McDowell & Benedetti’s Springboard Business Centre is an incubator for young businesses – a flexible, sustainable building designed to encourage dialogue and a sense of communityWhen Prince Andrew opened the Springboard Business Centre in 2006, there was a collective intake of breath when he commented “I am not sure if I like modern architecture”. But on taking a tour around the building and chatting to the tenants, his reactions were nothing but positive. “He said he was overwhelmed by how enthusiastic everyone was about the building,” says architect Renato Benedetti, of London-based practice McDowell & Benedetti, “and how he had never met so many people so enthusiastic about where they work.”
The Springboard Business Centre was conceived to encourage the development of young, innovative companies in an underprivileged area in North Yorkshire. The building, in Stokesley, is a dramatic showpiece – curved walls have the quality of a futuristic spacecraft that has glided to a halt in the middle of the industrial park, complete with a cabin-like atrium encased under a hovering roof. Masterminded by Hambleton District Council, it’s a big step away from the dreary local authority buildings that pepper the country. The design is a powerful statement aiming to convey the council’s young business policy.
“The new business survival rate in the northern part of the county is quite poor,” explains Geoff Herbert, economic development manager at the council, “so we decided to create a managed workspace or incubator-type project to help turn this around. The building needed to have green credentials and the ‘wow’ factor to look iconic and draw attention to what we are trying to achieve.”
The policy is in place to encourage entrepreneurs that operate in high-tech, creative and knowledge-based industries that are less than three years old and have an annual turnover of less than £27 million (the government’s definition of a small to medium-sized enterprise). Office space is subsidised to allow the new companies to grow and develop, while the central communal area is at the heart of the council’s ethos to encourage dialogue and networking.
The design brief – open to practices through a RIBA-run international competition – was aspirational, says Benedetti. “It is unusual for a client like this to be a local authority but they were clear the building had to have a strong, striking image for promoting their policy on entrepreneurship and put Stokesley on the map.”
McDowell & Benedetti’s design resolution was to balance scale and natural light with flexibility in the office spaces. The most pivotal point was the need for a collectively shared place that would be conducive to tenants forging working relationships. To encourage community spirit, it made sense for this area to be at the heart of the building in the form of a light-filled spacious atrium.
It was very important to get the scale right in the two-storey building, says Benedetti. “You see a lot of atriums and they can be too big, too vacuous, too cold and too uncomfortable so people don’t want to hang around in them long. But we wanted to attract people with natural light and scale so it is a bit like a living room where you might sit down, have a cup of tea, read a report and get chatting to a neighbour.”
The curving atrium roof deflects glare so that diffused light falls through the skylights and is pulled down into the centre of the building. The curvilinear walls are shaped to maximise the light input throughout the day. Office pods wrap around the perimeter of the central community area with windows that connect to the outside – when office doors are open, daylight can flood in from both directions. Benedetti sees the combination of light management and community space with the flexibility of the office suites as a new typology of workspace for small businesses.
Sliding doors, like screens, fold back and disappear to create an open-plan office and engage the tenants with the throng of activity in the communal area. But the doors can just as easily be closed for privacy.
Each suite is around 32sq m with space for some six people, but the pods have adjoining doors that can open up to double or triple the workspace, in line with Springboard’s goals of nurturing growth in its tenants.
Benedetti describes the most innovative feature in the design as the aluminium louvred facade that wraps around the building. The solar screen mesh is transparent from the inside but provides a sculptural aesthetic to the exterior. The louvres adjust to filter light and provide passive ventilation. This allows the air to circulate naturally within the building without the need for fans and air-conditioning. There is also a security element to the feature. “Offices heat up during the day when people are in them and computers are turned on. The screen is spaced 500mm from the windows so they can be left open at night, meaning the offices can cool down without any additional security,” explains Benedetti.
The palette of colours for the fabric of the building has been kept simple and the materials are robust enough to withstand the regular turnaround of tenants. Hardwood veneer doors provide warmth inside the communal space while painted breeze block walls with plywood panels inside the offices are tough enough to resist wear and tear, and are easy to repaint. Outside, the exposed steel mesh and concrete give the building its distinctive shape without strong colours or textures dominating or diluting the visual impact. The double curvature trusses for the roof are made from sustainable wood with a plywood rendered skin stretched over the top to create a cloud effect. The trusses were sourced and prefabricated in Austria, which Benedetti says had to be done because they couldn’t find a UK company that was willing to “do something outside their normal way of working.” This kind of innovation has led to Springboard generating a large degree of local interest, says Hambleton Council’s Geoff Herbert. The centre’s 20 offices were all occupied ahead of schedule, with tenants ranging from a graduate graphic designer, a mini call centre and process control engineers.
Tenant Dai Williams, founder of learning consultancy Positive Charge International, says he feels proud to invite clients to meetings compared to the “Dickensian” office space he previously rented. He says he would like to spend more time explaining the energy-efficient design to clients and hopes a brief will be put together soon so he can do this. Another tenant, marketing manager Sue Francis at business consultancy Anabas, says that although there are some day-to-day teething problems such as the lack of non-chargeable space for small or private meetings, and potential acoustic problems in the central atrium if tenants aren’t respectful of one another, she sees the building as a fantastic environment for start-up companies, with the benefits outweighing any disadvantages. “Springboard offers us contemporary and comfortable space at an affordable rent. We like the communal space and the building has surpassed all our expectations in its air temperature and quality. The style is progressive and we like that because it immediately endorses our brand.”
Since the first tenants moved in, only one company has left due to the business not surviving. The first wave of assisted tenancy agreements expire in 2008, but Carol Campbell, manager of Springboard, assures that a future for these fledgling companies is already being considered. “We will help them find new high-tech space in the region because this is what the project is all about,” she says. “The council is already working on finding quality space that these companies can grow into because the last thing we want is for them to leave us and set up elsewhere in the country.”
So if traditionalist Prince Andrew can be persuaded, is it possible other staid-thinking councils might also see the benefits of this kind of building? Benedetti thinks the effects are spreading: “A lot of people talk about making flexible workspaces with lots of natural light but it is not easy to achieve. Since winning the competition, we have been invited to put a proposal forward for a similar idea in Northamptonshire. We have started to hear councils say they didn’t realise they lacked this kind of building and now they are understanding why they are so important.”