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Walking on water

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GHM Rock Townsend's new offices for the Pentland Group were voted the 'Best of the Best' at the most recent British Council for Offices (BCO) Annual Awards.

Zumtobel Staff Lighting organised an AJ readers' visit to the building, a characterful project strongly tailored to a client at the forefront of product design

It is a surprise to find this oasis in the dense, Victorian suburbia of Finchley, the area's mature trees, walls and fences masking a small zone of workplaces. Pentland's site contains an existing office tower and the new five-storey building. Its entrance is modest but, once you pass through, the site opens out to reveal, centre-stage, a refurbished and extended lake, spanned by a gently arching bridge linking the existing office block to the left and the new building to the right, which now houses the main entrance.

You wouldn't have thought the anonymous original 1960s eight-storey block housed 100 designers of an organisation owning high-profile brands such as Red or Dead, Speedo and Kickers. It has been refurbished but is a relatively background element in what, overall, has some of the feel of a small campus, bound together by its landscaping. Today the whole development much more reflects the personality of the organisation - creative, serious about work, yet a fun organisation to work for or with.

The new building comprises an exuberant single-storey entrance lobby and restaurant around the lakeside, with a cooler five storeys of offices attached. The heavily glazed entrance lobby is a monopitch, triangular in plan, that shoots up and broadens away from the door as you enter the building. The entrance floor has some sense of a floating plane, with the lake to one side and to the other a strip of glass floor with stairs down beyond (the offices start a floor lower than the entrance on the sloping site). This floating is a playing with expectations that continues in different ways throughout the building. A few of the more offbeat ideas did get cut, like the climbing wall in the entrance and the swimming pool - though even that remains as an echo of a pool, filled with recycled glass, underlit, retaining some of the swimming pool details; an apt surrealism.

Generally the building is quite straightforwardly built, something of a setting for objects in space - either the architect treating features such as entrance lobby light fittings as objects rather than integrating them into the fabric, or literally objects, such as one-off pieces of furniture, a couple of chandeliers, a crocodile and several more; as we left, an F1 car was being rolled into the entrance.

Leading off from this entrance, the generously sized, high-quality restaurant, set on the lakeside with its outdoor terrace, is an exceptional facility. The visiting AJ readers were all impressed by the creation of this waterside idyll. Ed Hayden of Scott Brownrigg was particularly taken with the way the covered bridge acted visually as a wall, making the lake and buildings a single, particularly private, enclave.

In part, the restaurant is another place to sit and think, to hold meetings or bring laptops away from the offices; but the whole investment in the quality of the environment - including a gym, tennis courts and nursery - is also a move to encourage staff to want to work here rather than in the designers' more traditional location centred on London's Soho. Location here is a sustainability proposition picked up by the BCO judges; that if you want to keep living and working close together, you have to create compensations for the buzz of the city. There is also support for those who want to work at home from time to time.

After the dramas of the entrance and restaurant, the offices are altogether calmer, approximately 7,000m 2 on five floors of relatively straightforward space - two bays of a 7.5m grid, arranged either side of a narrow atrium, only 5.5m wide. Though the column lines are on the atrium edge, the atrium's apparent width is increased by the open circulation strips running along either side.

(This planning also helps to create Chinese walls between Pentland's sometimes-competing brands. ) Alex Georgiou of HOK International saw this atrium configuration as an example he can cite to clients about the viability of atria this narrow, yet still achieving good daylight distribution.

Currently, office spaces are only about half occupied, so it is difficult to assess how they will work. There is already a growing designers' clutter, as you would expect; design may centre on CAD but there are shoes and garment racks and other equivalents of the architects' work-in-progress models around.

In parts it feels as if it might be more at home in a converted loft, the current set- level 2 floor plan ting a bit clinical. Time will tell whether the organisation's style will take over the building here.

Elsewhere the Pentland stamp is more evident. The atrium ground floor is of resinbonded gravel, with a showroom alongside.

Circulation areas and offices are vinylfloored. Some meeting rooms are themed - tropical, skateboarding. One of the meeting tables is framed and topped in smoothed scaffold planks. From the mid-floor of the atrium a fully glazed end wall looks down on to the reception area. 'Useful, ' as Katie Greenyer, client and brand manager of Red or Dead, says, 'to check out guests, to see if they have sent the money man or the designer.' From here you see that the half-height 'door' on the side of the reception desk is a net curtain. Quirky corners abound.

When architects visit buildings there is always a forensic dimension: where are the fire escapes? And how is the fire protection done? And let's check out the toilets? There was the bigger picture, too.

Hayden liked the playful treatment of the smaller architectural elements, such as the stack-bonding of the large brick wall and alignment of windows. Stephen Newton of Anshen Dyer was impressed by the quality achieved under design and build. In part this is due to the close and continuing working relationship between Greenyer and project director Alistair Hay (even though GHM Rock Townsend was not novated to contractor Mowlem) and Greenyer's very hands-on involvement with the building process throughout. It is a rare major project where client and architect go off together to shop for second-hand chandeliers.

Among the general respect for what had been achieved, and a bit of envy of having a client like this, the most substantial query, raised by Newton, was whether a building in this location needs four-pipe air conditioning or whether more should have been made of natural ventilation? Generally, though, a very positive reaction. As Georgiou said: 'I'd like to work here.'

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