Tom Holbrook appears very patient of the attempts by property managers to install suspended ceiling panels in the multi-use creative workspace in Cambridgeshire that his practice, 5th Studio, has completed.
“You can see they are just not sure what to do with it,” he explains. The temptation to turn it into an office space like any of the others they manage is evident; some generic carpet tiles lie stacked in one corner, a small but significant threat to the rawness of the building. Commissioned to deliver an uncompromising design, it now seems to be his job to remind people that ‘they asked for something different’.
Positioned in a piece of parkland, adjacent to a sprawling comprehensive school on one side, and some residential housing on the other, the publicly funded Creative Exchange does offer something different to the otherwise manufacture-led, low-rise town of St Neots.
“It’s significant that it is on the east side of town,” Holbrook explains. “This is the quarter everyone travels through to reach the station, to commute to London (journey time approx 45 minutes), the building is actually about retaining people in this area. It’s good that the school looks on to it as well.”
The Exchange is a beneficiary of growth area funding – as part of the London, Stansted, Cambridge, Peterborough corridor – and is to accommodate new and creative companies.
“Working with the local district council was one of the great pleasures of the project’ Holbrook explains. “There were some of those ‘what have we commissioned?’ moments but then they were easily recovered.
“Creating a government building is obviously tough because of having a tight budget, but we squeezed for important extras, like a lift up to the rooftop.”
The building is fast becoming a marker for regeneration of St Neots, as plans go underway to “revamp some of its underused 19th century industrial buildings,” Holbrook explains.
The project, which was built vertically, rather than horizontally “to take up less park space”, has two top floors of offices, to accommodate up to 14 companies, in different shaped and sized private workspaces, all facing onto a central communal area. The fire corridor is set outside the inner layout, driving out wasted space. Each workspace can be configured intuitively, Holbrook explains, demonstrating on one that has corner walls that double as sliding doors, allowing you to open the space right out, and close it off again, as desired.
First into the build is a web designer, who, besides the subsidised rent, was attracted by the park views created through floor to ceiling glass windows, and the open balcony.
“The glass windows create the effect of light slanting in from every direction,” Holbrook explains, “and reduces the need for artificial light”.
As the top two floors cantilever out beyond the frame of the building, the proximity to the park, as people work, is magnified. And in case that isn’t close to nature enough, a roof garden with a healthy lawn, high windbreaker walls, and wi-fi, make for a fully functioning outdoor area for taking your laptop and working, while admiring the view.
A row of mature lime trees has been planted, leading away from the building to the entrance of the park, at the end of which you can see the underground duct emerge from the ground, which delivers ‘fresh air for free’ to the building through natural convection and displacement, with the help of a low powered fan; the practice’s liking for urbanism and landscape is visually apparent.
The two bottom levels consist of a full floor meeting room, and a reception and shared conference space, to “meet your bank manager in privately,” Holbrook explains.
Built with an exposed concrete frame the upper levels of the building are timber clad with larch, and intersected with plenty of glass, giving an external aesthetic that spans the divide between industrial and organic. Inside, the same goes, with concrete floors, wooden walls, and exposed insulation, made from a mixture of woodcutting waste and cement.
Some people pose the question “is it finished yet” when they look inside at the bare floor to ceiling-height open spaces, created by exposed structural surfaces. For Holbrook it is only the tenants and their “bench, desk, or sewing machine, anglepoise and creative sprawl” that will comprise the final touches.
The founders of 5th Studio, Cambridge graduates themselves, who started the company from their bedrooms and a “small teaching room in the University,” hold an evident sympathy to such a build, having done work for some of the Cambridge colleges – making space for creative thinking has come to shape their
After running five years from Cambridge, in 2008 the practice branched out to a London-based office, in a warehouse-type building in Camden, upping the workforce from 10 to 20, because “you can’t work outside of London if you want to pick up national work,” Holbrook reckons.
‘It’s the same in France, everything is focused on Paris. Although, in other places in Europe, Italy and Spain for example, you have more regional capitals, such as Milan and Rome, or Barcelona and Madrid.
“With the Exchange, we hope in some way to reflect the offering Cambridge has made to the economy,” Holbrook explains. Taking their agency to the capital, it looks like 5th Studio will be spreading this approach further a field.