The White Collar Factory by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris
It’s a 10-minute stroll from AHMM’s office at the west end of Old Street, London, to its latest building – the 16-storey White Collar Factory on the Old Street Roundabout – but the journey between the two is also one on which the architect and its client, Derwent London, have been travelling for 20 years.
Ph: Andrew Holt
AHMM’s studio is in the former warehouses of the Morelands complex, whose conversion was its first job for Derwent, and exploited the generous volumes, daylight and robust material language of the type to make flexible, characterful workspace. Further adaptations of early-twentieth-century industrial buildings for Derwent followed – notably the nearby Tea Building in 2004 – and the architects developed a deepening appreciation for the ways that these inexpensive structures are both receptive to change and popular with occupants. Some of these ideas found their way into both large-scale renovations of existing office buildings and purpose-built workspace for Derwent and others. They also fed into an eight-year research project, undertaken with the developer and engineers Arup and AKTII, of which the White Collar Factory is “the first built iteration”, says AHMM partner Simon Allford.
The research sought to describe an ‘ideal’ commercial building, which would combine economy of construction with the flexibility and spatial qualities enjoyed in converted warehouses, but with greatly improved energy performance. It envisaged a low-rise masonry-clad structure, about 45 metres square, with a central core. Key principles were 3.5-metre floor-to-ceiling heights, smart services with predominantly natural ventilation, a simple passive facade with operable windows and a glazing proportion that varies according to orientation, a deep plan to maximise potential uses, and an exposed concrete structure to give thermal mass and lend architectural character.
These principles have all made their way into the White Collar Factory, although contingencies of the site have required some adaptation of the generic model (and a modest cost increase related to height and the presence of a basement). The square plan is chamfered on two corners by the roundabout and rights to light, and two cores are pushed to the perimeter. As masonry facades were judged impractical, the tower has been given a skin of rippled anodised aluminium that “is folded and punched to get depth and texture”, says Allford. “We wanted to make a lightweight envelope that isn’t a corporate office facade, and looked at Jean Prouvé as a model for industrial building with craft and character.”
The main entrance is on a corner, where the lower storeys pull back to ease access into a new passageway that runs past the tower into a public courtyard ringed by five low-rise buildings that are also part of AHMM’s scheme. In the double-height reception area the idea of ‘factory’ is pushed hard, but with wit. Daylight filters in through cast glass. Tables are workshop benches on scissor jacks. Pressed steel Braithwaite water tanks – “a much-loved architectural icon” – form security turnstiles (they also clad the rooftop plant enclosure on the low-rise buildings). Giant drill bits make ornaments, and two pieces of original Prouvé cladding hang on the wall as artworks.
Having used concrete for the structure in part to avoid the need for architectural finishes, great care has been taken over its expression. The smoothness of giant round columns that drop through the foyer is counterpointed by a board-mark-effect to the walls. Anchor holes from the jump-form rig are hidden in floors, but formwork tie-holes are celebrated in an Ando-esque detail.
In the office floors, exposed concrete soffits are integral to the services strategy, as embedded water pipes radiate coolth on warm days. “Our rule of convergence is that everything in the building – structure, services, finishes – must be doing more than one thing”, says Allford.
A digital traffic light indicates the best times to open and close windows; when they are opened, mechanical ventilation shuts off. On very hot days, occupants can activate booster cooling, but in general the designers took the view that efforts to keep temperatures within narrow bands at all times results in compromised office space, when in fact some fluctuation is tolerable. In any case, says Allford, high ceilings allow warm air to pool overhead “so we’re not as obsessed about air temperature as you would usually be”. Confidence in the system was boosted by data from a prototype of one floor, on 10-metre stilts, which stood on the site for a year.
The asymmetric plan, kinks in the facades (added to ameliorate the building’s bulk) and twin cores lend spatial dynamism to the office floors, with intriguing perspectives and unfolding sequences of varied views. Porthole windows and the hard-wearing, self-finished materials add to the distinctive but adaptable character.
“These are warehouse offices that people can do what they want with”, says Allford. “The point is that they don’t have to do much”. An equally rugged finish to offices and circulation areas in the low-rise buildings has benefits for tenants who value agility in their organisation of space, and the landlord who can drop dilapidations provisions from the lease, he suggests.
Ph: Rob Parrish
The project’s commitment to ‘convergence’ reaches its apotheosis on the roof, where the perimeter strip required for the building maintenance unit doubles as a running track, where lunchtime joggers get a 360-degree urban panorama through portholes while protected from the wind. A green-roofed cafe with Prouvé-inspired columns is tucked into the plant enclosure. An area for tenants’ additional plant remains unused – a mark of the effectiveness of the building’s services, suggests Allford. Putting it to alternative use might be the first of many creative adaptations in this long-life, loose-fit building.
Allford Hall Monaghan Morris
Structural and civil engineer
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