Downward spiral gags aside, this Sheffield office space for digital creatives is creating a cultural shift in how shared workspaces should be approached
Google gave us the office slide, Red Bull introduced the chute, now Electric Works digital media centre in Sheffield has stolen their thunder with a thirty metre helter-skelter, upping the ante on fun in design.
Travelling three twists and turns from the third storey to the ground floor in seven seconds, this installation is about far more than visual effect. Stepping out of the sack post-slide staff are slightly disorientated and pumped with an adrenaline release they wouldn’t get from travelling by lift – a method of travel that is still an option should they need to travel with paraphernalia that is impossible to clutch in the recommended arms across the chest position.
There is something impressively aesthetic about the huge steel structure, it is highly reminiscent of Carsten Höller’s slide exhibit at Tate Modern 2007, and was installed by the same engineers. In the context of the Tate Turbine Hall Höller surmised the experience of sliding in a phrase by French writer Roger Caillois, as a “voluptuous panic upon an otherwise lucid mind.”
“It was a turn of fate that the building had a three floor atrium in the reception,” Toby Hyam, the managing director of Manchester-based Creative Space Management recounts. And there is a traditional twist to the story: “Industrial cities at the end of the 19th century had a touring fair culture with an architectural mix of entertainment providing exciting sensations through carousels and rides as a diversion from industrial or rural life.”
“It was a turn of fate that the building had a three floor atrium in the reception”
Having worked on the revamp of Huddersfield Media Centre and the set up of Round Foundry Media Centre in Leeds, Hyam speaks from experience when it comes to pulling shared creative business spaces together. He knows how important it is to give them the right dosage of identity, to make them stand out in a client’s mind without trampling on the toes of the brands that hope to establish themselves in the space.
“Electric Works is not an incubator centre,” he insists, “it is a step up from that, it caters for companies on the verge of going global.”
The build is designed to facilitate all the collaborative and crossover benefits that come from like-minded businesses sharing a space. It is the result of a collaboration between South Yorkshire’s RDA, Sheffield City Council and private sector investment.
Although the city council have decided to buy the building, Electric Works operates “a corporate approach to asset management, to secure the best return on investment,” says Hyam.
Dive, the interior architects on the project designed the club, or conference area to accommodate major names and clients, “without feeling apologetic that you are not based in Hoxton Square or Soho.”
It is fitted out with verdant green carpet, rather like astroturf, and Vitra furniture. Bouroullec Alcove Highback Sofas create cosy enclosures, and sound absorbing wall panels giving the space a contemporary character. “We wanted to create a club area, with social meeting space that felt natural and fresh,” explains Andy Nettleton, the English counterpart of half-Swedish, half-English duo, Dive.
For set subscription fees members can access meeting rooms, IT networks, showers, rent lockers, recharge their laptop, make use the 150-seater conference centre, hold a mini trade fair, and, on a more personal note, have their post bought to their desk.
Hyam describes the club area as stepping up from what Starbucks has done for the freelancing community.
Entering into 24-hour work culture, this area has round the clock access, members can let themselves and business partners or clients in for meetings in the evening, or any time of night and the building is only a five-minute cab ride away from Sheffield’s city centre.
The bespoke, cubic reception desk by Dive has an ‘easy to lock down’ setting, as does the slide, to overcome health, safety and theft risk, and the high spec surroundings makes raucous behaviour unlikely.
Upstairs unfurnished open-plan office spaces in variable sizes with suspended ceilings, power access points, brightly painted kitchen points and carpet tiles to meet the grade A office spec await business arrivals.
The centre also acts as a Vitra distribution point, a more than gentle push in the right direction to get the place fitted out in designer gear through and through. The George Nelson Marshmallow sofa and other designer classics positioned around the project make it an exemplar for contemporary style.
Dive used large planes of colour to create impact and break up the otherwise speculative open plan office floor, splitting the space into smaller, varied units and creating a corridor through them with an irregular, “more meandering route” to prevent the floor becoming “a repetitive thing”, Nettleton explains.
Sheaf Street, where the glass encased digital campus sits, opposite the main train station, adjacent to Sheffield Hallam University and down the road from the Cultural Industries Quarter, used to be pretty derelict. “It was an area renowned for boxing, and for being a bit of a dive before the centre came along,” Hymen says.
The whole thing may feel a touch prescriptive – businesses can see the space, and be set up and running there within days – but it seems to be a good medicine. Flexible, feel good space, above average in rent but with a good measure of added value to merit it. “Plus, no-one is tied in for more than a month and there is the potential to expand or contract a business in a matter of days,” Hyam points out, which is surely an asset in this climate. As is being iconoclastic. “Having the slide, a unique interactive and stimulating installation in the UK really counts.”
Hyam resists the idea that the fairground will become a trademark of the firm: “We want each project to relate on an individual basis to its location, and the people that use it. Of course, we’ll be on the lookout for new ideas and architects for enlivening the workplace.”