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"It had to stay simple": FaulknerBrowns' S-shaped council building "It had to stay simple": FaulknerBrowns' S-shaped council building Timber-clad meeting pods act as landmarks across multiple floors Timber-clad meeting pods act as landmarks across multiple floors Fluorescent tubes, by XAL, dramatically suspended in the entrance Fluorescent tubes, by XAL, dramatically suspended in the entrance Desks are shared within sectors; Orangebox supplied the seating Desks are shared within sectors; Orangebox supplied the seating The ground-floor public library; skylights run the length of the building The ground-floor public library; skylights run the length of the building
18 Dec 2013

FaulknerBrowns puts Rochdale on the map

Words by  Photo by Hufton + Crow/ David Cadzow
  • Architect: FaulknerBrowns Architects
  • Client: Rochdale Metropolitan Borough Council
  • Location: Rochdale, UK
  • Cost: £42.5m
  • Duration: September 2011 - August 2013
  • Floor Space: 14,000sq m

It’s a dismal, soggy day when onoffice makes the trip to Rochdale’s new council headquarters, but inside – if it weren’t for the rain lashing against the windows – you’d never know. Past an impressive but unpretentious five-storey glazed entrance, topped by a collection of hanging oversized fluorescent tubes that seem to slash through the air, stands a vast, light-filled atrium that cuts through the centre of FaulknerBrowns’ contemporary S-shaped building. A spine of skylights can be seen at every level, from the ground-floor public library and customer services areas to the overlooking offices, and the open-plan, white- and glass-dominated interior makes for a gloriously bright and airy environment, even on the greyest of days.

Number One Riverside brings together 1,700 people from 33 different offices, a previous set-up that was not only disjointed for the workforce but confusing and unapproachable for the public. Hence this architecture, explains FaulknerBrowns’ partner Steve McIntyre, needed to promote interaction and engagement. “The design focuses on the relationship between the public and the council,” he says, “so the employees are always reminded of the people they’re working for, and the public can see the people working on their behalf. It’s very direct and transparent. Still, being a civic building, it had to stay simple, not contrived or corporate.”

With this in mind, the facade also had to stay true to its civic values by responding to the character of Rochdale, says McIntyre, referring to the town’s traditional architecture – the Edwin Lutyens-designed war memorial and Grade II-listed post office by CP Wilkinson – rather than its uglier modern neighbours, which include one of the council’s previous offices, the aptly named Black Box. The historic buildings are made from Portland stone, and though this looks very similar, it isn’t – but that’s a taboo subject. “They [the council] call it stone, but it is beautiful pre-cast concrete, with polished edges on the reveals, so it weathers well.  To this day, we’re not allowed to say it’s pre-cast concrete, because of its preconceptions.” The windows decrease in size towards the top, mimicking the language of the town centre’s post office building, while the side elevations have different motivations; glass fins on the south-west side control solar gain, and protruding glass boxes on the north-east side aim to animate the otherwise monotonous lengthy facade.

“Now when people come in, they talk about civic pride. They say ‘I bet you didn’t think this was Rochdale"

Any publicly funded building, especially one of such scale and budget, is bound to be scrutinised. A local paper proclaimed recently that, if sold, the building would only fetch half the £42.5m shelled out for its construction, but this is exactly the short-term thinking the council and architects were trying to avoid. Uniting the staff, McIntyre says, will save £28m in maintenance costs compared with the stock of previous buildings, and a further £1m a year on energy consumption thanks to the clever inner workings of the BREEAM Excellent-rated structure.

Then there’s the immeasurable paybacks of being under one roof, such as the increased productivity that comes from employees not having to travel to meetings, and the sharing of ideas that should naturally occur in a more collaborative environment.

To bolster this forward-thinking approach, Rochdale has also adopted a new agile working culture. There are 7.5 desks for every 10 employees, a clear desk policy (with a locker for each person) and plenty of touchdown work areas separate to the main workstations. Meeting areas range from informal cafe tables to tree-trunk-like cylindrical pods, some of which stretch through two floors, acting as a landmark on multiple levels of the building. “When it was all concrete and white, it was quite hard,” describes McIntyre of the interior, “but when the pre-fab pods were dropped into place it added a warm quality.”

McIntyre is something of a workspace expert, as former chair of the BCO Northern Chapter, and as such, the plan reads as a how-to guide for designing modern, efficient workspace. Rather than a never-ending sea of benches stretched across large floor spans, the desk areas are split across the building’s two parallel S-shaped sides, joined intermittently by bridges. The desks are laid out in sections, so departments (including teams from the NHS, the police and HMRC) can populate their own district. A fully integrated M&E system built into the concrete structure means the office space is unspoilt by the usual heating and cooling mechanisms, with just acoustic dampeners and very simple lighting added to a clean, minimal interior.

On each side, supporting columns have been inset 1.5 metres into the floorplate, eliminating the need for an obstructive central column in the middle of the work areas and creating a circulation route on all sides of the districts. This means the inevitable clutter doesn’t build up at the ends of benches, and instead these areas can be used for small meetings or as breakout space.

“The biggest hurdle a lot of organisations have is changing people’s perceptions that it’s still working if you’re away from your desks,” says McIntyre. “If you integrate breakout areas into the work areas, the edges are blurred, so there’s more chance of that happening.” He also believes a new build, as opposed to a revamp, also encourages a more progressive outlook on working practice. “A new building is a huge catalyst for cultural change. It enables things to happen that you couldn’t necessarily do in an existing one; it’s a step change.”

Being the keystone project in a huge masterplan development, Number One Riverside now stands as a shiny beacon amid a large building site. To the left of the entrance, past the gushing river Roch, is the brand-new metro link station, and to the right, the bus station, making this an ideal spot for a civic hub. Opposite, the Black Box and a dilapidated car park sit stubbornly between the building and the town centre, but they are due to be flattened as part of a £100m redevelopment, in which the council’s bold investment was the first domino. It has put Rochdale on the map and, for the most part, restored local optimism. “Now when people come in, they talk about civic pride,” says McIntyre. “They say ‘I bet you didn’t think this was Rochdale.’”

newsletter 2015