in this building will you find a clean-desk policy in the offices continuing through to a clean-workbench policy in the assembly areas. Services are carefully controlled with power, data and air outlets on special column casings, which also provide displacement ventilation outlets; the exposed structure of ceilings is uncluttered.

In the kitchen, stainless steel units and switches align with the tile grid. There is not a blind in the building. For the cladding, apart from the foyer facade, glazing is flush with the framing, so that too will be readily cleaned when the windows are. The architect's wish to install rooflights was strongly questioned, partly because they would not always be perfectly clean.

McLaren's F1 commercial approach, of working closely with selected partners, continues for this building. Partly it is about control, as is so much in this project, here bringing in the construction partners as part of the team, involving them in developing special products. Particularly pressed to innovate have been Targetti for lighting, Faram for furniture and partitions, Sch³co for cladding and Grohe for systems (see pages 34-40), where almost every sanitaryware fitting is electronically monitored.

Amec was the services provider and has now become the facilities manager for services.

McLaren has also been involved in some of these developments as a technology partner, such as in forming the windblades and various castings.

Partners have special status in being able to use parts of the new building for their own business events. Construction partners will have the chance to use the McLaren name in future marketing of specially developed building products. McLaren hopes to persuade some of them to use the exhibition space and auditorium of the Visitor and Learning Centre as a lower-cost alternative to taking space at European exhibitions. Construction partnering takes on a new meaning.

The Visitor and Learning Centre is yet to be finished; there is an annular rooflight towards the perimeter of the main circular exhibition space and to the circumferential corridor around the auditorium on the floor below. These rooflights emerge above ground ringing a dome - the rest of the centre is concealed below a turfed earth mound.

The Visitor and Learning Centre is linked to the main building by a 150m underground, sloping, curved route that will also become a display space in its own right.

The centre and link will provide a 'McLaren experience' for visitors (yet to be developed) and was part of the project's Green Belt planning permission. Among other planning restrictions, the footprint limit was 20,000m 2, the same as the agricultural buildings originally on the site, with a height limit of 10m above datum. To get in all the 57,000m 2of floor space and bulky equipment such as machine tools and a 145m wind tunnel, there are two levels of basement. The maximum employee capacity is 1,000.

Visitors to the Visitor and Learning Centre, non-VIP visitors to the main building and staff, all approach from the rear of the main building, where most of the car parks are located. There is a service area along the back of the factory - it is a 'back' in being a working area rather than any drop-off in architectural quality. To reach the main building you enter one of the rotundas on the car park fringe, descend utilitarian stairs and pass under the service yard into the building along lengthy plain tunnels, which are oppressively unwelcoming despite the ubiquitous whiteness. In case you had not got the message, you are not a VIP.

This is the least successful part of the building. The Foster office has tripped over entrances a few times before - for example, the difficulty of finding the entrance at Willis Faber, or the City Hall entrance route which crosses at right angles the main circulation as it spirals upwards. Here at Woking there are stairs up at half-way along the tunnel for staff (and some visitors). But the intended experience for ordinary visitors to this main building is to continue along to the tunnel end because there, it is felt, is a compensating architectural move. At the tunnel end you have reached the foot of one of the hydraulic lifts which emerge in the foyer serving ground and office level. The shaft walls beyond the glass lifts are painted black at tunnel level to maximise the contrast between this and emerging into the light, open space of the foyer with lake views beyond. It is a dramatic experience.

In passing you note that the name Thyssen does not appear in the lift; no publicity since it is not one of the partners. The choice of a circular hydraulic lift follows McLaren's Ron Dennis saying that he had never seen a glass lift he liked, one that could be kept clean. 'Ron said?' crops up spontaneously many times in conversation. It is very much his project; he attended the two-weekly project meetings. When Foster project architect Nigel Dancey says 'the attention to detail never stops', it is the agenda set and pursued by Dennis. The architect-as-control-freak has been upstaged.

The overall result is a building hard to warm to, so tightly controlled; and not just the industrial areas. When was the last time you saw a new bull-pen layout in offices, where people almost disappear from view (even if the screens are softened by supergraphics)? Why the corralling at all?

The building is immaculately done. And control, the attention to detail, is part of the building's message to staff, partners and customers. But you wonder about Dennis' aspirations being realised, aspirations for a building that is 'functional, inspirational, motivational'. Functional, of course, and you can see it being inspirational and motivational in getting people to do more. What seems at odds with the architecture is McLaren's evident need to get at least some people also to think differently, to be creative. The building never says loosen up, try something different.

We should not venture too far down this road of architectural determinism. Especially because, despite the evident quality, this building can be read as more background than foreground. With the planting of 100,000 trees and shrubs over the 50ha site, it may become a quiet classical pavilion set in a dominant landscape. And inside, beyond the set piece of the foyer, the workspaces are highly transparently enclosed.

You can stand in one of the streets and look across the building through a sequence of fingers, seeing mostly one layer of industrial process and its apparently silent actors shifting beyond another into the distance. The work is the thing.

If there is more to admire than to enjoy here, you can't fail to be impressed.


The structure comprises a structural steelwork superstructure with a reinforced concrete slab on a profiled steel sheet. At ground floor and basement level the construction is reinforced concrete.

The first floor-level structure for each of the buildings was optimised by providing column supports at 12m centres and having a 3m cantilever either side of the 12m strip, so giving an overall width of floor plate between light wells of 18m. The cantilever ends have the beneficial effect of inducing 'hogging'moments at the columns, which reduce the 'sagging' moments in the major span. This allows the section size of the major spanning beam to be reduced. As the cantilever moments reduce to zero at the tip, the cantilever sections can be tapered to be significantly shallower there. Beams are at 3m centres and the undersides of the beams are exposed at both the roof and first floor levels. Stability is provided by braced cores.

Access to the buildings is via a sinuous walkway that floats within the atrium space. It is almost 180m long and is suspended from the roof structure using 30mm diameter stainless steel rods.These are connected to the walkway with cast stainless steel brackets that were jointly developed by the designers and the McLaren engineers. The structure to the walkway is made up from universal column sections and welded steel plate forming a stiff structural section that controls both horizontal and vertical vibrations from footfall. The walkway was made in sections 10 to 12m long that were brought into the building and lifted into position. To accommodate temperature movements the walkway is split into three sections each about 60m long. Lateral stability to each of the sections is provided by the bridges that link the walkway to the individual buildings.

The foundation solution for the project was optimised by the design of a ground water cut-off wall which, in combination with a sub-slab drainage system, minimises the effect of a ground water uplift pressure of around 60kN/m 2.This approach allows a raft foundation to be used and eliminated the need for 20 miles of piles.

Julie Wood, associate director, Arup Services The building's electrical distribution can be reconfigured to ensure the occupants can continue to use the electrically driven machinery. Supporting the electrical system are two combined heat and power plants. Working in conjunction with the heating, cooling and electrical system, these provide an efficient use of electrical energy.

The cooling to the building is provided by the energy centre, where the CHP, boilers and refrigeration units distribute chilled and heated water to the environmental conditioners.

In the production area, people are provided with heating and cooling from a combination of high-level air diffusers and mid-level air displacement outlets. The work benches have hand-level outlets for electrical and compressed air components. The outlet ranges also include IT plugs, along with switches for operating local fume-extract fans. The midlevel air displacement units have been integrated with the building's structural columns to maximise the floor area and provide an air distribution system that is at the ideal height for the occupants at desks. The work bench outlets have been designed with the McLaren design team to provide an ergonomic use of the benches.

In the lower-level production area, light fittings are attached to the exposed surfaces of the electrical carrier systems. At the higher level, fittings are incorporated into architecturally designed troughs. These throw light both downwards and onto the curved ceiling panels. The curves have been designed to provide a natural diffusion of the light around the building.

In the office areas, the air conditioning is provided by displacement air through the floor with ceiling-level chilled panels.

The panels are again curved to provide a large effective ceiling area and diffusion of the light from the architecturally designed light troughs. Some natural light is provided by skylights.

The Visitor and Learning Centre is naturally lit by roof lights and ceiling-mounted fittings. The air conditioning is displacement ventilation and power-chilled beams.

Heat from the building is ejected through the surrounding lake, reducing the number of cooling towers needed from seven to two. Rainwater from the curved roof is also collected here to maintain water levels during the year, with any excess passing into the adjacent environmental lakes. The lake also provides a focal point for local wildlife.

Peter Kemm, Amec

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