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Scuzzy Shoreditch's Tea Building: The triumph of AHMM's white collar funhouse

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Rory Olcayto visits the continually evolving Tea Building, AHMM’s white collar funhouse in Shoreditch, London

Canon Place, a huge, new glass and steel office in the City by Foggo Associates for American developer Hines, lies empty. Across the road, The Walbrook, another big, glazed, metallic wrap of floorplates, this time by by Foster + Partners, lies empty, too. KPF’s Heron Tower, a ‘traditional’ skyscraper office development - glass, steel and corporate - is about one third full, more than a year after completion. In contrast, AHMM’s Tea Building for Derwent, in scuzzy Shoreditch, is rammed.

The seven-storey retrofitted warehouse, actually three buildings, built between 1890 and 1931 for the Lipton family, has one major tenant - Mother, the cult advertising agency. A number of smaller outfits, ‘silicon start-ups’, and other more established ventures, form part of the mix. Mind Candy, makers of hit online game Moshi Monsters, has a two-storey unit there.

Lifestyle firms too, like Shoreditch House, a members club for style-conscious entrepreneurs and made over by Tom Dixon, is another important tenant. A long-standing pub, a pizza restaurant by Gebler Tooth and a very trendy hotel designed by Archer Architects fill out the footprint. This is genuine mixed use, unlike The Shard and its forced three-way split of offices, hotel and overpriced homes.

The Tea Building really is a city within a city, a buzzy, energetic community with its own rules, its own economy and an expressive architectural style that has more in common with Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak’s parents’ garage than recent developments in the City. The developers of Walbrook and Canon Place must be kicking themselves.

This contrast in fortunes has been a recurring theme in recent years at the British Council for Offices’ annual conferences. In 2009, e-commerce innovator Mike Harris, behind him a slide image of a Californian new media firm - hipsterish, bike hanging from ceiling, toys everywhere - urged delegates: ‘Your challenge is to get the Royal Bank of Scotland to build such an office’ (AJ 04.06.09).

Later, at the same conference, Almacanter’s Mike Hussey, then with Land Securities, explained: ‘The young people of today will populate their buildings in different ways, compared with conventional business. Young architects are more attuned to that. They can give us access to Generation X. If we can incorporate them into a building programme in our next cycle, we’ll all be better off.’

Last year, in Geneva (AJ 26.05.09), the mood was approaching frantic. There was a sense that office development had lost its way. Arup’s inventor-like guru, Chris Luebkeman, hired to motivate the hundreds of grey suits in the audience hoping to find a way to beat the rental slump, asked: ‘What will normal be for the kids who’ve grown up with digital technologies, so much so, in fact, that older tools like email, made irrelevant by Facebook, are dead to them? What kind of workplaces will they want to enter?’

For the time being, the answer looks like the 26,000m2 Tea Building. Derwent’s desire to build White Collar Factories (AJ 15.09.11), loose-fit new builds with flexible floorplates and minimal built-in services, has grown out of its experience here. The Tea Building has been refurbished incrementally, primarily by AHMM, the architect most closely associated with this distinctly non-BCO office type, over the past 10 years with other architects and designers tackling more specific fit-outs as tenants moved in. This is a long-term project, begun by the developer in 2001, and it looks set to continue changing, growing, adapting to new uses.

For example, when the Tea Building first opened its doors, the lobby was much smaller, because fewer firms were based there. Access was also via less prominent doors to the side of the current entrance. The only common element was the bright orange shipping container adapted to serve as a reception desk and office. But, as its popularity grew alongside Shoreditch’s reputation as a creative quarter, more and more companies moved in and the container was subsequently moved deeper into the plan to create a more generous lobby.

More recently, a new concrete entrance portal with double-glazed doors has been added. What is interesting here is that a redesigned lobby in a traditional, speculative, City-style office building done a few years after opening would feel like a mistake being corrected. At the Tea Building, however, it’s a sign of success.

Simon Allford, who has led the project for AHMM, says the architect’s key role has been ‘to make a series of spaces and encourage a particular atmosphere’. His team analysed the complex internal structure of what is actually three buildings, each with different storey heights and column grids. Smaller units were created where ceilings were lower and larger ones placed to take advantage of taller spaces. Broad internal streets, planned around the building’s original lifts and staircases, give access to the various self-contained studio spaces.

Throughout, that atmosphere is generated by exposed brick and concrete columns, polished floors, original timber lift doors, cobbles and metal-framed windows. There are about 50 different workspaces, none the same size or shape.

Detractors might describe this look and feel as straight out of Nathan Barley, the 2003 Chris Morris comedy that charted the rise of Shoreditch’s transformation and featured workplaces hewn out of warehouse buildings with stenciled signage and the occasional chandelier in a concrete basement.

In truth, the origins of this aesthetic hark back to Silicon Valley and the cyber-hippy start-ups that swapped boardrooms for bean bags. The British video games industry too, whose working patterns do not conform to nine-to-five and whose necessarily infantalised staff prefer to work in simulations of their toy-filled bedrooms, is another influence.

Yet there are also some brilliant architectural interventions that only good architects could design. Mother’s studio, for example, by Clive Wilkinson Architects and dominated by a huge staircase that bulldozes through the centre of the floorplate and also serves as a social space, leads to a ‘Californian skate ramp-inspired concrete monolith desk’ that loops round the entire second floor. These elements make this among the more innovative and fun workplaces in London.

When the Tea Building opened, rent was £12 per square foot. Today it’s more like £35 per square foot. This is partly dues to improvement of the fabric and also the Green Tea Programme, begun in 2010 to upgrade the environmental credentials, such as replacing the single-glazed, metal framed windows and providing ‘comfort conditioning’.

Greening the complex has a construction value of about £70 per square foot, whereas the original light-touch refurbishment was less than a third of that, at £22 per square foot. Furthermore, the unit size has gradually increased from a typical 2,000 square feet when the building first opened, to 8,000 square feet today.

Yet, as Allford explains, this hasn’t been a major design challenge. He says: ‘The large floorplate has made the reconfiguration relatively straightforward, as the partition between adjoining units could be easily removed to create the super-units.’

Probably the most appealing aspect of this development - which makes Canon Place and The Walbrook look like a waste of money - is that Derwent’s asset, purchased in 2000 from Hayes for about £25 million, is today worth three times that.

Timeline 1890–2012

A storage warehouse is built on the site to serve as a London distribution centre for the Lipton family business.

The Tea Building as we know it today, designed by New Zealand-born architect Hal Williams. Company founder, Gorbals-born Thomas Lipton dies with no heirs and leaves much of his fortune to the City of Glasgow

Building used for smoking bacon by cutting large voids in five storeys of the floorplates

Used as a storage warehouse for Hayes

AHMM entered into a competition looking at a new build solution to the site

Early 2001
AHMM approached to carry out feasability study for Derwent Valley. Derwent purchased ‘Centric House’ and appointed AHMM to develop refurbishment proposal

Centric House was split into two, with ORMS to carry out the East Works and AHMM the West. AHMM then asked to carry out a study for a ‘light touch’ refurbishment and ORMS a new build option

AHMM asked to execute the ‘light touch’ refurbishment for the entire site

Phase 1 (basement ground and first floors) completed. Advertising agency Mother enters 15-year lease for third of building. Biscuit Building project split off from TEA

Phase 2 (second to fifth floors) completed

Mother fit-out of the Biscuit Building completed

Entranced moved from the side door to the larger opening onto the ‘internal street’

Shoreditch House opened. This heavily influenced the next stage of refurbishment

New, high-spec glazed main entrance to the ‘internal street’ created

Green TEA proposal started, a look into upgrading the environmental credentials

Circulation upgrade, adding in ‘shop fronts’ to the corridors and new lighting

Further Redevelopment?

AJ Buildings Library

See full project data, photographs and drawings for the Tea Building by AHMM

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