Words by Michael Willoughby
British firm Scott Brownrigg Interior Design has created the new offices for medical company BD in Oxford. Michael Willoughby went to experience the organised randomness
The people from BD, an American medical instrument and drug manufacturer, were scoping out a refurbished 19th-century asylum when they saw what is their current home over the way in Oxford’s Science Park.
A certain amount of insanity is to be expected the day I visit the company’s new HQ, since it is Red Nose Day. I am told that the UK division of the New York-based company’s 130 employees have officially moved into the pristine building., but the place seems empty – the ophthalmic department, for instance, currently consists of one man.
So instead of the madcap jollity I was expecting (Peter Thomas, designer with Scott Brownrigg, was scared that men dressed as chickens would haunt the official photographs he’d commissioned today), I see an electronic mouse in a ball whirring its way through the building, an empty, impromptu barber’s chair surrounded by charity hair clippings and Thomas’ crazy-angled corridors and archways covered in blue film. Views through the nearly deserted first-floor training area look like a blue take on Superman’s Kryptonite cave. The feel is more David Lynch than Children in Need.
But there is method in at least Thomas’ apparent madness: the angles at which the internal architecture is constructed mirror those at which the wings project from the main building. The angles from the plan end up in the elevation. This crystallinity is echoed everywhere, from the reception desk in the lobby to the countertops in the staff restaurant, made of cement and recycled glass composite respectively. It is almost as though the building was a chemical that had grown itself in a test tube. Science is the art of discovering the rules to what might look random to a casual observer, and Scott Brownrigg’s architecture seems to pay homage to this. Occasional meeting points, peopled with some of the last century’s best furniture, pop up throughout the building, particularly on the ground floor. Jouissance is not to be confused with haphazardness.
What there is is a looseness and limberness – a spontaneity – that has, it seems, played to BD’s advantage, helping it to become a Fortune 500 company. The same people appear on different teams in different “businesses” within the company and in different regions. If it’s confusing to the outsider, perhaps that is not surprising. Each employee (or “associate”) is regarded as unique. The best line I can get on it is from Tim Daley, business director for Western Europe, which is that the company is a matrix.
Randomness is – literally – celebrated in the company. The CEO is known to stand on a T-junction in the Manhattan HQ and chat to employees as they walk past.
Facilities manager Tony Ford says the same thing has begun to happen here since the overhaul. “I saw a facilities guy from Europe I hadn’t seen since November. There was another guy from San Diego. We were able to get together spontaneously without worrying about booking a meeting room or ordering tea and coffee. You can’t buy that kind of thing.”
What did that mean for Peter Thomas? Logistics had to be carefully worked out with HR to keep teams sensibly together. It was a challenge, but also an opportunity: the move took place over several months and was organised by a series of committees and task forces comprised of employees. Sometimes the head of the task force was an obvious choice – like the training task force – but in other cases, the group was set up specifically for the move. For example, the aesthetics task force was comprised of a guy from marketing, a guy from graphics and Tim Daley, chosen because he had a feel for or an interest in design.
The news of the move was put together by another “impromptu” task force – the “communications, relocation and associate engagement task force”, who produced a monthly newsletter called “On the Move – your dedicated source of news and information on the Oxford office relocation”. The purpose of this was not just to update people on progress and keep them keen, but to gee them up when they needed to do something, like dispose of the 1km long line of boxes full of crapola – over 60 per cent of stuff that the company had collected in a 25-year residency in its former home – that consultants McDermott Associates said they could probably do without. The feeling behind what they called the “Late Spring Clean”, which took place in the summer, reminds one of a family moving house, or pupils and teachers breaking the school down together on the last day of term. Everyone was, it seems, expected to do their bit.
In short, the emphasis at BD is on the fact that the organisation is the associates as opposed to it being management that directs the employees. As little as possible is taken from outside the company even when that involves appointing associates to roles one would normally give to consultants of one kind or another. For example, the photos that line the walls were taken by a man from the graphics department who is a keen photographer and was sent into the city to take a variety of types of photograph. When the aesthetics task force settled on “abstract” he was then dispatched to take more of that type.
And, while still a consultant, Peter Thomas, the task force and the committee leaders worked tremendously closely together throughout the process. “I think Peter and I are more or less friends, now,” Daley says. “Probably because we spent so much time together.”
And Ford, who himself has a 20-year design background, had an overwhelming input into the process of designing his areas, adding, for example, a drop-down kerb in the goods delivery point and ensuring that the circulation of drop-offs and pick-ups was kept away from the client-facing front of the building.
So adjacencies were not the only rules that Thomas had to work to. Despite the fact that BD wanted a fair amount of cellular offices, it also wanted everyone to have a view of the outside or at least access to daylight. This was accomplished by keeping the walls of the cellular offices as glassy as possible. Lines of offices in the previous building frequently had blinds pulled and doors locked by absent employees, making the space dark for the remainders.
Another rule was that the more permanent the staff (the less the travelling), the better the view they should have. Therefore, the marketing and sales staff have the plum vista of the manicured Science Park gardens and the fountains while the CEO has a view of the car park.
“You could argue that he is keeping an eye on who is arriving. Possibly.” Thomas says, charitably, of the less than glorious position. But it was the glory of the grounds – of the view of the setting – that attracted the firm to the spot in the first place. Grasses and bushes are meticulously shaped and curved like the surrounding Cotswold hills, to provide a smooth and subtle backdrop to the life of the company inside. One side has the view of a fragment of a French formal garden, the other a high fountain. The glass walls of the building allow the light and the subtle colours to stream in and Thomas was extremely keen to get the “outside in”, echoing the colours of the vegetation on the inside and the lines of the terrace leading to the fountain in the atrium.
“The whole inside is very neutral, balanced by measured splashes of the strong orange and blue,” he says. But glass has a downside. The atrium, welcoming to visitors with its meeting areas and high ceiling, is also a terrific noise generator. Thomas had to keep the offices away from the perimeter. At least the atrium was not filled with the sound of glass breaking – the chandelier hanging high in the space was to be supplied by a local glass blower, but Thomas and facilities manager Tony Ford decided that he wasn’t convincing enough. “What with the air channel through the atrium and the tension of the wires, I was thinking: ‘Glass balls – shatter – crash!’” Ford says.
Thankfully Thomas solved the problem of what became known throughout Scott Brownrigg as “Pete’s Balls” by finding a specialist – Bocci. The final solution is inspiring, capturing and emphasising the lightness of the place.
Tim Daley says the staff has responded extremely well to the change of environment. “Everybody is extremely pleased with it,” he says. The whole tone has dramatically shifted to a much more motivated feel. They can’t believe they are in the building.” It sounds like a step up. The old building had served its purpose. “There was a toilet downstairs that was full of marketing material,” says Ford. “It hadn’t been used for five years. You couldn’t get in. No one knew what was there, though.”
And customers are happier, too. The north wing – orange rather than blue to capture the warmth (BD’s logo is orange and blue) – contains training labs like showrooms where BD can demonstrate its products and teach clinicians how to use them. The orange is matched with white fittings and muted, corrugated, silver door panels. “I can’t resist running my fingers over them when I walk past,” says Thomas, doing so and making a buzzing noise.
There are also a couple of rooms with one-way mirrors in which customers can discuss the products without feeling the supplier’s presence. “It allows us to reach out to the clinicians in the surrounding area. They have access to products they didn’t have before,” Daley says. BD is even inviting organisations that want to have their own meetings into the building creating valuable sales relationships.
Thomas seems to have been truly inspired by the height of the building, putting the cafe and gym on the third floor no matter what it might mean for the difficulty of deliveries. “The idea was to draw people up into the building,” he says. Again, it’s the voice of a leading company that wants its people to talk.
And at £3.5m, what of the economics? Daley says the firm is able to save money because it doesn’t have to book outside meeting rooms and catering. And meetings are taking place that wouldn’t before. There are new people appearing. “You’re running into people you didn’t know worked here!” he says.
Happy bosses, happy architect – even the receptionist and security guy are smiling good humouredly with each other as I wait for the cab and vying with the other to take a load of copy paper to the third floor.
“Great building,” says another employee, as Thomas and I introduce ourselves. Everyone likes it here. You wouldn’t have to be mad not to like working here, but it would help.