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Intelligent response

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GCHQ is bringing staff from 50 buildings into one new facility, reflecting a change in its culture. Designed by Gensler, it makes human the massive scale GCHQ exists. This fact was only publicly acknowledged in 1983, many years after its move to Cheltenham in 1952. It might not exist now, though, if you took literally the apocalyptic words of David Omand, in 1996 the then newly appointed director, who 'convinced doubters that investment in changing working behaviours was the only way to guarantee GCHQ's survival in the longer term'.

Since then, GCHQ has been going through a period of massive change in its business processes and culture. That Omand's words have been published, together with information on the critical part this new facility will play, are signs of a new openness.

In the past, GCHQ was 'strongly hierarchical, heavily compartmented, relatively introverted'. More prosaically, the business change manager for GCHQ's New Accommodation Programme, Alan Green, describes the old management structure as a 'command' one and the typical work pattern as a highly specialised individual working alone all day in a room, not knowing too much what the person in the next room was doing. The whole GCHQ approach was focused on outcomes, not the effectiveness of the process of its work (which is part Signals Intelligence, part 'Information Assurance' - keeping government communication and information systems safe from hackers and other threats). In organisational terms, hierarchies and 'need to know' concerns meant staff were missing out on learning from each other, had no tradition of project team working, were organisationally static and had no depth of modern management skills (which is the subject of a major staff development programme).

Several things have changed. As Green says, 'the bottom dropped out of the Cold War market', thus ending an era with a relatively static intelligence target and moving on to today's much more varied, complex and fast-changing targets. The evolution of computing continues to add layers of complexity.

Government put the Information Assurance work on to a 'cost recovery regime' in which GCHQ charged customers (primarily the MoD) for its services and thus pushed it into a more business-like mode of operation.And government also pushed all its branches to adopt management best practice.

The compartmented mode of working was matched by the property holding, about 50 buildings built over 50 years, varying from a reasonable standard down to huts, located on two sites four miles apart. Maintenance had been modest, and a building replaced every year or so, within a static and unimaginative accommodation renewal strategy for the two sites. As part of its change programme, GCHQ saw that housing all 4,500 staff together would support shared learning and teamworking, and allow a new IT infrastructure to evolve coherently.

Just having new premises can also be an important marker of a new start, in this case to becoming a 'sleeker, more agile organisation'. But done in one hit, the building cost is high. Step forward the Pubic Finance Initiative. This procurement method would provide the built infrastructure for the great leap forward. The foreign secretary and other ministers gave the go-ahead for the PFI strategy in 1997, and by 2000, from eight starters, a contract had been signed with the winning consortium Integrated Accommodation Services (IAS), whose principal players are Carillion, Group 4 Falck and BT.

Work began on site in spring 2000.The value of the PFI deal is £1.2 billion over 30 years: this is the total cost of accommodating and providing services for GCHQ, which includes the roughly £337 million capital cost of the building itself.

Though the doughnut now built may seem an obvious defensive form, like a circle of wagons shielding itself, it was not the first thought. The consortium's early ideas were for a campus (though there would have had to have been a network of protected links between buildings). Six initial buildings were value-engineered down to three, and architect Gensler saw the opportunity to draw them into a circle, not just more defensible but also offering greater opportunity for interaction between all the staff and providing a tranquil private oasis of garden at the centre (with computer hall beneath).

The apparent circle is, in fact, three isolatable arc buildings connected by link buildings located beneath the roof 'petals'.

Gensler's Chris Johnson sees it as one of the frustrations of PFI that the architect does not get closer to the client (though this is not always the case). You are vulnerable to being asked: the client has 'x' number of desks, how much floorspace do we need? But working relationships can develop during a project. IAS came to accept that Gensler could speak the same language, that it was not seeking to design a signature building and that its design clearly addressed the client's process-improvement and culturechange aspirations. And some of the architecture contributes to the economics, too. For example, the single circular form reduces the maintenance cost of manned surveillance and cuts land take (some of the site has been sold for housing).

With a circular plan, the question of level 1 future expansion/contraction arises, but the argument for one building, one organisation, one site won out. The building is slightly undersized for the number of existing staff - global changes pre- and post-11 September have resulted in a seven per cent increase in staff numbers since the Statement of Requirement was issued in 1997, against a previously steady numerical decline since the end of the Cold War.All this is before GCHQ learns to use the facility as a resource. The initial plan is for five per cent desk sharing (across all levels of staff ), but that could increase if necessary, given that typically about 15 per cent of staff are not on site on any one day and there is significant part-time and home-working.

Organisationally, the building is on four levels, the lowest level partly below ground on this steeply sloping site. That level is predominantly workshops but also provides the main entrance at one of the links, offering glimpses through to the full height of that link building. Levels 2 to 4 are offices, each arc with a central 9m-wide street, bridged several times on levels 3 and 4. The arcs each also contain one of three sets of shared facilities at level 2 (the level of the inner garden): restaurant, conference centre and amenities, such as health facilities. (A separate crèche building is planned for the near future. ) In general, the link buildings provide entry, small shops, opportunities for chance contact between staff from different arcs, continuity of horizontal circulation and some of the vertical circulation (the rest is within each arc).

The offices are very deep plan; the external doughnut diameter is 200m, the garden diameter 90m.And they are open plan for all levels of staff, a culture shock for some. But it is not shed-like within. It is a tribute to the designers and to glass technology that there is significant visual contact with the outdoors through windows and street rooflights despite blast-protection requirements. The interior feels bright, with light, naturalcolour finishes preferred by the client. A lot of the office floorspace is simple, populated by bench-like desks with freestanding pedestal units so that teams can be reorganised overnight if necessary. But the big, bright street with its glass balustrades on upper floors provides structure and focus to the offices. There is variety in the meeting spaces and corners to sit in, such as the seating along the tree-lined internal street.

Outdoors, the base is faced in Cotswold stone, becoming a storey high and bastionlike around the main entrance at the lowest point of the slope. The building's massiveness is softened by the lack of corners, by the receding profiled metal roof and by its having a glazed facade, which at upper levels is faced by an outer screen of 1.5 x 4m glass panels, the faceted effect contributing to privacy. But defensibility is also an intended part of the architectural message.

Beyond the building lies part of a ring of service buildings and, across a moat of car parking on this 16ha site, the conspicuous razor-wire perimeter fence, and then, adjacent, developer's ordinary housing. It looks an uncomfortable conjunction but for GCHQ there is 50 years of precedent in Cheltenham.

In essence this is a corporate HQ, one that helps bring the client up to speed with 21st-century business practice rather than revolutionising the office. Given the constraints of GCHQ, what particularly impresses is Gensler's handling of the large scale, especially the variety of spaces within, the garden and also the quality and consistency of the result.

With staff not starting to move in until September, the building's success remains to be proven. But as its doors will soon be closed securely to public scrutiny, we may never know.

The big picture lGCHQ is one of Europe's largest single construction projects.

Construction involved 150 subcontractors with 11,000 workers.

It is also one of the biggest computer complexes in Europe.

The building has a floor area of more than 100,000m 2. l The main building is 200m in diameter.

It will house about 4,500 GCHQ staff by 2005.

GCHQ is the biggest employer in Gloucestershire.

The capital cost was about £337 million.

It is Britain's largest PFI project so far, worth approximately £1.2 billion over 30 years.

Some 6,000 miles of electric cable,5,000 miles of copper IT cable and 1,850 miles of fibre-optic cable were used lThere is enough generating capacity for half of Cheltenham.


START ON SITE Spring 2000


BUILDING OCCUPATION To be completed by spring 2005

BUILDING COST £337 million

CLIENT Integrated Accommodation Services (Carillion, BT and Group 4 Falck)




SERVICES ENGINEER Crown House Engineering




PLANNING SUPERVISOR Schal International Management

FIRE AND LIFE SAFETY CONSULTANT International Fire Consultants

HM APPROVED INSPECTOR Carillion Specialist Services

SUBCONTRACTORS AND SUPPLIERS Services Crown House Engineering; concrete frame O'Rourke Civil Engineering; steelwork Rowen Structures; curtain walling Schmidlin UK; precast stone panels Trent Concrete; aluminium roofing Prater Roofing; atrium roof glazing Space Decks; access floors Kingspan Access Floors; 'string-of-pearls'cladding Kelsey Roofing Industries


GCHQ www. gchq. gov. uk Carillion www. carillionplc. com

British Telecommunications www. bt. com

Group 4 Falck www. group4falck. com

Gensler www. gensler. com

TPS Consult www. tpsconsult. co. uk

Crown House Engineering www. crownhouseengineering. com

Scott Wilson Kirkpatrick www. scottwilson. com

Schal International Management www. schal. com

International Fire Consultants www. intfire. com

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