Building sights

Yorkshire Business Insider, July/August 2001

Quality architecture can help attract new investors into a city and allow companies to make a bold statement about their corporate identity and values. But with the constraints of lower property values, can Yorkshire compete with headline-grabbing developments in London? Tim Chapman reports on the region's newest landmarks

Urban renaissance guru Richard Rogers, appearing alongside European architects Andrea Branzi and Elia Zenghelis last month as part of Leeds Design Week, proclaimed that Leeds is one of the most advanced cities in the UK in terms of design-led regeneration.

Rogers might not have been so flattering if the unlamented Leeds Look - the unimaginative dependence on brick walls and pitched roofs which kept city planners content through the 80s and early 90s - still held sway. But such conservatism is now firmly off the drawing board, with bold contemporary schemes rising alongside reimaginings of the city's Victorian legacy.

"I think Leeds is beginning to realise it has the potential to produce a genuinely international status for itself if the city council can capitalise on the developer interest in the city," says Chris Jones, managing director of Leeds architects Carey Jones. "If you can get a couple of very substantial office buildings built, Leeds can really become noticed."

Over the past five years, planners and the public have rediscovered that cities can be places to live and play as well as work - in the region's secondary cities and towns as well as the trendy heartlands of Leeds. An increasing number of new office developments come as part of mixed use schemes, a trend encouraged by developers keen to spread their risk over a number of sectors.

Mixed use schemes can throw up particular challenges, says Lucy Plumridge, regional director for HLM Architects in Sheffield. "It's trying to delineate between the different uses and defining separate entries which has implications for design," she says.

Carey Jones is currently working on three major mixed-use schemes in Leeds, including Teesland's West Central development of the former Royal Mail sorting office on Wellington Street for office, residential and hotel use. "One of the reasons we're successfully running the scheme is we were one of the few people bidding for it to retain the Post Office tower," Jones says. "We did that to sustain the argument for height because we were redeveloping the existing building and it made a very strong sustainability argument in that we're reusing the guts of the building."

West Central's office component also throws up the usual difficulties of designing a speculative scheme. "You have to second guess the end user's requirements," Jones adds. "There's no formula to knowing what a tenant wants."

But a high quality of design can do much to attract tenants. Law firm DLA was close to signing for another site before opting for the Carey Jones-designed Princes Exchange. "They had pretty well decided where they wanted to go when they saw there was a very special building in prospect," says Jones. "We gave them a image that has been very widely taken up in their marketing. End users are becoming more conscious of how important a strong image is."

Energy and sustainability issues are also beginning to play a larger part in design, often prompted by the desire of clients to show their credentials as good corporate citizens. "It's still fairly fledgling in terms of commercial schemes, but it's having a greater impact for buildings for bespoke clients," says Alan Soper, head of design at Bradford-based Robinson Architects. "That extends to the building designs themselves and the format in which space is configured.

"Use of open spaces has become almost ubiquitous both for amenity and for ventilation. That in turn has built up a whole new science on heating and ventilation aspects of buildings and how the promotion of internal ventilation can be achieved with a view to reducing the costs of air conditioning."

As well as affecting the shape of buildings, energy awareness is also changing the way they are dressed, with "intelligent cladding" such as variable-density glass offering passive climate control. Natural materials such as timber, terracotta and even straw are back in favour, helped again by advances in technology that mean they can be used on a larger scale. Photovoltaic cells are also increasingly popular for electricity generation.

New materials can have a prohibitively long payback period, however. "With photovoltaic, it has been something on the order of 10-20 years," says Soper. "It's something that a particular client may feel very strongly about but developers are perhaps less concerned with that, although increasingly they are having to be concerned about it." As demand rises, some spec-built schemes will soon include photovoltaic calls and other sustainable solutions, he predicts.

But architects designing for the Yorkshire market often can't compete with their high-profile London peers in terms of new design and technology because of simple economic reality. "The budget which a building will attract in the centre of London is far above the budget that will be allocated here, simply because of land value reflecting rental value," Soper points out. "That restricts the use of certain materials. Things like glazing systems are very expensive so there is a tendency to fall back on more affordable materials which tend to be in more traditional forms of construction."

Partly because of the greater scope for risk-taking in the London market, architecture suffers from the familiar professional complaint that the London firms get all the prestige. In this year's RIBA awards, there were three prize-winning developments in Yorkshire - Magna in Rotherham, the Early Music Centre in York and the Caspar Housing project in Leeds - but all were by London architects.

"There's an inevitability that if you're going to bring in a London-based architect to do a scheme in the provinces, it's likely to get a higher level of profile," says Jones, whose Princes Exchange was shortlisted for the awards. "It's a very touchy subject and the last thing we want is any north-south divide. But we have had situations where some of our developers have felt that intervention from outside Leeds has been inappropriate and not as well-informed as it should be. I think it's very easy for them to forget the financial and commercial constraints in the provinces."

Soper also criticises regional developers who want to achieve the quality of some key London schemes, and fall for the easy solution of commissioning those architects. "It's not because there's a lack of ability in the region, it's a sadly misplaced aspiration to a quick-fix solution," he notes. "There's plenty of talent at home."


Princes Exchange, Leeds

Carey Jones

A razor-sharp profile has helped the 107,000 sq ft office building at Princes Exchange to usurp No1 City Square as the architectural face of brave new Leeds. Its design and construction presented acute difficulties to architects Carey Jones and developer Teesland.

"It was a tremendous challenge - the river actually flows under the site," recalls Chris Jones of Carey Jones. "When we first promoted it, it was one of the first really modern buildings to go before the planners and we had to set out the design philosophy."

The glass cladding was produced by Permasteelisa, the Italian cladding company which has worked on everything from Channel Four headquarters in London to Frank Gehry's Guggenheim in Bilbao. "It was a very brave decision of Teesland to put that amount of money into the envelope," says Jones. "It works very well."


New offices, Saltaire

Robinson Architects

Office design as a statement of corporate values is doubly important when it's the architects' own head office. Alan Soper's design for Robinson Design Group's new home in Saltaire mixes conceptual design with traditional materials.

"The planning brief for the site was for a landmark building as it's a gateway to Saltaire and Salt's Mill, so we were encouraged to produce a scheme that's contemporary in feel rather than reminiscent of a traditional mill building," Soper says. "We're looking at perforated material and glass for shading devices, and terracotta for cladding. We're also looking at roof mounted wind turbines to produce a percentage of our own power."

The scheme involves two blocks - one for Robinson and one to sub-let. "For our own building, we're looking at our own requirements," Soper explains. "What we're trying to achieve is a more open plan layout. We have taken the scheme up to three storeys, linked by an atrium space at the front. That will also become a shop window and an interesting view into the building so we become more visible to the general public outside. We also wanted the space to act as an exhibition area for our own work and for artists living in Saltaire."


Nunnery Square, Sheffield


Dixons brought in local architects HLM to design the 65,000 sq ft second stage of their Nunnery Square contact centre, following the refurb of the existing 22,000 sq ft building.

"We had to try and create a building that didn't mimic but fitted with the existing structure," says HLM regional director Lucy Plumridge. "Dixons wanted less glass because of the amount of computer screens in the building." The building also uses composite cladding to improve thermal efficiency, in line with Dixons' environmental policy.

The central atrium was suggested by the outline planning permission. "It was a means of achieving the area they wanted while trying to keep the office space fairly controlled so it wasn't one huge room," Plumridge says. "Once the idea was put forward, it was then used more for breakout areas and the restaurant on the ground floor."


City Exchange, Hull

Carey Jones

The first major city living development in Hull is also the first for developers Caddick. City Exchange is a grade II listed former head post office, built in 1908.

The refurbishment for residential and leisure use involved removing some later additions to return the building to its original L-shaped format. "We created a large south-facing courtyard that ground floor users can spill into," says architect Mike Harris of Carey Jones. "There's nothing like it in Hull - it's a real sun trap, which is great."

Working within the constraints of an existing building provides a whole set of architectural challenges, Harris says. "For example, if you have a listed building with sliding sash windows, you can't easily double glaze them so you need to provide secondary glazing. If you do that ventilation then becomes an issue."

Original features of particular interest such as the central stairway and the ceiling of the ground floor pub have been retained, but the apartments are furnished in the usual contemporary style. "It's quite a nice relationship between the existing building, which is baroque revival, then inside we have done something quite modern," Harris notes. "With new build stuff you tend to lose character, but here we use what's inherent within the building."

The imposing Portland stone exterior has been cleaned but otherwise untouched. "It's good from the planning point of view to have the building cleaned up," Harris says. "It's quite deep in relief and there's an external lighting scheme which should make it quite spectacular."


Boat compound, Hornsea


An award-winning heritage development by HLM in Sheffield, Hornsea's new boat launch building and boat compound provides accommodation for yachts and commercial fishermen, as well as a vantage point for foreshore managers.

"We tried to give Hornsea its own identity because Hornsea is trying to regenerate and the existing compound was extremely run down," says HLM regional director Lucy Plumridge. "We used dry stone walling and a circular rotunda on the end. It's a small scheme, but it works very well on that site."