Alexander Graham Bell House Case Study

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Project Data
Project Type Commerical
Location  Lochside View, Edinburgh Park, EH12 9DH
Client  BT Group plc
Date Completed  1999
Gross Internal Floor Area  13,935 sq.m
Project Value £18.17m
Architect Bennetts Associates
Main Contractor Balfour Beatty
Structural Engineer Blyth and Blyth
Services Engineer Roberts and Partners
Landscape Consultant Ian White Associates
Quantity Surveyor Tozer Capita
Specialist Consultant Aukett Associates (Space Planners)

Introduction

A new office building for BT which promotes flexibility in its structuring and configuration in response to the changing demographics of work and changing communications technology.

Background

BT was in a process of transformation from public sector utility to an organisation that had to operate in an intensely competitive environment characterised by relentless technical innovation. In such a commercial climate, the adaptability of the company to make links across what was before a rather hermetic departmental structure creates a demand for a more responsive management structure, a more flexible workforce and more adaptive workplaces.

Sustainable agendas have traditionally not embraced business communities but given pressure from both government and public opinion, companies have attempted to construct frameworks relevant to commercial imperatives. Concepts such as the ‘triple bottom line’ have been common parlance when discussing sustainability in a business context. This refers to a new imperative for companies to communicate their worth in financial, social and environmental spheres.

These concepts often manifest themselves in companies who respond quickly to change, embrace technological innovation, encourage lifelong learning, value intellectual capital and promote virtual working. BT realised these issues were important before they were necessarily incorporated into a wider sustainable agenda. However, more important was the clear understanding by the organisation that such a change of culture could only be achieved through clear, considered and innovative architectural design of the workplace.

BT’s existing property portfolio in eastern Scotland was dispersed, fragmented and did not reflect the changing priorities of the company – with a high incidence of cellular offices perpetuating a rigid organisational hierarchy. Alexander Graham Bell House was commissioned by British Telecom as part of a strategy to transform their working environments and rationalise existing building stock in Edinburgh as well as create a new building that would form the focus of BT’s presence in eastern Scotland. The building is located in Edinburgh Park, close to the capital’s major transport arteries; it forms part of a carefully implemented sequence of buildings situated within a framework of a masterplan created by the architect Richard Meier.

Approach

As part of the process of transforming itself BT produced Workstyle 2000. This document outlined key criteria for the procurement of new buildings. It included a commitment to flexible, open, non-hierarchical working patterns to suit both the changing requirements of the organisation and the employee. In addition to this, the document stipulated the maximum depth of workspaces so as to allow for daylighting wherever possible and encouraged the use of energy conservation measures and, where appropriate, the capacity to implement a natural ventilation strategy. What this briefing document demonstrates clearly is that an environmentally responsive building has characteristics that are seen as desirable by a client organisation in the creation of a building brief.

Terminology of the new workplace

Open Zone

An area for informal business interaction, study, social use or refreshment. Usually includes catering facilities.

Team Zone

A breakdown of the workplace into project based teams rather than static departmental structures. Characterised by the facility for easy verbal and visual communication between team members.

Break Out Area

A separate space to the team zone allowing a complimentary environment for group meetings and workshops. Must have close proximity to team zones.

Touch Down Area

The key activity area for ‘nomadic’ workers to allow swift transmission and updating of information. Should allow for ad-hoc meetings, IT access and some refreshment facility to meet varying requirements.

As an organisation, BT realised that its business transformation could be facilitated through a radical reappraisal of its building stock. The innovative nature of sustainable building techniques reinforces such positive change.

The design of less generic workplaces that accommodate a variety of working interactions engenders a more responsive organisation. Simultaneously, this enables staff to work more flexibly both in terms of time and location. Such strategies have beneficial outcomes in terms of a wider agenda that addresses the ‘triple bottom line’ of sustainable accountability in social, business and environmental spheres.

Environmentally responsive buildings are less energy intensive in use and thus are characterised by lower recurring maintenance costs. In the case of Alexander Graham Bell House, a predicted reduction of between one half and one third in energy consumption was envisaged in relation to comparable developments. Through careful design, the integration of building structure, skin and orientation can contain the capital cost, capacity and complexity of the services installation.

Bennetts Associates were invited to participate in a limited design competition. The architects had developed considerable expertise in the design of environmentally responsive buildings that dealt with the workplace in a sophisticated manner.

Process

The organisational structure of the building had to have the flexibility to allow for work patterns as in the table below:

Key work characteristics Work Activity Building requirement
Homeworkers Based at residential address with broadband/telecoms link Meeting, conferencing facilities, ‘open zones’
‘Nomads’ Highly mobile, often client based Meeting, conferencing and ‘touch down’ facilities
Ground based Office is main workplace Meeting, conferencing, ‘hot desking’, ‘team zones’

Bennetts Associates had had wide experience of intelligent office design. Since its formation, the practice sought to use building projects as vehicles to develop expertise in the design of environmentally responsive environments. The firm had already completed the John Menzies building at Edinburgh Park, which was also designed to facilitate change in the organisation. Bennetts had also designed the Powergen Headquarters in Nottingham.

This building is characterised by the use of exposed concrete soffits to the ceiling providing a degree of thermal mass to the building structure. The function of the concrete is to dampen temperature swings in the building caused by factors such as excessive solar gain through windows and incidental gains from computers, machinery and people. It is a good example of how intelligent sustainable design is about making the building envelope and structure proactive in the mediation of the internal climate rather than having exclusive reliance on mechanical services, for example, air conditioning.

Result

The building has three stories and accommodates up to 1050 workstations. The final design of the building related to the needs of the staff to work effectively and to journey through the space. A key aspect of the design was the inclusion of an internal street that allows the building to be ‘read’ almost instantly, making it easier to find your way around. The café becomes a social hub of the development as well as a place for informal business transactions. Meeting rooms are located in upper floors above the street and are fully glazed to allow for a transparency of activity. The client subsequently identified a need for an additional ‘touch down’ space, a flexible area where informal business interactions could take place.

The building is organised simply around the principles of providing flexible accommodation and easily adaptable spaces. A key requirement of the client was to nurture a variety of meeting points that encouraged contact and collaboration between employees. The corner of the building is marked with a rotunda containing the cafe and meeting rooms and which clearly marks the building in relation to the main access to Edinburgh Park. The internal street serves a set of work areas that are divided through a set of top lit atria. Three are integrated into the office environment whilst the remaining two feature an internal garden and the main reception and entrance sequence.

A major priority both of architect and client was the maximisation of daylighting to the building, not only because of the reduction in energy costs but also because of subjective qualities such as providing a link between the occupant and the external environment. This was achieved through the top lit atria and large areas of glazing, in particular to the main access street. A parallel requirement in the control of light levels led to a series of sensor controlled motorised blinds to the east. This is necessary where the need for a view out through the street from the work areas precludes the use of fixed louvres. Elsewhere the building facade is articulated through the expressive use of external shading devices to reduce glare and excessive passive solar gain.

An early decision was taken to mechanically ventilate the building. Although this may seem at odds with accepted sustainability criteria, the aggressive external environment, with a lot of noise from traffic and nearby industrial activity, precluded any other approach. In addition to this, the need to allow for flexible working environments meant factors such as incidental gain could not be predicted to a degree where the client could accept a naturally vented solution.

The building is serviced through displacement ventilation. Fresh air is introduced into the work place at floor level slightly below room ambient temperature. As it warms it takes up internal pollutants and breathed CO2, then by thermal displacement the stale air rises and is extracted at ceiling level.

Office buildings can suffer from extreme internal temperature swings especially in summer where there is a constant level of heat gains from users and equipment combined with higher external temperatures and an increased incidence of solar gain through glazing. Unlike most developments featuring expanses of lightweight, suspended ceiling panels, the building favours a rhythm of beautifully cast floor slabs exposed at the ceiling. There is a continuous coffer in the casting to carry lighting and extract venting but otherwise the exposed concrete absorbs heat during the day and then emits it at night when the building is unoccupied. The concrete acts as a piece of thermal inertia damping what would otherwise be extremes in temperature. Simulation of the building’s predicted behaviour was vitally important to the design development. For instance, it demonstrated that in Scotland, as opposed to South East England, the provision of ‘night purging’ of the floorslabs would not be required to cool the building.

The atria play an important role in the building design, breaking down the floorplate into a series of more flexible spaces with the added advantage of daylighting brought deep into the building. They have a variety of uses, with some being used as ‘breakout’ and meeting areas. The ‘garden’ atrium has perhaps been less effective: it has no clearly defined function. Unlike the remainder of the building, it is not tightly linked with surrounding workspaces and is not well utilised for formal and informal interactions between building users.

Key Lessons

The sustainability agenda encompasses both social and economic criteria. The provision of workspaces that can adapt to a wide range of patterns allows for greater flexibility for the employee as to where and how they choose to work. This can reduce transportation impacts and allows greater freedom to increase the distance between work and home as well as to work remotely from other locations including home.

More flexible working methods give rise to a need for more areas for ‘break out’ and ‘touch down’ which have specific characteristics that cannot necessarily be accommodated by generic speculative office spaces.

The design of sustainable spaces can deliver good working environments especially in relation to daylighting and appropriate servicing strategies.

Designing sustainable buildings needs to be done in an integrated manner: the thermal inertia of the structure, the ventilation strategy, the building orientation and façade design all need to work together to provide a responsive internal environment.

Good practice in the design of sustainable buildings should include the constant reassessment of completed work and a willingness to innovate incrementally. Detailed simulation and post occupancy surveys are vitally important in making informed design decisions.

Further Information

The building has received the following awards:

RIBA Award 2000
British Council for Offices Award 2000
Scottish Design Award ‘Corporate Building’ 2000
Scottish Design Award ‘Chairman’s Award’ 2000

Download: Alexander Graham Bell House Case Study

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