Open-access content 20th April 2009
A former yarn-making factory in the north east of England has been gloriously reinvigorated to accommodate the Student Loans Company in a stylish, modern design that knits together with the remnants of the site's industrial past
23 April 2009
by Cathy Hayward
Walk into the new Student Loans Company building in Darlington and you can almost feel the rumble of the thread-making machines and chatter between the 4,000 workers who worked on the site when it was a Patons & Baldwins factory. Now transformed into an office space housing the teams processing student loan applications, the buzz from telephone conversations and typing is reminiscent of the site's previous incarnation.
Incorporating the building's industrial heritage into the new design was an important part of the brief and there remains an industrial feel throughout. Employees sit under the grey steel rafters and roof windows of the old factory building, much as its inhabitants did half a century ago. Meeting rooms are named after various wool-making processes, such as the Dye Room, and the café is called The Shuttle. The digitally printed wallpaper in the meeting rooms tells the story of the original building from construction in the 1940s to being left derelict in the 1990s. And a time capsule outlining the building's heritage is buried in the reception area.
But there are other, more personal, links to the site's history. One employee, now nearing retirement, started her career in the building when it was a factory, while many other staff have parents and grandparents who worked for Patons & Baldwins at the site.
Maintaining a link with the past was an essential driver for the project team, says Student Loan Company deputy chief executive Derek Ross. "We wanted to pay homage to the building's heritage. There's no point in pretending that it's not an industrial building."
But the nature of the factory did present challenges for the design team, not least its massive size - 46,700 sq ft spread across one floor. "No-one would build an office space like this," acknowledges Ross Hunter, director of Glasgow-based designers 3Fold, which the Student Loans Company, whose own headquarters is in Glasgow, commissioned to design the interior. "It's a great factory space, but we've discovered that it works increasingly well as an office too."
Hunter and his team tackled the size by creating intermediate spaces. Rather than put up screens in what he describes as a blank canvas, Hunter installed a rectangle in the centre of the square space which houses the six closed meeting rooms, two training rooms, boardroom and the canteen.
Elsewhere, three meeting areas with long benches are designed like skateboard half pipes, kitchen areas, 12 pods - spaces with sofas and screens giving partial privacy - and storage break up the space. Retaining a sense of individual teams in a large open-plan office space was achieved by alphabetical lettering in splashes of different colours.
The space is deliberately flexible with future churn built in. The bench-type work settings are slightly longer than required to accommodate increased staff numbers during the busiest times. This will allow for a 30 per cent increase in numbers without moving or adding desks. Currently, a lot of people sit three to a bench desk which is designed for four. A clear desk policy is policed and each staff member has their own locker for personal items.
The interiors and furniture budget has been spent wisely with a mixture of stunning talking-point pieces, while the kitchens are made of a mixture of cheaper chipboard. The wide variety of materials, colours and textures make the space stand out from traditional corporate environments and add real interest: concrete access floor tiles sit alongside magnetic rubber floor tiles and grass-coloured carpet tiles.
Let there be light
Thought has also gone into the building's long-term maintenance. "The FM has been made a great deal easier by the thought put into the running of the site," says Matt Waistell, the organisation's facilities team leader for England and Wales, who worked at the old Darlington site. A brand new building management system monitors temperatures, air quality and humidity throughout the building and alerts the six-man FM team if there's a problem.
Waistell and his team make the most of the natural light available from the skylights and the full-height 160 sq m glazed façade. A low-energy intelligent lighting system is in place which uses sensors to balance the natural daylight - lights dim automatically when natural light floods in and brighten as this fades. The building also boasts gas-powered air conditioning, which makes for a more economical and efficient system, and solar panels on the roof which provide water heating. Sustainability was high on the agenda, both for the design and operation of the new space. "The key sustainability success is that we've used an existing building and refurbished it instead of knocking it all down and starting again which is what tended to happen with this type of facility," says Hunter. The design team also used materials such as cork and rubber, which are more natural and have less embodied energy.
Operationally, there is a car-sharing scheme, showers and bike racks (although that's complemented by a 400-space car park plus an overfill car park). The organisation is also talking to a local bus company about bringing a new service to the site. And sustainability is driven from the top: the company's customer service director, when he comes down from Glasgow, takes his bike on the train and cycles from Darlington station.
Far from the madding crowd
The building is located at Lingfield Point, previously a run-down industrial area, about three miles from the centre of Darlington. Purchased by developers Marchday 10 years ago, the 107-acre site has been developed into a business park and now boasts tenants such as Naafi Army Pensions, Four Seasons Healthcare, Capita and the local MP, Alan Milburn. Long term, the area aims to have residential accommodation and shops, becoming an eco-village with land for playing fields and a secret garden.
Because of its out-of-town location, Ross recognised that the organisation had to provide staff not only with on-site food options but also with space to relax during breaks. There is a good-sized café serving a variety of meal options, as well as an indoor picnic area with long tables set against canvases depicting trees and a green floor. In good weather, staff can sit outside on the decking space. There are four kitchen pods around the floor, each housing a fridge, microwaves and preparation facilities, for staff to prepare their own food. And there are a host of big squashy sofas, break-out pods with tables which sit four, and an upstairs chill-out zone (where the old toilet block used to be situated) with big sofas, bar stools, a football table and a plasma screen.
All these areas serve to break up the huge space and double as both eating and relaxation places and also informal meeting areas. But it took a massive culture change before staff recognised that talking to a colleague, sitting in one of the sofas, or reading a document at one of the picnic tables, was acceptable.
The decision was also taken that no-one would have their own office, whatever their position. And there are no individual bins or printers (except one for HR for reasons of confidentiality). Everyone has their own desk, but the furniture is all the same - although team leaders have a useful addition of a small, moveable table at the end of their desks to create a more informal meeting space.
The success of the culture change is partly because the move to the new building marks a major change in operations for the Student Loan Company. Previously the processing of student loan applications for higher education students in England was done by individual local authorities. This is now being centralised and the result is an increase in Darlington-based staff from around 100 to 650 this summer. Although a few staff came across from local authorities, the majority are new. "It's almost been a new start for the organisation, as there were so many new people," says Ross, adding that the building has been a useful asset as a recruiting tool - and for staff retention at a challenging time. The organisation held an open day for the local community before the building officially opened so local people could get information about the jobs available. "The building was the sales pitch," says Ross. "It's the best working environment in town."
Memphis facts and figures
In-house FM team: six people, including two receptionists
Catering: Café Meo's (a local catering firm)
Furniture: Vitra and Faram
Open plan work settings: 640
Touchdown desks: 21
Net occupiable working area: 46,700 sq ft
Net occupiable area: 57,070 sq ft
Av. area per work setting (6 pers/ team table): 66 sq ft
Av. area per work setting (8 pers/ team table): 63 sq ft