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WORKING DETAILS; Paul Collinge’s collaboration with the contractor on turning a chair factory into an office building reduced costs but not quality

A sight of Dewplan’s new hq in High Wycombe tells little of the story behind its construction - a unique collaboration between architect and contractor which produced a high-quality building for 75 per cent of the original cost plan. And, as an uncompromisingly modern yet sensitive adjunct to a Victorian factory, it demonstrates that pastiche need not be the only response to a historic urban context.

 

Dewplan, the tenant, is a company of over 100 staff specialising in the design and construction of water-treatment plants. It needed an assembly/workshop area, an open-plan drawing office, and other open-plan office spaces with flexible computer networks to encourage the regrouping of project teams, an important component in the structure of the organisation.

 

The site in High Wycombe included a three-storey L-shaped Victorian chair- making factory with a single-storey post-war extension adjacent to it, and a dishevelled detatched house facing Queen’s Road. Paul Collinge has restored the factory and used it for open-plan office spaces. The single- storey extension and detatched house have been removed and replaced with a two-storey office/workshop with brick walls topped by an oversailing curved metal roof, which runs the length of the site along Queen’s Road. It contains the main entrance, open-plan offices on the first floor and a car park below, and a single-storey workshop for plant assembly on the east side.

 

In the space between the old and new buildings a new ‘piazza’ has been created - a paved courtyard surrounded on two sides by the mellow brick walls of the old factory, with steps rising up to it from the main entrance/reception area in the new building. The piazza has a rectangular pool along one side which flows into another pool below it, a reference to the source of Dewplan’s activities. It is a place where staff can pass, meet each other and, more formally, hold functions. A steep fall from north to south of almost one-and-a-half storeys allowed the car park in the new office/workshop to extend underneath the piazza.

 

Paul Collinge has deliberately created a new building which contrasts with, rather than imitates, its Victorian neighbour: ‘I detest the idea of recreating or imitating another language; it devalues the original building. If you contrast it the two buildings complement each other.’

 

The design process and construction was a close collaboration between Paul Collinge, the architect, and Christopher Shirley, chairman of the Clarendon Group, a development company which at the time of construction owned Dewplan, making Clarendon both general contractor and client. The site was purchased and development begun during the recession, and the quantity surveyor’s cost plan came in at a time when, as Christopher Shirley describes it, ‘a pessimistic financial climate led to some stark choices; we could either abandon the project, reduce it in size, or proceed but reduce costs by 25 per cent without watering down the scale or compromising the quality of the design. We took this option as a challenge’. Shirley and Collinge worked together: ‘We ruthlessly dissected every detail in order to reduce costs without losing the fundamental design ethos. It was an intense, difficult process, but was ultimately successful because the ambition of both parties was to create the finest building possible in the prevailing circumstances. At the end of it we both said ‘never again”, but eight months later we are happily - but explosively - engaged in two further exciting projects.’

 

COST REDUCTION

 

Construction was completed at the relatively low rate of approximately £500/m2. The following examples show the creative interventions of the architect/contractor team to achieve economies.

 

The original drawings showed a 342 x 225mm concrete lintels spanning 3.4m over the roller-shutter workshop door. The cost worked out as £500, plus a day’s crane hire to lift them. The team switched to using three standard lintels laid alongside each other (cost about £100) which could be raised with block and tackle by a labourer (£50 for half a day).

 

The workshop wall on the south elevation has two identical openings, one for a roller-shutter door (cheap, mass-produced), the other designed for fixed glazing (purpose-made, expensive). The latter is now infilled with a fixed glazed roller-shutter door with its operating mechanism removed.

 

The curved metal roof was given a more delicate leading edge by modifying an existing standard detail.

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