Maintaining a happy and productive workforce of digital creatives is one thing, but housing them in the basement is another. Sainsbury’s Digital Lab manages to do just that, thanks to a unique, collaborative design by Chetwoods Architects that repurposed unused underground space beneath a London office block. Herbert Wright digs out the story
A new digital underground has taken root in Holborn Circus, but it's far from the darknet. Sure, there's a lot of young people absorbed in computer screens, but they're spread across a bright space with industrial chic and colour, working for supermarket giant Sainsbury's. What's remarkable is that this Sainsbury's Digital Lab was a dead subterranean cavern until its transformation by London-based architecture practice Chetwoods. Furthermore, its environment can compete with hip, new, urban digital hubs, like those mushrooming in nearby Old Street, to attract talented workers. 'The initial brief demanded this,' says the practice's chairman Laurie Chetwood, 'despite [it] being in the basement next to the staff canteen'.
The site is the eight-storey Sainsbury's HQ, characterised by its curving corner glass facade and the full-height atrium. Designed by Foster + Partners and completed in 2000, it inherited an unusually large basement from the Daily Mirror Building (1961), an 11-storey slab previously on the site. Architect Sir Owen Williams had engineered its basement 10.67m deep to accommodate the printing hall and foundry.
Sainsbury's Digital Lab uses just 4.4m of that depth immediately below street level, but makes it split-level with a partially suspended mezzanine (engineered by GDP) on which gangways connect hexagonal floor cells, and plastic insulates the light steelwork against activity-activated rattling. Hexagons are a major motif in the Lab - they shape the lighting and overhead ventilation pipe configurations - and hark back to Chetwoods' original concept of the workspace as a hive and a garden.
With 854 sq m of floor space and another 136 sq m on the mezzanine, the Lab's capacity is 120 fixed workplaces, plus break-out areas and observation platforms. The initial impression is that it's big, but sight-lines are broken by short wall-screens defining largely open work cells and doubling as whiteboards, and original concrete columns. Although busy and complex, it's calm, with an ambient buzz from interaction and movement. There is some desktop clutter, but photos and paper piles are absent.
Photographic green landscape murals on peripheral walls temper the containment, but even without them it would feel a lot more open than a basement. Light plays a crucial role in this atmosphere.
Sun pipes were considered, but as Clive White, Sainsbury's key account manager, explains, that 'didn't make sense in terms of value engineering'.
All lighting is LED, and light washing the ceiling from dynamic lumieres actually changes over the day, with 'warm white representing the sunrise and sunset and a crisp white representing midday'. In addition, there's a linear skylight set in the Holborn pavement, under which is tucked an arc of office 'studios', glazed off from the main area.
A quietly dramatic element is an open staircase in oak descending from the mezzanine to the heart of the floor, with big sit-down steps either side. Its suggestion of an amphitheatre was enough for it not to be classified as stairs, thus avoiding mandatory bannisters. Comfy high-backed seating around its foot creates a meeting area-cum-chillout zone, and the two-tone furniture colouring (the raised backs are lighter) contributes to the sense of light in the space.
In the space-squeezed city, taking desks underground should trend, and a look is emerging. Architecture practice Make's contemporaneous basement car-park conversion for its own offices also has an industrial aesthetic jazzed up with colour. But the Digital Lab is also about activity-based working, a counter-territorial concept where you work where you want (or can) and leave everything in a locker.
When Jay Chiat first implemented it in his American ad agency in 1993, it was a disaster (workers accessed crucial filing cabinets stuffed into their cars), but it's come a long way since. It increases productivity and the hot-desking element leverages floor area.
Sainsbury's Digital Lab looks like fun, and even though Chetwood admits 'the data is not available yet' productivity gains look certain. Designing flexible space into Microsoft Research's Cambridge building (2012) provided useful experience. After its visionary design of 1 km-high Phoenix Towers in Wuhan, China, it brings Chetwoods' skills not just back down to Earth, but into it.