Elevated aspirations

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A rare speculative office scheme in Sunderland faced a host of challenges, from the demise of Carillion, to a tough local commercial market. As such, Feilden Clegg Bradley (FCBStudios) produced a distinctively attractive, lean building, reports James Parker

The prominent, elevated riverside site of Sunderland’s first new speculative office building for 40 years, was formerly the location of the Vaux Brewery, sitting between the city centre and the River Wear. This historic industrial waterway was where the carcasses of ships were built before being floated to the Tyne and fitted out in Newcastle.

There was therefore a lot of industrial heritage in the Wear Gorge, around 200 ft below the site, including coal workings. This prime site has had a ”chequered” history of development, says partner at FCBStudios, Simon Doody. “Developers have come, promised the world, then disappeared when they realised that the local rental markets are really tough.”

However with the city at the core of the Government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda, investment is happening in earnest. This scheme predates that new focus of Johnson’s administration, the architects having prepared a bid with Igloo Developments in 2009. They’re a firm whose values “in terms of their social and environmental agenda, align with ours,” says Doody, adding that their own green assessment system, “was a far-ranging check on the environmental and social decisions we had to make.”

Igloo assembled a team of around six local and national architectural practices and urban designers UrbEd and bid as part of a consortium. Following winning the bid the team went forward as a joint venture called Siglion, (Sunderland City Council, Igloo, and Carillion).

When the contractor went into liquidation in 2018, FCBStudios had to continue work without any design fees for a number of months, however, says Doody, this financial hit “paled into insignificance” compared with the costs the client had to bear to restart the project. They proceeded to appoint another contractor, Tolent, to finish the job, and it ended up being one of the mothballed Carillion schemes that was completed the quickest, and with the least financial pain. There was necessary value engineering however, in order to deal with the costs incurred through the firm’s demise.

Doody says: “Sunderland CC managed it remarkably well, through Gleeds,” and the contractor had to “pick up the pieces.” Elements of the building like curtain walling and windows had been constructed offsite, and were sat in various yards waiting to be transported to site, not having been paid for. The project team therefore had a job to do in working out the full supply chain and reacquiring the elements needed.

UrbEd did the masterplan for the Design & Build project, in collaboration with the architects, who undertook plot testing to ensure they were sized properly in relation to the brief. Since practical completion in mid 2019, the project has been subsumed into a wider urban masterplan being prepared by different architects – Sunderland Riverside. This includes housing and further development of the former brewery site, including a major council building by FaulknerBrowns. The Beam now finds itself the flagship project of this major regeneration.

It was designed to be a “non-conventional offer” to commercial clients, combining a healthy and appealing environment with strong sustainability credentials within an attractive building that related to the city. In terms of providing a “healthy” office, the focus would be on linking to external spaces, and natural ventilation plus a shallow plan, and good daylighting.

Interestingly, the building that they initially drew for the bid with Igloo was “completely different, on a different site, so we were effectively starting from scratch,” once the Siglion team gave them the final brief.

A building for Sunderland
The project team wanted the community to buy into the building, and “feel they owned it,” says Doody, responding to the client’s brief of a building that “belonged to Sunderland.” The previous modern building on the site that The Beam replaced wasn’t popular locally, and there was mistrust of new development. As a result, the team “really wanted this building to resonate with the site, and with the city.”

The town being rich with industrial heritage meant that this factor remains important for locals, and was something the architects were keen to honour. “We love the big, structural heritage, and the brewery’s history; it has quite an emotional attachment in the city,” says Doody. A key move in the overall masterplan was to create a green, central north-south axis – the ‘Keel Line’ – running the length of the longest ship built in Sunderland. It will include the names of all of the vessels built here in paving and be a metaphorical as well as physical link to the city.

Doody explains further that there are “two shifting geometries within the masterplan, a more orthogonal piece which links into the city grid, but to the other side of the Keel Line is an area that peels away. It effectively opens up a view towards the bridges, but also allows the masterplan to turn round and face the park.” The Beam sits at the centre of the plan, at 45 degrees to the keel line, its location in the plan leading to the creation of a four-sided form with an elongated ‘prow’ facing the river; its south elevation faces into a new public square. The upper level courtyard frames a view, albeit glazed against the elements, looking back to the Wearmouth bridge and the Stadium of Light.

A lean way to meet the brief
With the city’s commercial market being challenging, and empty space and low rents a common feature, the clients needed to create a unique offer to attract tenants. So a lot of work was done early on with Creative Workspace Management, who are part of the Igloo Group, around the variety and character needed in the office spaces.

With standard floor to floor heights called for by the clients combined with a requirement for generous floor to ceiling heights, the architects omitted ceilings but exposed services, meeting the aim of using the minimum amount of materials. This was driven by cost efficiencies as well as sustainability: “With the low rental market, we couldn’t put up a really expensive building,” says Doody, “so it was trying to find ways to deliver quality, space and character at low cost.”

The brief required a 5,500 m² net internal area, in an “exciting typology with unique spaces for users,” and “ultimate flexibility.” This meant that tenants ranging from two-person start ups through to large corporates could be catered for, in “simple, easy to adapt space; a warehouse workplace.” In the event, Ocado took the top two floors for its regional office, and a smaller company has taken a tenancy for half of the ground floor.

“We did a lot of space standard testing,” Doody says, regarding the Beam’s designed-in adaptability, “but also made sure it could be easily done, not having to move services for example.” Partitions can be easily set up, and there are no high-level services other than lighting and cable trays.

Space, ventilation & light
The design simplicity starts from the 6 m x 12 m steel frame and precast concrete construction, which enables cross-ventilation across 12 metres.

There’s an elevated, planted central courtyard between the two wings of office space, accessed from the first floor, which is sheltered by a glazed screen. This is the building’s “green lung,” which is the core of the natural ventilation strategy. The tenants are able to benefit from full natural ventilation, however some have adopted different approaches, using comfort cooling as per their own ventilation standards.

There are low and high level windows, so single side ventilation for offices that don’t link to the courtyard is possible if partitions are required near a facade, alternatively open-plan offices can have cross-ventilation. In terms of sustainability, the EPC A-rated design was predicated on simple proven approaches like openable windows, radiators, LED lighting, external shading, insulation and air-tightness, plus the thermal mass obtained from concrete planks.

The more land-locked rooms towards the centre of the plan are darker, and better suited for the more intimate meeting functions that occupy them. Around the perimeter are either cellular or open plan (single or cross-ventilated) rooms.

Doody says: “the plan works to really good principles we were using in the 1990s, that have been forgotten about. Making sure the building is really well shaded, windows are in the right place. The industry has developed a fashion for putting floor to ceiling windows in; the bottom part effectively lights the space below your waist level.”

We are just trying to do a really simple, pared-back version of what architects like Arup had mastered, an office where services, structure and facades are all co-ordinated and work in tandem.”

The designers created bands of horizontal windows for the office spaces with panoramic views to the city and its iconic steel Victorian landmarks. There is a further high level band of glazing (also with opening vents) to bring daylighting deep into spaces. The building has 40 per cent glazing, “which is where we want to be in terms of heat loss and heat gains,” with horizontal bands of brise soleil cladding over the thermally broken curtain walls. By contrast the windows into the less sunlit landscaped courtyard are floor to ceiling, helping connect the offices to this space.

Light industrial
The exterior is highly functional but at the same time refers directly to the robust steel heritage of the area. A striking heavy, dark painted diagrid of girders forms the front facade, forming a double-height colonnade to the entrance, and bracing “what is otherwise an unbraced steel structure,” says Doody. The shear forces of the four, concrete-floored storeys are taken at the back of the building by the core, as well as the girder bracing. While echoing the Wearmouth Bridge visually, the latter also enables the “very lean” structure to work.

The two-storey entrance includes a set back lettable mezzanine area, either side of the entrance, allowing potential food and beverage tenants at a later date. The straightforward layout comprises four floors of offices above, a stair and lift core, and a flat, sedum and PV-covered roof. The triangles of the prow do not create awkward spaces, but instead “become nice corner offices with good views,” comments Simon Doody.

“We embraced some of the structural aspects of a steel frame.” says Doody, such as where there’s a splice with “big bolts” in it; “we kind of ran with it,” he adds, alluding to how the architects carefully detailed the frame to celebrate its structure.

The cantilevering powder-coated aluminium brise soleil ‘pleats’ to the facades are designed with a lace-like perforated trim, to avoid the feeling of a “heavy shutter” for the office workers inside, in a pattern again referring to that of girders. This attractive, somewhat ‘Moorish’-looking mosaic of triangles reappears on the metal soffit of the entrance canopy.

Smaller horizontal spandrel sections sit beneath these (apart from at the lowest level), help cover the columns and “allow opening vents that don’t sit in front of the columns,” says Doody, which allows flexibility of cross-ventilation. The architects developed a ‘ship-lap’ detail echoing ships hulls, with the cladding panels slightly overlapping, adding historic resonance and texture.

Interiors have expanses of exposed concrete, this being particularly effective in the reception area, with a careful acoustic treatment to balance this with coordinated wall panels with Rockwool behind. The rooflight, lined with reflective material, provides an eye-catching ceiling.

The finishing architectural flourish to this important new building for the city is the dynamic courtyard, with planters running up gold-coloured inner facades with vertically oriented curtain walling contrasting with the exterior. There is a fantastic view of the bridge through the structural diagrid; as well as being attractive, the structure also avoids bracing to office windows, minimising visual disruption.

Conclusion
Cities across the world are thinking about what office buildings should be like after the pandemic, with questions being asked as to the validity of ‘standard’ offices in urban centres. However, the design strengths of the Beam means it “has probably hit the right note at the right time,” says its architect. In terms of how it provides a simple, low cost but also architecturally considered addition to its context, foregrounding sustainability and employee wellness, Simon Doody believes it represents a sign of things to come. As he concludes, “We might start shifting to more of these sorts of buildings.”

The building has been shortlisted for a British Council Offices regional award, and has been shortlisted for the BCO’s national award. It has to be in with a great chance, particularly in the light of how The Beam fits so neatly into the national agenda for elevating localities such as this one using good design.

Project Factfile

  • Architects: Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios
  • Client: Sunderland City Council
  • Structural & civil engineering: Cundall
  • Cost consultants: Gleeds
  • M&E and sustainability: Desco
  • Cost: £20m
  • Net floor area: 5,500 m²