Arup’s new headquarters proves collaboration between designers can be successful if it is well-orchestrated, writes Felix Mara
Although architects tend to work in teams, there is a widespread belief within the profession that good design is only possible if one individual is in control. Referring to a joke about a committee that set out to design a horse, some architects describe unfortunate outcomes of design collaboration as ‘camels’.
Many architects are particularly wary of collaborations between different design firms. So you might expect them to look askance at Arup’s new-build headquarters in London, which had not one, but three designers.
Roles were clearly defined and the three designers worked on distinct areas
Arup has a long-term lease on the new building and had to comply with the requirement of its landlord, Derwent London, that it should be re-lettable as multiple tenancies. Arup appointed architect Sheppard Robson as lead consultant to design the building’s shell and core. There were two interior designers: Arup Associates was responsible for the corporate areas in the basement and on the ground floor, while interior designer MoreySmith tackled the office fit-out on the first to fifth floors. Arup, not to be confused with Arup Associates, was project manager and provided consultancy services that included M&E, structural and facade engineering.
Roles were clearly defined and the three designers worked on distinct areas. Nevertheless, because much of their work can be seen simultaneously, there were questions about design control. If homogeneity was the objective, this would only be possible if Arup and Sheppard Robson exercised strict control as project manager and design coordinator respectively. But, according to Arup’s project manager Richard Marzec, it did not want homogeneity, and this is one reason why it appointed three designers.
The building’s external envelope uses a basket-weave pattern of unitised clear, translucent and opaque glass panels to provide an aggregate transparency of 50 per cent. This regulates solar gain and heat loss in order to meet the performance criteria of the chilled beams that provide air conditioning. As Roy James, partner at Arup, says, ‘it’s a sealed box.’
Mark Kowal, partner at Sheppard Robson, explains that this pattern has a secondary and emblematic narrative: it is derived from DNA strands. This DNA theme recurs in a translucent blue-glass screen in the atrium, designed by artist Alexander Beleschenko. This atrium is open to the adjacent floor areas. Because horizontal fire shutters are concealed in its spandrels at alternate levels, there is no need for vertical separation to create fire compartments. The size of these shutters is unprecedented and a helical staircase in the atrium is able to connect the ground and basement floors because there is no fire shutter at ground-floor level. The basement and ground floor are designed as one fire compartment.
The design avoids sprinklers, which would have ruined one of its strongest features, the suspended ceiling, which has flush chilled beams. Kowal describes this as a pioneering feature. Chilled beams – especially active chilled beams, normally suspended below ceilings – are something of a bête noire to architects and can look horrifically dated, often with retrofit connotations. The chilled beams at Arup’s new headquarters look much more discreet because they are flush with the ceilings. They are served by 600mm-deep ceiling plenums, which work in conjunction with post-tensioned reinforced-concrete floor slabs that are only 300mm-thick but span 9m without downstand beams. This arrangement creates large, open spaces.
The role of Arup Associates in this project is particularly interesting. Its persona is more professional than commercial, and it is more preoccupied with big ideas than fashionability and craftsmanship. Marzec has no qualms about using the word ‘corporate’ when he describes the areas Arup Associates designed. These include the entrance reception, with flamboyant gull-wing metal ceiling panels and large conference rooms that feel comfortable but staid. They are exactly what you would expect of this type of venue; no doubt Arup knew what it was looking for in these spaces and how they would work.
The up-to-the-minute office areas designed by MoreySmith have brightly coloured glass screens and shelving systems that stand out from the neutral background of Sheppard Robson’s shell. MoreySmith set out to challenge the way Arup worked, designing some interesting stand-up meeting spaces with high-level tables and bicycle-seat stools. But one wonders whether Arup wanted to be challenged on every front. When I question Marzec, he emphasises that Arup wanted to add ‘a bit of zip, some colour, breakout space and sustainability’. There is some recycled timber wall cladding, elaborate recycling areas and, as required by planners, the project came very close to BREEAM’s Excellent standard. It gained two credits for its elaborate cyclists’ provisions, and the fact that it didn’t reach the Excellent standard indicates that Arup balanced sustainability against other criteria.
Somehow, this all gels. Arup wasn’t looking for an inhibiting and unwieldy gesamtkunstwerk and one is reminded of a 1898 essay by Austrian architect Adolf Loos, in which he writes: ‘The common bond that ties all of the furniture in one room together consists in the fact that the owner has made the selection.’ But this is no dog’s breakfast, and it stands out from the other engineers’ offices in this area of London by the way it successfully shop-windows not only good design, but also collaboration.
Curtain wall Structal unitised structural sealed glazed panels; Saint-Gobain SKN 154 double-glazed, argon-filled clear glass; double-glazed, argon-filled translucent glass, with two layers opal PVB interlayer laminated glass; ceramic-bake opaque glass in four colours with insulated backing
Ceiling SAS System 330, perforated for air return and acoustics; Swegon chilled beams
Venetian blinds Faber Softline
Raised floor Mero-Schmidlin
Glazed partitions Recessed aluminium channels at head and base; clear toughened glass; clear silicone pointing
Room-booking system RNM systems/ Condeco
Start on site June 2006
Contract duration 42 months
Gross internal floor area16,420m2
Form of contract JCT design and build
Total cost £41.3 million
Cost per m2 £2,515
Shell and core architect Sheppard Robson
Project manager/structural engineer/M&E consultant Arup
Facade consultant Arup Facades
Interior designer Arup Associates and MoreySmith
Quantity surveyor Davis Langdon
Main contractor Laing O’Rourke
Annual CO2 emissions 38.25kg/m
Horizontal fire curtain
The open atrium promotes visual interaction between office floors and a feeling of unity among Arup working groups. It is designed to be flexible so that it can easily be enclosed by vertical glazing if individual floors are re-let. Regulations dictate that open atria are enclosed at their upper-most levels to create a smoke plenum in the event of a fire. They normally incorporate vertical fire curtains that enclose the atrium so it functions as a separate compartment in fire mode. As vertical fire curtains required cumbersome and obtrusive guiderails, we sought to negate this requirement and provide a sense of openness throughout the entire height of the atrium.
Bespoke concealed horizontal fire curtains are activated by the computerised building management system, separating each floor horizontally into compartments in the event of a fire. These retract into an integrated slot around the perimeter vertical cladding panel at each floor.
Mark Kowal, partner, Sheppard Robson