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New models for workplaces and mixed use - Part One report on the discussion at abrdn PLC

Co-founder of Future Cities Forum, Heather Fearfield, talking to the Head of Workplace at the BBC, Alan Bainbridge, along with to his right, Dan Burr, Partner, Sheppard Robson, Tower Hamlets Council's project leads for the new town hall, manager Sarah Steer and director Yasmin Ali, Mike Duff, Architect Associate at BDP and across the table Fred Pilbrow, Founder, Pilbrow & Partners along with abrdn PLC's Simon Moscow, Chief Operating Officer, Real Estate Division and his colleague - on screen -Stephen Walker, Deputy Head of Asset Management.

Future Cities Forum was delighted to hold its 'New model workspaces and mixed-use' discussion event at the offices of abrdn PLC in Spitalfields, London.

Part One of our report on the event has a focus on new workplaces being created from remodelling and repurposing historic buildings - Tower Hamlets Council's new town hall from the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel, London and new studios for the BBC being designed from a remodelling of the Typhoo tea factory in Digbeth, Birmingham.

Royal London Hospital historic facade, now part of Tower Hamlets' Council Town Hall, courtesy AHMM.

Tower Hamlets Council's project leaders described the challenges around the conversion of the historic buildings of the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel into the new home for the Council's town hall.

The former Royal London Hospital building, built between 1751 and 1757, had been derelict since it closed in 2013 when the hospital moved into a new building behind it. The Grade II listed building was both a hospital and a medical college over four different centuries which have included treating the wounded from two world wars and being a maternity hospital.

The council saved the iconic building after buying it for £9m and overseeing a four-year project to restore, renovate and extend it, so it can continue to serve the local community for centuries to come. The new Town Hall also provides local people with a permanent and more accessible town hall compared to the council’s previous civic centre at Mulberry Place.

The old Town Hall, in East India Dock on the edge of the borough was difficult for residents to get to. It also cost the council £5m each year in rent.

The entire ground floor of the new Town Hall will be dedicated to public use with a Residents Hub to support people with housing and welfare issues; a chamber which doubles up as an event space; a soon to open café; meeting spaces; and partners including the Clinical Commissioning Group and Tower Hamlets Homes. The council has also created a multi-use public space in the Grocers Wing extension and is currently looking at potential uses.

The project recently won in Future Cities Forum's Summer Awards 2023 category for new workplace. Director Yasmin Ali and manager Sarah Steer talked of the all-female team that worked on the conversion and the efforts to make the town hall open and welcoming to all genders and cultures.

Yasmin said:

'There were discussions and challenges around how much of the historic and existing buildings you could keep. Some of the buildings had already been changed because they were not fit for modern day healthcare purposes. There was the original hospital building built in 1757, the Grocer's wing and further buildings dating from the 1800s. The main facade had to be kept because it was sitting over the underground, and if you were to remove such a facade it would have released pressure on the TfL structure below. There were many conversations over the project with Historic England. We wanted to go up higher with the building design but with the new hospital behind and the helicopter landing pad, that wasn't possible'

Sarah continued:

'We are opening an exhibition at the end of the month to tell the story of the design and what we have kept, the choice of colours that we have used, like oranges and reds that link back to the original hospital and the League of Nurses came to visit and thoroughly approved of these design choices.

Above: new workplace and meeting areas inside the new Tower Hamlets Town Hall, created from a remodelling of the original Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel (Courtesy Bouygues UK)

'We wanted to ensure that it would be a very permeable building that welcomes everyone in and creates unique spaces that you can move through and around. People are drawn towards the two historic staircases rather than using the lifts and that is a very good thing. We didn't just want rows of desks but more break out spaces and we were very conscious about how the sound would travel and keep a sense of calm in the building.

Yasmin confirmed that importance of having so many women's voices on the project:

'It was very much a women driven project with our architect Sam Scott driving ideas. So we ensured there was a nursing mother's room but gender neutral toilets caused some issues. Our staff rejected this and women didn't want them. We realised that we still needed gender separation as well as keeping the gender neutral toilets. We have a female staff forum and that has enhanced our thinking around the security outside and inside the building.'

Tower Hamlets Town Hall interior with entrance to Council Chamber on right - courtesy AHMM

The BBC is currently looking at its portfolio of buildings and the creation of new studios in the historic buildings of the Typhoo tea factory in Digbeth, Birmingham.

The Head of Workplace for the BBC, Alan Bainbridge, described the vision for change in the style of workplace:

'My mission is to bring design, construction and facilities management together in one building. Places need to be actively managed now as there is a lot of technology to consider. In the past you would just turn the boilers on and off but not anymore. Spaces are now organised to allow people to come together and that is a vital part of work post pandemic where our BBC buildings can be accessible and supportive to as many people as possible across age and cultures. The place should have something to offer those who work for us. Command and control has gone and we have to attract talent. Our buildings are part of the national infrastructure.

'At the BBC, we are publicly funded and scrutinised for what we spend. I cannot just indulge a renovation of a building because it is quirky and fun. Salford was my first project and it was a time when we were moving out of highly bespoke buildings to more flexible spaces. Our stakeholders get quite angry when they think they are being treated as office workers. They work often in times of political crisis and day and night to deliver content. Our technology means that we need to shift departments around and allow content to be shared online and through podcasts, so our spaces and facilities have to work hard for that.

Above: inside the derelict Typhoo Tea Factory in Digbeth, Birmingham (courtesy BDP)

'I think Birmingham, where we are developing the historic Typhoo factory for new studios, is such an interesting city. It is an absolute gem where transport and exhibition spaces work really well. We have made a conscious decision to be part of Birmingham and its future. The Typhoo building has lots of character and it will be a place that will attract talent. The City Council's vision has been very supportive and it will be a place where those who work there will want to be loyal to the BBC and do their best. I often go running round Digbeth and I just feel it is a place that the BBC should be.'

BDP has been appointed to deliver the adaptive reuse of the historic Typhoo Wharf factory in Digbeth, creating a modern, technologically advanced office and studio space for the BBC, that will be a catalyst for wider district regeneration.

Delivering a Glenn Howells Architects design and working with developer, Stoford, BDP will act as delivery architect for ‘The Tea Factory’. The project will reinvigorate the old factory buildings and the immediate surrounding area, delivering 84,001 square feet of new commercial premises for the BBC and 2,884 square feet of new leisure space.

A double height facade will provide a highly visible and public face to the building, connecting it to the surrounding public realm and local communities. An atrium will run through the centre of the building, promoting collaboration, acting as a social centre for the whole development.

The building’s first and second floors will be flexible, accommodating radio studios, TV production facilities, editing suites and traditional workspaces, including collaborative areas and meeting rooms.

Starting with a low-carbon baseline of adaptively re-using the existing building, this sustainable design aims to support mitigation of climate change; the main building will include rainwater harvesting and will generate electricity through south-facing photovoltaics, while a brown roof to the south will enhance local biodiversity. It will re-activate and reimagine the district providing employment and public realm improvement.

Above: exterior of the Typhoo Tea Factory in Digbeth, Birmingham (courtesy BDP)

BDP's project lead for the BBC Studios in Digbeth, Mike Duff, commented that you can see the potential of the creative quarter in Digbeth and that the new studios will add to that:

'Having lived in the city for twelve years, I can see the value of Birmingham and the new creative area of Digbeth, and the BBC will help with that, it is not somewhere you want lawyers moving into.

'There are a lot of challenges with converting the Typhoo factory building for the BBC with for example all the graffiti on the walls and you have to make decisions about what to keep. The building itself has developed since the 1930's and has sat there for forty years unloved. We need to replace all the windows to meet sustainability and upgrade the fabric of the building. But it is worth it and you could argue that a new build would also cost a fortune, but you wouldn't get the character.

'It is not nationally listed so we did not need to retain the facade but we wanted to as it makes such an impression. On the ground floor we will have a reception and vehicle bays as well as disabled parking and also a cafe, but our security is tight, so it won't be completely permeable to the public.'

Above: CGI of BBC Birmingham in Digbeth (courtesy Glenn Howells Architects / BDP)

Read Part Two of our report on new workplace next week, where Fred Pilbrow, of Pilbrow & Partners describes new workplace for Dutch developer EDGE at London Bridge, abrdn's Simon Moscow and Stephen Walker talk about the move to Spitalfields from traditional central city business district of Cheapside, and Dan Burr of Sheppard Robson, talks about taking 'Shoreditch to Watford' for TJX, the holding company of fashion retailer TK Maxx.



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