Faith, hope and clarity

Despite dwindling donations and a public turned decidedly twitchy about conspicuous consumption, charities large and small have been investing in exemplary new headquarters. Veronica Simpson finds much to celebrate in the humility and charm of the resulting schemes, as well as the client’s clear faith in good design

With donations down year on year, the UK's charities and non-profit organisations are still somehow finding funds to refurbish and construct new head offices. Unashamedly modern, innovative and even ground-breaking headquarters have opened in the past few years for the National Trust, Amnesty International, CAFOD (Catholic Overseas Development Agency), the Woodland Trust, the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and The Salvation Army.

Far from flagrantly wasting public and sponsors' money, these premises are delivering a potent combination of humility, transparency, sustainability and efficiency, helping to ensure their occupants' organisational health and productivity for years to come. But the sensitivity over how so-called 'third sector' companies invest their supporters' cash in architecture and design cannot be overstated. Prince Charles - that self-appointed gatekeeper of architectural integrity - threatened to quit as patron of the National Trust over its proposed £14.5m Fielden Clegg Bradley-designed headquarters in Swindon. Luckily, the heritage and conservation charity stuck to its guns and the two-storey, deep-plan office design (which the Prince allegedly rejected as failing to meet his environmental ambitions) opened in June 2005. It has gone on to win numerous awards, including sustainability awards from the Civic Trust and the RIBA, as well as an award for innovation from the British Council for Offices.

From conversations with architects and designers involved in these projects, it does seem that to justify the expenditure, greater creativity and ingenuity are being asked of them than ever before. Clarity of brief and client accountability is everything, agrees Paul Hinkin, MD of Black Architecture that recently completed CAFOD's new London HQ. Unusually, the architects presented no drawings at all for the final competition. The practice beat off stiff opposition from some of the UK's leading architecture firms with just a ream of yellow paper detailing the journey that CAFOD's project team would undergo as non-expert participants, and how Hinkin and his team would support them at every stage to end up with the building that would truly deliver the client's objectives.

Says Hinkin: 'Our strategy was not to sell them an image of a building at all.' Too often, he says, even expert clients are seduced into buying an image that they then cling to, even when that structure is found to be incompatible with strategic client needs. Instead, Hinkin and team worked closely with CAFOD to investigate client work practices and run focus groups to establish what the organisation's aims and requirements were in order to fit a bespoke solution into the awkward, triangular-shaped plot it had bought next to Southwark Cathedral.

Like many other development organisations, CAFOD has a whole tranche of outreach workers who spend up to six months abroad in the field. So the client wanted a building flexible enough to accommodate a shifting workforce but also one designed to make communication and interaction between staff easy. Says Hinkin: 'Focus groups revealed there was no heart to the organisation. Though they belonged to this thing called CAFOD there was no physical manifestation of that in their previous workplace.'

The new building is all about heart: a slimline central atrium and circulation core acts as ventilation shaft, sociable circulation space and connective device, connecting views across office floors while breakout spaces between floors encourage spontaneous interactions. Drawing everyone into and through the building is a rooftop self-service cafe, also used throughout the day for brainstorming and informal meetings.

The same need for greater connectivity and a strong cultural identity was true of IIED. Now 35 years old, this independent charity, involved in researching and promoting sustainable patterns for world development, had outgrown its original cellular office space across two Georgian townhouses in Bloomsbury, London. But as it is largely funded by clients from developing countries, it was important not to be seen to spend excessively in radically refurbishing the tall, skinny office block it had leased in nearby Gray's Inn Road.

As is the case with all of these projects, the commitment to invest in new premises helped to clarify the IIED's desires for cultural and workplace transformation. Architecture practice Penoyre & Prasad worked closely with the IIED team to establish the design agenda. Says partner Phyllida Mills: 'The client wanted a more collaborative, integrated culture within the organisation. It also needed to move away from a hugely paper-based system to a centralised digital one so that the staff could work in the same way wherever they were.'

A further requirement was to reduce carbon emissions by around 40 per cent while adding an additional 20 per cent more staff space. Penoyre & Prasad's solution allows for expansion and also revenue generation to help offset additional costs: for example, there's a high-quality conference and event space in the lower ground floor with its own separate access, plus a relaxed and welcoming ground-floor refectory and lounge area - there is now no need to hire meeting and event spaces and an income can be generated from its own.

If one could define the new aesthetics of humility, a consistent palette of simple but high-quality materials mixed with elements that are cheaper and funkier, plus inspired use of daylight to illuminate and connect each area, underpins all the spaces illustrated here. The mix of seemingly high-end with low budget adds a pleasing aesthetic frisson. For example, the perceived quality of the IIED offices is raised by there being a consistent family of desks, chairs and shelving throughout, either designed or chosen by Penoyre & Prasad, and much of it made very economically by Vitra.

When the 'bones' of a building are good - lighting, furniture, flooring - cheap elements can be used liberally, such as the beech shuttering ply deployed in all the IIED's kitchen spaces and door frames. With the simplicity of scuffed original parquet on the ground floor, domestic-style voile blinds, comfy neutral sofas in the lounge area and reclaimed refectory benches and dining tables, this adds up to something the IIED can take ownership of. 'The client didn't want a corporate feel,' says Mills. 'It wanted something that felt IIED-ish, that was a bit homemade - culturally less glossy and more inclusive.'

While the HQs for CAFOD and IIED aim to connect with their wider strategic communities, some of the new third-sector spaces integrate impressive facilities for their immediate neighbours - and even the planet as a whole.

WWF has commissioned Hopkins Architects to create a Sustainable Living Planet Centre, in Woking. Though the project is officially still under wraps, the scheme proposes a 3,600 sq m two-storey building with an 80m-long curved timber grid shell surrounded by lavish planting. The design is intended to generate a new and appealing green space and public piazza in the town centre, connecting through to an internal public exhibition space.

A new eco-HQ for Herts & Middlesex Wildlife Trust has also been commissioned, from Architype. The 1,150 sq m flagship building will feature offices, conference and education facilities, and spaces for hire. It also includes food-growing plots, a wildlife walk, greenhouses and outdoor classrooms. The aim is to make the building as near carbon neutral as possible.

In the USA humility is getting an architectural workout thanks to Bill and Melinda Gates' global health and education charity, The Gates Foundation. Its new HQ in Seattle opened last year. While no single architect is credited for it, the building is described as a future-proof workplace that is 'humble and mindful'.

Highly sustainable, beautifully landscaped and bang in the city centre, its aim is to add to the quality of the urban public realm while symbolising the foundation's inclusive, global ethos.

But are these all charity sectorspecific one-offs, or do these schemes really capture the growing zeitgeist? We certainly need an antidote to what Finnish architect, writer and professor Juhani Pallasmaa calls the relentless focus 'on the enticing visual image'.

He believes that contemporary culture's 'longing for singular, memorable imagery subordinates other aspects of buildings,' to the point where, as with fashion, 'the value of the building [is] based primarily on the name of the designer and not on how well it operates for end-users as a work of architecture.'

None of these HQ buildings could have been contemplated without a strong business case from the client, or been realised so successfully without the interpretational and client-focused skills of the designers in question - with the minimum of fuss and expense, they had to achieve efficiencies for the workforce and enhance working practices and culture, while also serving to facilitate self-funding, marketing, outreach and education work, as well as factor in future expansion.

With exemplars like these, perhaps the British obsession with and susceptibility to status-boosting, corporate architectural bling will finally sputter out. If a silver lining to the cloud of economic austerity can be found, it seems to be that prevailing market conditions are generating exciting opportunities to demonstrate that good design is worth investing in - especially if it can translate into groundbreaking, public-spirited and ultimately hugely enjoyable and sustainable buildings.

In comparison with these case studies, the glossy, exclusive and oversized Shard at London Bridge looks, as Hinkin so picturesquely declares, 'like the architectural equivalent of gurning'.

Designer: Black Architecture

Situated on a car park site adjoining Pugin's listed St George's Cathedral in Southwark, CAFOD's new headquarters expresses the development charity's core values of efficiency, connectivity and social justice with great clarity, thanks to Black Architecture's scheme. After intensive consultation with the client, the building was designed 'from the inside out' to provide office space for up to 200 staff in the widest area, a triangular space illuminated and passively ventilated by a central atrium.

The circulation core surrounds the atrium providing continuous visual connection across all levels, with wide staircases pausing at half-landing points for breakout areas.

Partner Paul Hinkin says: 'We wanted to prevent the departmental siloing that occurs when you have a floor-by-floor culture.' The building's ground-source heating and cooling plant is tucked away in the basement, leaving the rooftop free for a spacious and uplifting self-service refectory surrounded with terracing.

The irregular shape of the site has been harnessed, rather than allowed to hinder, facilities, with meeting rooms and service spaces tucked into the corners.

In a neat bit of karmic efficiency, the money CAFOD paid to the cathedral for the land has been spent on refurbishing and upgrading an adjacent and previously dilapidated Fifties community building, the Amigo Hall. Says Hinkin: 'Now CAFOD rents that space from the cathedral during the week, for meetings and events, and pays for its maintenance, which means that the hall is available to the community, free of charge, at the weekend.'

Client: CAFOD (Catholic Overseas Development Agency)
Architecture and interiors: Black Architecture
Size: 3,000 sq m
Project value: £8.8m
Completed: March 2010
Contractor: VolkerFitzpatrick

Designer: Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios

The Woodland Trust, a leading voluntary sector organisation dedicated to the conservation of the UK's woodland, selected Feilden Clegg Bradley at competition to construct a new HQ on a vacant greenfield site in Grantham, Lincolnshire. What the organisation wanted was a building that should be inspirational, exemplary in its energy efficiency and also representative of the Trust's core values.

The exterior is inspired by the rhythm of light and shade of vertical woodlands, clad in untreated Scottish larch. The interior majors on natural simplicity, with neutral floor and wall colours enhanced with graphic wallpaper panels and highlight features in a palette of uplifting greens. Timber screens and balustrading provide sculptural elements.

Made from a cross-laminated timber panel system - a highly sustainable material using less embodied energy than concrete or steel, which also meant reduced construction time - the building takes the form of an ascending spiral. The upper levels accommodate the open-plan work space, orientated north-south and comprising a three-storey, 15m-wide block. A wing of service and cellular space descends from this section along the western boundary, culminating in a single-storey bike shelter that encloses the central woodland 'glade'. This woodland garden sits at the centre of the building. Visible from the entrance it provides a welcoming woodland experience to visitors. It is also used by staff as brainstorming, meeting and breakout space.

This external 'heart' is echoed by an internal one, comprising the reception and the staff leisure and refectory space. Bespoke solid ash furniture with green upholstery enhances the reception, which has a green Cumbrian slate floor. All floors are connected to this space by a roof-lit atrium and the main accommodation stair. Naturally ventilated, and largely daylit throughout, most of the cellular support spaces are located along the western side of the building, thus avoiding the need for solar shading. An innovative 'concrete radiator' solution aids night cooling.

Client: Woodland Trust
Architecture and interior design: Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios
Cost: £5.1m
Area: (GIA 2,728 sq m, and NIA 2,328sq m)
Completed: 2010
Services engineer, acoustics: Max Fordham Partnership
Structural engineer: Atelier One
Landscape architect: Grant Associates

Designer: Penoyre & Prasad

After 20 years of overseas research and development work, the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) had completely outgrown its base - two terraced houses in Bloomsbury - and transformed its working practices. With staff often out in the field, developing projects on the hoof using the latest digital technology, as well as visiting researchers working in its largely print-based London office for months at a time, it needed a complete rationalisation of workplace practice and culture.

Penoyre & Prasad's radical refurbishment of a seven-storey office building provides the IIED with a highly connective and distinctive new home, with friendly and welcoming debriefing and social spaces, and an L-shaped open-plan floor layout that enhances either privacy and communication, as required by research, managerial and academic departments. It can comfortably house a fluctuating workforce of between 80 and 120 people.

Bespoke furniture and shelving, designed by Penoyre & Prasad, creates a modern, professional feel, while panels of beech shuttering ply are featured in kitchen and breakout spaces. Smart carpeting in the offices is offset by lively green rubber flooring on staircases, and vintage parquet on the ground floor refectory/lounge space. Only 50 per cent of the total floor area is desk space, allowing more creative configurations of work groups within the informal seating areas, cubby holes and meeting rooms.

By far the biggest part of the budget, proportionately, was taken up with punching large vitrines into the narrow central staircase to allow views into each floor's activities, as well as up the staircase itself, thereby generating a sense of ongoing connection with activities on floors above and below each level. Says Mills: 'The stair had been a completely dark, dead space. With the brightness of the rubber flooring and the apertures in the wall it really lifts it. It had such a big impact on the quality of space and light.' Each vitrine has been personalised with small sculptures or items that staff bring back from field trips; large sections of office wall space have also been left empty for personalisation. The IIED's graphic style - inspired by its multiple brochures - reappears as wall graphics.

Multiple daylit, technologically connected meeting rooms boost the IIED's ability to work collaboratively with partners - whether in person or via Skype or video conferencing. And a high-quality auditorium in the lower ground floor serves as IIED conference room and revenue-generating hire space.

Client: International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED)
Architecture and interiors: Penoyre & Prasad
Net area: 1068 sq m
Overall cost: £1.1m
Completion: Sept 2011

Designer: Architype

Architype is embarking on a new headquarters for the Peckham Settlement, a community-based charity in south London. Built on a derelict site, the 2,850 sq m scheme will provide a new hall, community cafe, training and meeting rooms, as well as a nursery, media facilities, youth lounge and office space for both the charity and neighbouring community organisations.

Located on an island site, the scheme incorporates an existing brick and concrete structure, cutting holes in its perimeter wall to make new connections with the street. A lightweight glu-lam timber frame grows out of the structure, rising to three storeys along its eastern elevation, and morphing in section along the street in response to the surrounding change of scale.

The eastern elevation facing on to residential houses will have a sequence of angled glazed fins, allowing northern light into the office spaces, while the southern, streetfronting elevation is cut away to bring light deep into the nursery space. A green west-facing roof has been designed in collaboration with the London Wildlife Trust and slopes down towards a series of community allotments.

Energy use will be minimised through excellent natural daylighting, ventilation and an exemplary thermal envelope with an airtightness performance up to 80 per cent better than UK regulations. Project architect James Todd says: 'Although there isn't the budget to create a proper Passivhaus building, the building follows Passivhaus principles.'

Developed in collaboration with 20 local community groups, the £6m project is being financed by the Communitybuilders fund. Construction is scheduled to start this autumn.

Client: The Peckham Settlement
Architects/interior designers: Architype
Cost: £6m
Area: 2,850 sq m

This article was first published in fx Magazine.

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