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'There is an office model worth revisiting: the non-urban, owner-occupied HQ'

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[OFFICES] Essay 5: Glenn Howells, Glenn Howells Architects

In recent years, the non-urban office type has been largely overlooked, perhaps due to most offices being developed in cities.

This shift to urban locations has mostly been driven by good access to public transport by the speculative office market that generally only works in recognised office locations where a wide availability of labour can be found.

There has also been a reaction against the most common form of non-urban office type: the 1980s and 1990s business park model. These buildings were largely driven by low rental levels and convenient car parking, rather than creating environments that made the most of rural locations.

There is, however, another non-urban office model which is worth revisiting: the owner-occupied headquarters. These are projects that are based on growing businesses by developing local workforces that are not based in a major town or city and based on creating a successful workplace through maximising links with nature, rather than the city.

There is a strong tradition of these non-urban headquarters which began in the 1960s with the increased mobility offered by the car. These, unlike their urban counterparts, are groundscapers, making the most of connections with landscape and nature.

Examples of these include:


  • Mies van der Rohe’s headquarters for Bacardi on the outskirts of Mexico City (unbuilt)
  • Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s headquarters for The Republic newspaper in Columbus, Indiana
  • Eero Saarinen’s (later taken over by Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates) John Deere world headquarters in Moline, Illinois
  • Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates’ Richardson-Vicks headquarters in Wilton, Connecticu


In the 1980s, this model moved to the UK where rurally based companies built ambitious head office buildings like the US models that create a pavilion in the landscape, such as Hopkins Architects’ Solid State Logic in Oxfordshire.

The current generation of rural headquarters, such as our design for Severn Trent Water on the outskirts of Shrewsbury in Shelton, are looking to reflect changes in working patterns, expectations of staff and the environmental agenda. These were not of consideration for the first and second generation of rural offices.

Clever offices are no longer about taylored maximisation of efficiency through the organisation of activities as a production line, but are about retaining and getting the most from employees, which is much easier when they are happy.

So at Severn Trent Water, the building is as much about the social spaces, including the café with external garden and roof terrace, as it is about the individual working areas. Whilst car usage is still high compared to urban locations, the project tackled transport through supporting car sharing and cycling. The car park is also part of a landscape solution where it is part of the sustainable drainage plan and provides apple trees for food and to shade vehicles during summer.

The Severn Trent project involved the development of landscape and architecture simultaneously. Not only do interiors look out into attractive green landscape, but the external areas are used for allotments to grow food for consumption in the café.

Our building also tackles the issue of how you create a sustainable yet environmentally reliable office building on a rural site. The approach taken here has been to develop a mixed mode environmental control system that uses labyrinth cooling and exposed thermal mass, together with natural ventilation through a perforated facade which also offers free birdsong and the scent of blossom.

Glenn Howells is director of Glenn Howells Architects

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