The origins of The Bridge, Scottish Water's new flagship corporate HQ, were not, on the face of it, hugely auspicious. Firstly, the project was procured in the midst of the economic downturn, via a contractor-led design competition (a process that's something of a bête noir among many architects, who often invest in high quality design with no guarantee of success or recompense). And then there was the site itself, a challenging, slightly isolated and exposed low-quality parcel of land in an edge-of-town business park. Partially moorland, it also contained spoil from previous developments, not to mention a peat line that rendered part of the ground sterile.
So far, so unpromising? However, when Reiach and Hall Architects' design, in partnership with BAM Construction, finally prevailed as the preferred tender, the project hit the ground running, resulting in the delivery of a sumptuously detailed yet low cost and very low energy workplace – all designed and constructed within a two year timeframe. And above all, in terms of its working environment, The Bridge offers an uplifting, socially stimulating and people-centric experience.
"At heart, what we were trying to do was make a place where people would want to go and do their job – notwithstanding the fact that you might not enjoy your job, at the very least you can be at a desk that you like sitting at," explains project architect Lyle Chrystie.
Perhaps surprisingly for a building with such a simple, no-nonsense raison d'être at its heart, the formal starting point was the gardens of great country houses. These, according to Chrystie, offered a "precedent of how to deliver places of lasting substance and delight." And as for the vagaries of the site? "Difficult sites are
actually the best ones, as they force you to be more creative," he says.
The project, which brings together around 600 Scottish Water staff from various office spaces into one new flagship facility, essentially involved the creation of a new surrounding landscape that highlights the quality and ambition of the building. Furthermore, the massing of the structure, with its enhanced scale facing directly onto the landscape, lends the whole arrangement a real robust civic presence.
"A great deal of our thinking was about making an appropriate statement," continues Chrystie. "If we are a nation then this building is the head office of our nation's water company. So it needs to be given a stature that is commensurate with its importance to the country. This is one of the reasons that we looked to the classical model in the formal layout of the car park and the way that the building addresses an axial approach. These are well-known design strategies that can lend a project an air of permanence and longevity."
The resulting building actually started life as a simple linear box shape, which was then folded to create a U-shaped plan. A final fold forms the main entrance and atrium, allowing the building to be organised around a dramatic central space that is now used for
entertaining, conferences, music events, openings, functions, staff gatherings and informal meetings.
"The atrium was not part of the original brief," continues Chrystie. "The brief didn't require us to provide a communal space of this nature, but it has become a wonderful civic amenity for Scottish Water, while at the same time satisfying our desire for an efficient square plan form. The first and second storeys are linked across the atrium by bridges that are widened to form breakout spaces overlooking both the atrium and entrance. It's very popular with staff, and offers a great social stimulus to the whole building.
"In design terms, taking each office floor plate and wrapping it around this space also means that immediately everyone understands they are part of a bigger organisation. It creates a commonality of experience and doesn't suggest a hierarchy, where the top of the building is better than the bottom. There's no one desk that is better than another desk. It's a very democratic idea."
The internal spatial arrangement is based around a system that Chrystie has developed over many years of designing offices. "When we design office buildings, we think really hard about the people that will sit at these desks. It's hard to learn 600 first names but you can learn around 50 first names, in which case one of the things that we do is arrange the floorplans into discrete working areas of around 50. This means that you can always get to know the first names of the colleagues that you're working beside. It's a rule of thumb that I've evolved through time. There's no science to that, it's about my memory!"
In addition to the nurturing spatial arrangement, low energy design principles of this EPC 'A' rated building further enhance the working environment. The deep facades adopt a grid of vertical brick pilasters and horizontal pre-cast courses (clad in a facing brick more commonly used by volume housebuilders, for reasons
of economy), each precisely tailored to the orientation and spatial planning of the internal layout. The pilasters and pre-casts also act as a brise soleil to the south, east and west elevations. Natural ventilation to all the open-plan offices further maximises comfort while minimising energy consumption.
The Bridge is currently being viewed as something of an exemplar of corporate workplace design, and is certainly a powerful reminder of what can be achieved when joined-up thinking between client, architect and builder is allowed to triumph. It's also hugely symbolic in terms of Scottish Water's aspirations as a "modern and socially responsible company".
Finally, The Bridge also demonstrates that thinking outside the box, quite literally for the un-briefed atrium, can yield game-changing results. "I think the architectural quality of the atrium space sets the building apart," concludes Chrystie. "It has a really mellow atmosphere and because it doesn't have a glass roof, the light is very nicely moderated. Atria can be quite sterile. However this space has been carefully designed to be inhabited, rather than just allow light and air into the building. As a result, people enjoy using it. The quality of that grand room is something to be pleased about."