'When we met clients at conferences we used to discuss margins. Now they say: 'You're the company with the crazy cow staircase.' It's given us a real identity.'
Rod MacMillan, chairman of Principal Distribution, a computer software distribution company, is referring to the staircase in his new headquarters, designed by Studio baad. Light, bright and youthful, the office interior reflects the young and enthusiastic company - about 30 strong - which inhabits it. The design has been in no way inhibited by being set in a listed building - a former hay barn on the country estate of Earl Tempest at Broughton Hall, Skipton, Yorkshire. It is part of a group of former agricultural buildings operated by Roger Tempest, heir to the estate, who had the foresight to convert once-derelict dairies and barns into a business park. Principal's building forms two sides of a courtyard: on the east side the windows face hills and woodland; a door in the staff coffee-bar opens onto a timber deck which oversails a flag-ringed pool, once used as an ice-pond.
A row of segmented sandstone columns runs along two sides of the building. The columns support a roof of massive oak trusses and stone flags. In the barn's former life, hay waggons used to pass between the columns. Now these spaces are glazed and an extra first floor added (work done before Studio baad's involvement).
Visitors now enter through a bow-fronted pivoting door set between two stone columns to be greeted by 'WELCOME' on the computer screen in the foyer. The computer shelf projects from a cone-shaped curved wall, made of white-painted ply. A Gobo lamp projects the company's logo on to the curved wall, its white surface relieved by a pattern of table-tennis balls (championship quality) which form a diagrid over the surface.
The design of the 'mad-cow' staircase, set centre-stage of the open-plan office space, has some justification, as Philip Bintliff explains: 'Building Regulations require the treads and risers of a staircase to be a differentiated to aid the visually impaired. We made the treads of aluminium chequerplate; a black-and-white fabric riser seemed to make an effective contrast.'
The space under the stairs is filled with banks of personal lockers with lacquered green mdf doors. Sheets of frameless glass, siliconed together, form the stair balustrade.
The new interior is mostly open-plan, but has a few cellular offices and conference rooms. All Principal Distribution's staff work on Apple Macs, but the relatively low floor-to-ceiling heights ruled out the use of a raised access floor for service distribution. Instead, Studio baad developed a series of vertical distribution panels, each set in the centre of a window bay and adjacent to the computer desking. The panel, of 22m lacquered mdf, is wide enough to accommodate all power and data connections at low level; a brush strip along the centre of the desking gives access to cables. The panels extend above the worktop to become a lighting unit, with a circular fluorescent fitting fixed to the panel and screened with a steel wire framework wrapped with coloured Lycra - peach on the ground floor, aqua on the first floor. Cut-outs in the mdf - in the shapes of suns, moons and stars - are tinted with translucent coloured filters, and at night glow in contrast to the surrounding parkland.
Studio baad acted as architect and construction manager, as it often does, offering a service which, by removing the layers of profit and dealing directly with sub-contractors, gives the client better value for money and the architect greater design control.
In the case of Principal Distribution the architect wrote the brief for the client, designed the panels and desks, and even provided crockery and cutlery for the coffee-bar, and champagne for the opening party, on a contract which was completed in four weeks.