Mismatched triangles, curves and squares make Sheppard Robson’s stranded Interserve building difficult to warm to – unless you’re in the atrium
It is a strange time for Interserve to open its new regional hub. When the building was commissioned the outsourcing giant’s share price was about 12 times what it is now. Pickings have been slim ever since. One might tentatively suggest that Interserve’s survival is not presently in jeopardy, but given that its competitor Carillion fell by the wayside earlier this year, no-one is being complacent. The construction and management firm’s half-year results confirmed the loss of 470 jobs. According to a Financial Times article from March, 1,000 people were expected to go this year.
Step forward Sheppard Robson. Charged with decanting 1600 staff from five ageing offices around Birmingham into one building, it has made an admirable stab at smoothing the transition to a conspicuously modern office. Unfortunately, the old-timers in the smoking area, faced with longer commutes to work, are none too impressed: ‘It’s got no feel to it whatsoever.’
Ingenuity House is not helped by its desolate location near Birmingham Airport. David Ardill, the partner in charge of the project, is the first to admit the hostility of the site.
‘If it looks a bit like a spaceship has landed, that is no bad thing. It’s a very harsh environment,’ he says.
You can say that again. Interserve bought the land on the promise of HS2. But the trains are yet to come so the offices are left to flounder in a desert of roundabouts, trading estates and budget hotels. Although the airport runways are the main views from one side of the triangular building, and the railway line into New Street another, this is the land of the car. Pedestrians are few and far between.
The offices are therefore wisely lifted up from their surroundings to loom like an inverted ziggurat. Originally aiming for a BREEAM Outstanding Rating (Ingenuity House is Excellent), the 1.5m overhangs stepped between each floor not only shade the offices from glare, they also add up to give the impression of a fortress. A grassy moat surrounding the building offers glimpses down into the capacious car park below and one of Interserve’s own motorway contractors has belted the whole thing in precast barriers. Ingenuity House hunkers down to jealously guard an internal environment all of its own, and given the dreariness of its surroundings, you can’t really blame it.
Such solipsism pays dividends inside. From the cool ripples of an anodised steel exterior, the building opens up with the warm oak of its impressive atrium. Here the floors overhang internally by 4.5m, creating terraced farms of computer clicking and informal chats. From the top floor you can look down on the watering hole of the cafeteria, illuminated from above by a cathedral-sized hexagonal skylight. With the geometry of this triangular plan, and at such scale, it is hard to get Niemeyer’s Brazilian crown or Gibberd’s Liverpudlian teepee out of your head.
The atrium is the great strength of the project. Here, Sheppard Robson has successfully created animation – the natural poses of employees descending such a generous stair almost appear stagey – and a lot of its success can be attributed to a keen emphasis on circulation. Because the building is only four storeys tall, as the staff leave for the day in a quite Biblical flow, the atrium’s zig-zag of stairs buzzes with life as they catch up with each other on the day’s proceedings.
Such an emphasis on natural congregation applies also to the working spaces. Maggie Kendall, Interserve’s programme and change director, wanted to create an office without personal offices.
‘It’s hard to see where the big boys sit,’ she says proudly of the democratic experiment. And it is true. The grand atrium is fringed by bookable meeting rooms, which are pierced regularly by corridors that lead to the expanses of flexible desk space beyond. Even though Ingenuity House is open plan, this strategy effectively insulates each area from the noise of its neighbours.
It seems a bit random to find yourself walking into an unapologetically orthogonal I-beam
The problem with a triangular plan, albeit with chamfered points, is that it inevitably throws up uninviting corners. Clustered around the cores are strangely-shaped nooks and crannies – hopefully transformed into kitchens and printing rooms. It seems a bit of a waste for such natural points of interaction to be so hastily overlooked.
And the awkwardness does not stop there. The placement of columns is at times jarring. An angled example skewers the life out of the building’s largest meeting room.
Desks have been custom-built to accommodate their interruptions. What is more, the columns’ rectilinearity is at odds with the rest of the project. Ingenuity House has been written in the language of the curve, partially to divorce the project from its surroundings: ‘We did not want to give it a clear directionality,’ says Ardill. So it is seemingly a bit random to find yourself walking into an unapologetically orthogonal I-beam. They have been covered in a lick of plasterboard to try and appear as neutral as possible. But when Interserve’s own contractors have got carried away, they’ve taken it upon themselves to plasterboard a whole wall between two such columns – at which point they are pretty hard to ignore.
Ultimately, confusion dogs this project. Sheppard Robson managed to shave £7 million off the budget in two weeks, retaining enough features to stop it looking like a B&Q warehouse. And it did well to keep the curved steel facade from the axe, but the curved strip-lighting screams such middle-management buzzwords as ‘streamline,’ ‘monetise’ or indeed ‘ingenuity’. At times expensive detailing seems to signify cost-cutting.
The story of the land itself perhaps reflects the turmoil behind the scenes at Interserve. The company bought the plot from Standard Life, then had to sell the commissioned project back to the insurance company halfway through and now rents the premises off it. Confused? Imagine how the architects felt. They’ve brought clarity to the business with the bold informality of the atrium, but the sense of corporate doublethink has never quite been shaken off.
Total cost £47.34m (CAT A and CAT B)
GIFA cost per m2 £3,529 (CAT A and CAT B)
Predicted operational energy use in C02/m2 101.35 kg