They may be unloved but, in these exceptional times, the out-of-town compounds could play a key role in establishing new workplace models
The past 16 months have seen extensive coverage of the future of the office and the high street. There has been debate over the impact on our daily lives of the much-vaunted exodus from our major towns and cities to the countryside and to the affluent green spaces of suburbia. There has not been a lot of discussion about the somewhat unloved, out-of-town, edge-of-city business park and how these exceptional times are likely to mould the future of this key contributor to the UK’s workplace model.
This is a question we at Apt have been considering over the past year. It has become pertinent to our studio since, earlier this year, our buildings 400 and 450 Longwater Avenue completed at Green Park, Reading, one of the country’s most established business parks. It has been a stop-start journey of seven years, during which time we have become very familiar with Green Park, which is within the M4 tech corridor and close to London and Heathrow.
With their column-free floor plates and floor-to-floor heights in excess of 4.4m (on our projects), as well as exceptional internal daylighting and uninterrupted views of the park’s maturing and beautifully landscaped surroundings, business park buildings are shaping current and future thinking on offices. They can achieve inner-city office quality with imaginative detailing and thinking to a strict budget and capital expenditure price point.
But despite providing some excellent work space, business parks need reimagining. The 2019 British Council of Offices guide, The Future of Business Parks, described them rather drily as ‘single-use compounds that are generally disconnected from surrounding land uses, and because the locations are remote, are heavily reliant on roads, highway infrastructure and single-occupancy vehicle commuting patterns, but provide relatively easy driving and parking access’.
That says it all – suggesting a relic of the past and an unfashionable model for the workplace, with a standardised formula of office buildings with large floorplates, expansive car parks and in some cases, remote locations and uninspiring surroundings. Business parks now also have the additional challenge of having to compete with people choosing to work from home and hybrid flexible working arrangements, bringing a certain irony to how fast this model is changing. The BCO correctly cited a ‘trend for companies to relocate to more vibrant urban centres’.
How can business parks and their masterplans evolve to provide a better experience? And what assets do they already have to make themselves more attractive?
The very best of the country’s business parks have a major asset whose value has increased over the pandemic: their setting, often within a well-designed biodiverse environment. As we readdress our relationship with green space, this is appealing. With many business parks enjoying close proximity to the openness of the green belt, the potential to capitalise on their surroundings is a significant post-Covid asset, where outdoor space and fresh air has become much valued.
Many business parks, in both terms of buildings and infrastructure, have built-in flexibility, but they need to start demonstrating this effectively. Across the UK there are many existing business parks capable of adaptation through creative design, including to residential uses, enabling living and working to happily co-exist, without most of the constraints found within inner-city environments.
Key considerations for the future are likely to include providing new, non-car-based connectivity – trains, trams, buses and bikes – as well as densification so as to bring a critical mass of crossover functions: residential, schools, shops and logistics.
At Green Park, this is all under way as it reimagines its future. New transport links back into Reading are progressing, as well as new homes adjacent to the park that cover a variety of residential models. All these will assist the business park in attracting new tenants and new life to its green spaces.
This idea of a community with offices, but more than simply offices, at its heart is something that we were considering at Apt as long ago as 2013 when our Longwater Avenue project was in its infancy.
The early ideas for this project had the spaces in front of the office buildings themselves as community hubs. One of our first drawings included flexible green spaces for weekend markets, sport and leisure, reimagining the village green and cricket pitch, against the backdrop of our buildings. As the project progressed, this idea fell away, but it has since re-emerged in recent sketches and imaginings related to future phases of the park, with hotels, leisure pavilions, creches and community halls, food offerings and small retail all co-existing alongside variations on the office workplace model, but importantly all feeding off each other to improve the environment, sense of place and desirability to be here in this ever-competitive market.
And business park buildings can make a significant positive contribution to tackling the climate crisis. Much of the 1980s and 1990s business park building stock is already becoming obsolete. By pursuing aggressive retrofit programmes using materials with low embodied carbon, business parks can set a new standard for holistically sustainable design that goes well beyond BREEAM and WELL certification and is more befitting of their landscape environments.
By providing a greater mix of uses and focusing on a meaningful, sustainable agenda that promotes health and wellbeing for their occupants, there is an opportunity to accelerate the idea of becoming more localised, drawing parallels with the idea of the ’15-minute city’, where everything one needs is within a quarter of an hour, either by foot or bicycle. If business parks can become more self-sustaining then the current sight of building frontages being dominated by cars becomes redundant and the current challenges they face around location become less restrictive.
Without evolution, business parks will struggle, but they have great potential to create a much more positive identity, attracting a more diverse range of people over the next 10 years and evolving into small village communities in their own right, which can surely lead to lasting success.
James Ewen is project leader at Apt.