As a company innovating at the extremes of known science, The Technology Partnership’s flexible, open-ended brief was only to be expected. Sheppard Robson obliged with its Birchwood HQ
There’s something of Stanley Kubrick in the way The Technology Partnership’s ominous black-logo monolith rises from the perennial grasses of its deeply rural Cambridgeshire site. For a moment it’s like you’re in a time warp – beyond it, from the bucolic, a sudden vision of high-tech glass and concrete; The Dawn of Man’ scene in the film 2001, where the thrown bone turns into the space station.
The image fits this futuristic business. For 35 years, says TTP managing director Dr Sam Hyde, this has been a specific kind of technology consultancy. Post-doctorate scientists and engineers work as ‘opportunity realisers to bring technology-driven solutions to market’ – ones that, you can be sure, will affect your life at some point. Hyde himself is a laser physicist and TTP is one of a half dozen or so firms in the world able to research and develop at speed commercial innovations in life and bio sciences (it was looking at PCR diagnostics before Covid was even a word), renewable technologies like photovoltaics, hydrogen fuel cells or carbon capture, and deep tech: everything from broadband systems to satellite comms. With a turnover £60 million in 2022, TTP aspires to be a market disruptor and – despite its rural location – is as likely to be teaming up with MIT or Silicon Valley.
But even TTP can’t solve everything. For 20 years it worked out of an adjacent, developer-built, horseshoe-shaped block with labs at ground, offices above and two dead ends, and the firm soon realised that any tech innovations were despite rather than because of its environment. In a sharp, pressed blue shirt, Hyde describes the ‘flat’ structure of a ‘very clever but low ego’ organisation that brings together experts in various scientific fields to strike those flint-like sparks of genius. In order to realise the perfect place to fire neural networks, in a ‘creative, hierarchy-free space’, it turned to Sheppard Robson.
Practice partner David Ardill, getting a grip on the demanding brief, must have felt like he’d been set a differentiation problem to solve. Having started as 20 people, TTP had once been 1000 but was now 450. At any time there might be up to 200 tech projects running, all with changing team sizes and differing office and lab space requirements. Hyde describes a context where one project will meet a client’s brief and end; others that merit further research may double in size and bloom into another idea; some might just die off, others be so successful they create a spin-off that sets up elsewhere and siphons staff away. ‘We had to design a space where the only constant was change,’ says Ardill; a remark whose throwaway simplicity belies a Newtonian knowledge of and response to the brief. The design went through seven iterations before arriving at a 7260m², single-storey, staggered grid of concrete that can expand and contract like a lung.
It’s probably a coincidence that the HQ’s plan looks like a circuit board, but principles of connectivity, data inputs and outputs would not be irrelevant in the thinking that generated it. With its 15m by 15m module, Sheppard Robson had zeroed-in on a size that would allow optimum interchangeability of office to maker space, to dry and wet labs – a space that can morph according to project demand. Meanwhile, bioscience labs, requiring isolation, sit alongside heavy duty engineering space in the 2150m² Tech Barn to the north. Eating, exercise, changing, socialising and company-wide meetings take place in the 890m² glazed circular 'Exchange' block, a short walk through the grass and plants.
Ardill coined the term ‘The Hive’ for Birchwood’s tartan grid plan, describing how teams should be able to ‘slip seamlessly from one module to another as projects expand or contract’. But with each module surrounded by a wide circulation zone it was also about connecting modules with others in the building. Users choose routes through it, raising possibilities for observation and engagement in other projects. It even happens on the edges where the 2.1m zone separates the glazing line from modules, to create accessible and egalitarian desk space. Ardill notes that while this runs counter to any net to gross ratios – per person space allocation here is twice that of BCO guidance because the interactions are more important to TTP.
Facilitating those ‘slippages’ meant creating as open a plan as possible to avoid silos that might develop if each module was defined by corner columns. Instead there’s a twist on a simple post and beam design, with each module slab resting on integrated perimeter beams. These beams are supported by narrow blade walls at their mid-span, which also helps define the circulation zones between them. This elegantly opens the space in one key structural move. But each blade wall terminates east-west circulation zone views, forcing users to decide whether to go right or left, north or south. This creates what Ardill calls ‘purposeful confusion’ and partly shuts views down again. By leveraging binary choices that result in varying location or innovation outcomes, the plan has the built-in potential of a flow diagram; see what I mean about the circuit board?
While ostensibly this is a large, open shed, that complexity of spatial thinking insinuates itself upon you gradually in use. There are obvious moves like putting office areas to the south, separated from glass-walled wet and dry labs by open-plan ‘maker spaces’ into which scientists will osmotically pass during the day. Less obvious are removable ‘plug-in’ meeting pods which can be moved and set up elsewhere – lights, aircon and all – or the beautifully cast twin downstand beams defining circulation zones in a subtle way, or the high levels of service co-ordination with no visible conduit.
Much of the servicing is invisible – for example, the strategy of feeding plant for dry/wet lab areas directly from above via slab penetrations (that can be opened or closed as needed). Light and data servicing runs up to the ceiling from the 650mm floor void behind yellow service covers on the north/south blade walls (also hiding roof drainage). The same void feeds displacement air into the space, with circulation zones used to draw exhaust to the air handling plant on the north side, obviating any need for ducting. And while a special, large-format raised floor looks and feels solid, invisible until needed are the capped-off drainage points in the concrete slab beneath, which can convert office modules into a wet labs – all co-ordinated as part of the D&B contract.
This building is future-proofed; designed for 100 years, it can expand into the landscape to accommodate more modules, or, if necessary, shrink; each staggered block already contains its own rear plant and south entrance, the latter decentralising access and offering staff a daily choice of how to get to their desk. It’s not hard to imagine a situation where the whole could be partitioned north-south and let out. I’m no management consultant but any company that can pragmatically plan for its own decline might be in a better position to avert it.
Of course, there’s a price to be paid this future-proofed flexibility and there is a lot of (albeit GGBS) concrete on display across TTP HQ’s huge, single-storey footprint; from out of reach structure to hand-trowelled concrete sills. Hyde admits being philosophically drawn to the material’s elemental nature, but Ardill says the decision to go with it came down to ideas of openness and flexibility.
Chats with the engineer concluded that glulam timber would have struggled to generate necessary clear spans. And a steel space frame, great for dealing with its own self weight, wouldn’t have coped so well with roof plant demands or those long rooflights that reveal weather and time of day to be ascertained, even from the social area deep in the centre of the plan.
Just looking at it on paper, one could come to swift conclusions about how this space might feel but assumptions are the bane of scientific research. Simplistic? Monotonous? Profligate? Arguably all of these, but experienced in the flesh, the underlying complexity feels palpable; compounded by the low hum of servers, thought and industry in a volume that intriguingly refrains from ever fully revealing itself, even where you think it might. ‘The place has really hooked into the cultural cues of the company, creating the unexpected interactions that are critical,’ says a satisfied Hyde, adding ‘It’s been supernatural for us’. And that’s quite a word, coming from a scientist.
Turnkey cost £50m
Cost /m² £4854
Construction period 21 months
Architect Sheppard Robson
Interior designer ID:SR Sheppard Robson
Landscape architect Spacehub / CSA Environmental
Planning consultant Savills
Structural engineer AKTII
M&E consultant AECOM / CPWp
Project manager Bidwells
Principal designer ORSA
Main contractor SDC
Concrete Whelan and Grant
Facade MTW Architectural
Internal fitout Gridlocked
MEP Derry Building Services
Curtain Walling Schueco
Precast concrete Marble Mosaics
Glazed partitions Optima
Metal ceilings SAS