Unwavering in his commitment to sustainable architecture, Rab Bennetts has been equally consistent when it comes to raising the bar for office design
“There is a snobbery about offices in architecture. People in colleges tend to look down their noses at commercial property. They would rather do a museum or a gallery. That is nice to do, but offices are highly constrained so if you do a good one it means you have done something exceptional.”
So says Rab Bennetts, co-director of Bennetts Associates, the practice he founded with his wife Denise in 1987. Bennetts has a soft spot for this much-maligned building type. The Scotsman cut his teeth in the commercial market in the 1970s when he was an idealistic graduate architect with sustainable leanings.
Nowadays, of course, architects will fall over themselves to establish their green credentials, but Bennetts Associates was ahead of the curve by a long chalk. To date, the practice has remained steadfast in its principles come rain or shine – which is just as well because it’s currently chucking it down. “I learned fairly early on that you compromise your integrity at your peril,” he explains. It has served Bennetts well as the country wallows in what appears to be an eternal recession.
onoffice visits during a period of gentle expansion that has prompted the practice to extend its own office. Tucked down an Islington side-street on an awkward site, Bennetts drew on its solid workplace pedigree to knit together two historic buildings – a former printworks and an 18th-century cattle barn, flanking a central courtyard – with a glazed link. Within the buildings are a variety on open plan and private spaces with mezzanine floors helping the visual connections.
Bennetts Associates is magnificently on form. It recently scored a BREEAM Outstanding rating for a sizable office project for Camden Council, and is constructing a mixed-use (homes and offices) block in Marble Arch. We decamp to a meeting room and Bennetts whisks through the practice’s most significant projects in a kind of greatest-hits montage.
As the images flash by, it is immediately apparent that not one of these buildings looks stereotypically “green”. This is rational, modern architecture made with concrete, steel and glass rather than timber and solar panels. Bennetts pokes fun at the earnestness of what he dubs “fruit and nut” buildings. “A lot of sustainable buildings are just not poetic. What you see a lot of is timber buildings with lots of shading, clunky details and grass on the roof. It is all fine, but at the end of the day, sustainability is equated with dull, worthy buildings,” he says.
“I learned early on that you compromise your integrity at your peril”
Bennetts’ portfolio is ever broadening; the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon (2010) was a lauded departure from type, but it is the long line of commercial offices that forms the practice’s backbone. He views these projects as “background buildings” but is justifiably proud of his team’s ability in this unglamorous sector: “I don’t think we have ever done a building we would want to hide.”
With its unswerving dedication to low-energy buildings it is no revelation to find that Bennetts Associates has not built in China or the Middle East, where the glass tower reigns supreme. Bennetts himself is dismissive of what he labels globalised architecture. “Climate makes a huge difference to how you design the building, but what do we do as an industry? We do the same stuff everywhere. It’s madness.” He illustrates his point by showing a slide of a building in the Yemeni desert made from local stone, but it is fair to say that Bennetts Associates has not built enough abroad to test the theory.
Bennetts’ journey began in 1976 when he joined multi-disciplinary firm Arup, headed up at the time by Peter Foggo.
Foggo was quick to recognise his potential and soon drafted in Bennetts for significant commercial projects, including a 16,000sq m extension to paper manufacturers Wiggins Teape’s headquarters in Basingstoke (pictured above and below). Called Gateway 2 and completed in 1982, the building was a quantum leap forward in terms of workplace design. For starters, it featured a naturally ventilated atrium and workspaces that basked in natural light at a time when energy-guzzling air-conditioned offices ruled the roost.
“I don’t think we have ever done a building we would want to hide”
“The strength of the engineering and architecture together was very potent and it helped integrate the architecture with the climate. We learned a lot from this building,” says Bennetts, and when he eventually broke away to form his own practice, his work on Gateway 2 proved instrumental in winning his first solo job.
The architect remains a huge admirer of his former mentor. “He [Foggo] was very much an architect for the industry. He did not see us architects as hiding behind some kind of professional title. He wanted to be involved with engineers and contractors. You always had the sense that you were part of a much bigger industry. Lots of architects stand back, and they miss out hugely.”
Bennetts carried this knowledge forward into his first major project – a new headquarters for what was then Powergen (now E.ON). Dubbed the most influential office of the 1990s, the project again raised the bar for what a commercial office could be.
“They didn’t want a corporate palace, they wanted to prove they were not profligate with their own product,” says Bennetts.
By analysing daylight, working habits and ventilation, he drew up a building with large windows, clear circulation routes and open-plan offices arranged around an elongated central atrium. Vaulted concrete ceilings dispensed with the need for forests of columns and retained thermal mass to naturally heat and cool the building. A testament to its quality (and a good measure of sustainability) is that E.ON is still based here 20 years later despite a doubling of its workforce. “Daylight, a view, opening windows and a nice shape – all these architectural virtues are consistent with good sustainable practice,” observes Bennetts. Now firmly up and running, Bennetts Associates completed six more corporate headquarters between 1991 and 2003. In something of a coup, the practice also managed to convince the City of London to build its first BREEAM Excellent-rated project, New Street Square (2008).
Bennetts says that a crucial battle in the sustainability crusade is a better understanding of how buildings and the people within them use energy.
The architect rails against the coalition government’s decision to abandon compulsory display energy certificates (DECs), which would have measured a building’s performance in use. “Knowing how buildings are used is the single biggest instructor to reducing our impact and we have so little information. It is scandalous.” For his part, Bennetts continues to conduct post-occupancy studies on his own work even when it opens up his practice to criticism.
This after-care service began when it examined embodied carbon for its 2000 Wessex Water headquarters. The study revealed the building was using 30% more energy than predicted thanks to leaky cladding and computers being left on 24/7. It took Bennetts a year to fix the problems, but the effort paid off. Later Building Regulations were devised from the benchmark set by this building.
In his quest for class-leading buildings, Bennetts has stacked up a voluminous bank of data that, as founder of the Green Building Council, he feels obliged to share with his peers. “There is a moment when you think, we must be mad to give away our commercial advantage, but if you are genuinely committed then you have to share these techniques. It means that we have to keep innovating to stay ahead.”