“I can remember when you couldn’t buy a British Rail sandwich without wondering if this was your last act before a long period on a life-support machine,” wrote Bill Bryson in Notes from a Small Island. Anyone travelling on the old nationalised rail service will probably chuckle at this reminiscence. This sometimes stale, other times soggy foodstuff captured post-industrial Britain’s failings in between two (always) triangular slices of bread. When the Conservative government broke up BR in the 1990s, few protested. The belief was that private enterprise would haul the transport system into the 21st century and free long-suffering taxpayers from their financial yoke.
Today, 24 train operators serve UK passengers, running on tracks owned by Network Rail – a private company, but with its debts underwritten by the government. Network Rail currently employs 35,000 people spread all over the country, and for the most part this diffusion makes perfect sense, since it needs to plug in to the regions it serves. Certain divisions, though, such as IT, finance and purchasing, deal mainly with one other. “We were in 15 offices which wasn’t very efficient. We needed to bring them all together to speed up process and change the culture of how we work,” explains Hannah Marsh, marketing manager at Network Rail. The catalyst for this quiet revolution was a new building in Milton Keynes, the Quadrant, designed by GMW Architects. Defined by its rigid town plan and an ever-so-staid reputation, the town might not be an obvious setting for a dynamic new office, but the location came with distinct advantages.
To kick things off, the Quadrant is a big, big building: 38,000sq m, according to the architects. Finding somewhere to accommodate such bulk was always likely to be tricky, but GMW found it on the site of a long-defunct hockey stadium a short walk from the train station. If you approach on foot, as onoffice did, the battleship-grey building looms long and low behind a brise soleil that reaches out towards the street. Constructed from white aluminium, it is GMW’s utilitarian interpretation of colonnades that feature on nearby buildings and provides the building’s strongest architectural moment.
Protocol dictates that new buildings in Milton Keynes are (rather daftly) required to conform to the town’s crosshatched format, which stifles the sort of organic growth seen in older settlements. However, the promise of an influx of 3,000 new spenders to the town presented a chance to bend the rules. Or rather, twist them, as this is exactly what the GMW did. The Quadrant comprises four separate H-shaped volumes united by a grand internal street. By rotating these volumes towards the centre of the site, the architects formed a landscaped plaza at the entrance intended to draw people in to the building while the town grid is partly retained by the brise soleil. For those with curious minds, a public art piece by artists David Patten and Rob Colbourne reveals titbits of info about the town.
Many adjectives spring to mind when describing the Quadrant, but graceful is not among them. Its grey metal cladding and robust detailing are redolent of an industrial complex rather than modern office. Building architect Chris Allwood freely admits that function was the prime concern and purpose is embedded firmly in the aesthetic. For example, the dimension of the solar shading is uniform rather than tailored to each facade so it becomes as much ornament as sun visor. At building’s rear, two multi-storey car parks are wrapped in Kalzip ribbons – a low-tech way of sprucing up an otherwise humdrum utility. The frugality continues inside, where, instead of over-engineering the M&E, the architects simply hid it behind a Barrisol box. Elsewhere, coloured film applied to office windows breaks the monochrome palette. Perhaps stung by recent criticism, Network Rail is at pains to appear thrifty. Similarly, GMW worked hard to present a more open face to the public by slicing oblong sections out from each volume, thereby upping the building’s visual porosity.
“The whole ethos was everything had to be justified financially,” says Allwood. “We used the same curtain walling system inside and outside. It was about making something interesting from very ordinary components. I think we pretty much nailed it.” Where money is concerned, however, we have to take GMW’s word for it as Network Rail disappointingly refused to reveal its budget, even going so far as to rip out a page from the press material detailing the offending numbers.
onoffice’s visit coincided with lunch hour, when staff everywhere spilled out from the ground-floor cafe to mingle with colleagues, giving the feel of a busy food court rather than a workplace. The angling of the building has resulted in a jagged internal layout that offers a more nuanced journey for its inhabitants: “It gives a much more interesting streetscape than straight lines, so the pace that you move through [the building] is influenced by the form of it,” says GMW’s Tim Hardingham, who dealt with workplace design and strategy. The bright reception, with soft seating either side of the doorway and a circular desk, is naturally lit, as is the majority of the building thanks to a series of rhomboid-shaped skylights. So as not to interrupt the steady flow of people coming and going there is a secondary reception space to the left of the main drag. On the opposite side is a seminar space, where today a speaker addresses a small audience in rows of seating.
Overhead are two bridges that connect each pair of office blocks. It all looks pretty ad hoc, but it reality its freewheeling nature has been meticulously planned. “Too many bridges would erode the street life. This area is very much the lifeblood of the building and it is designed to draw you into it,” says Hardingham. “We want people to work informally and still get their work done rather than do it in a really rigid manner.” Nevertheless, each block adopts the same format: inner atria connecting to the ‘street’, and an outer one that becomes a hub. These outer atria, complete with life-affirming tree, support a variety of programmes: support lounge for meeting rooms, library and restaurant while three floors of open-plan offices are stacked above. Network Rail can convert these blocks into separate offices with their own entrance and reception, and rent them out – as Hardingham explains, “legacy was a key part of the brief.”
The offices, heated and cooled by thermal mass of exposed concrete allied with natural ventilation, are for the most part free from cellular meeting rooms. In tune with modern workplace design thinking, copy devices and tea points are positioned centrally to increase staff interaction while splashes of wayfinding colour lighten the mood. The ratio of desks to people currently stands at seven to ten, but Hardingham says they will reduce it to six to ten. Instead, the focus is on a variety of working styles: pods, booths and informal meeting areas encourage both private and collaborative working. As Hardingham points out, a huge amount of consultation and research went into the design – at some points the architect was dealing with 20 stakeholders. “Six months in, and we’re taking some desks away because people are not working in the way they traditionally did. We have been able to get the mix of these things right. It is all very well having different components, but it is how you put them together and where you place them. Not just chuck them in because they are trendy bits of furniture.”
Herein is the Quadrant’s strength. By designing intelligently, GMW has not only encouraged staff to adapt and grow into their new home, but also managed to capture and distil a sense of community – surely the panacea for any workplace.