Brent's Civic Centre has replaced the 14 individual buildings that previously provided the council's services. But that's just the start of it, as Martin Read reports.
11 August 2014
When I visit the London Borough of Brent's extraordinary new civic centre, I'm told that a delegation from the neighbouring borough of Harrow is at that very moment also touring the building.
And you can certainly see what's piqued their interest. The building, just entering its second year of operation, allows other councils to consider a dramatically different way of providing services to residents. It stands as an entirely new template for the integration of public servants and the public they serve, and is surely unique in terms of scale.
Fourteen buildings previously used to provide Brent's services to residents have closed, their activities subsumed into this one substantial addition to the North London skyline. For me, walking through the doors is like walking in to an airport terminal. In its sheer scale and variety of functions, Brent Civic Centre is certainly unusual - and effective in some surprising ways.
For a kick-off, it certainly doesn't look anything like your typical civic centre. Indeed, a cursory glance at the centre's exterior is unlikely to help the uninitiated divine a single principal activity - save for the words 'Wembley Library' to the right of the main entrance.
As well as all of the council's office requirements, the civic centre has a cylindrical protrusion known as 'the Drum' - the new home of Brent's Council chambers, but also more routinely used as a conference centre and events hall. It's just one of many aspects of the facility designed with multiple purposes in mind.
Brent Civic Centre is just a few hundred feet north of Wembley Stadium, and the council's office workers get a bird's-eye view of people attending and departing from stadium events (on my visit, rows of tents denote the beginning of the queue for that night's performance by rapper Eminem.)
Right now, the building stands starkly against the skyline alongside Wembley Stadium, but in time the further development of the Wembley Park estate in which it sits will see the civic centre positioned alonghside more commercial and residential developments. Previous visitors to the area who arrive for the first time in two years will marvel at the transformation across the estate, let alone the building itself. A road to the west of Wembley Stadium seems alive with foot traffic as local residents mix with stadium and Wembley Arena ticket holders and those on site to visit the recently opened London Designer Outlet stores.
2,000 staff are now housed in Brent Civic Centre's office space, (although not all at once, thanks to flexible working) while the building is home to all of Brent's civic, public and administrative functions. The idea was 'to bring the council and all of its works onto a level with the residents that the council seeks to serve' - in which case it's certainly working. You can get married here, throw a party, launch a product, watch a band, visit the library, deal with your council tax, register a birth, have a coffee at Starbucks, apply for citizenship, dine out - or indeed any combination of those and other activities.
The contemporary nature of the design includes a striking atrium with a huge staircase that rises from a 'public amphitheatre' up to the council's offices. Visitors can sit in the space between the stairs, looking down to the ground floor where they can often enjoy music recitals and other events.
If the intent was to drive use of the restaurants and other concessions, it has worked. Brent residents, who might previously have visited the old high street buildings on their own to sort out their individual council service problems, are beginning to make a day of it. Rather than come in, solve their issues, and then leave, they're now arriving with entire families in tow to make use of the library, restaurants, coffee shops and other concessions. The traditional model of local council service delivery has been decisively binned. And what's more there are plenty more opportunities for local businesses to rent elements of the facility - the individual meeting rooms around the drum, for example.
The architects knew that they were designing something that would be used in different ways to the buildings it has replaced but, nevertheless, Brent Civic Centre's FM team is still adapting to the often surprising variety of new uses. The building has already proved popular, with film crews for both television and (unspecified) Hollywood blockbusters having already filmed here.
It all adds to the event management activities overseen by James Slann - account manager for the incumbent FM service provider Europa, Gordon Ludlow - the council's FM service manager, and Nirmala Kerai - its operations manager.
Estimates of visitor numbers were calculated on the volumes at the individual buildings, "but here they just to come to look around", says Slann. Visitor numbers to the building are much higher than was thought; 1,500 people a week were planned for, but the actual figure has proved closer to 3,000.
"We get people who come in just to take pictures", adds Slann. "Where previously a customer may have gone to a council building, queued up, conducted their business and left, here they can get something to eat, go to the library or do both; it's a much nicer experience. So what's happening is that they're staying after conducting their business - and they're also bringing their families with them!"
Says Kerai: "This was always envisaged as a community centre for the whole borough to use, and from that perspective it's actually worked wonders."
"We've never had anything on this scale," she adds. "We had the town hall and a community hall that we hired out for weddings and events, but everything here's on a much grander scale than anything we had previously."
The other buildings are now closed and in the process of being sold on. Brent expects the civic centre to reduce its expenditure on property services by around £2.5 million a year.
Fish for compliments
The centre has been awarded BREEAM 'Outstanding' rating, the first building of its kind to do so. The building has a 300 kW Combined Cooling, Heat and Power (CCHP) liquid biofuel engine. It can run on eleven different waste fuels - and in this instance, fish oil. Fish oil?
Slann explains: "It's a second-generation waste product, which means it doesn't have any other use other than to be dumped. The CCHP plant we run rescues it from being dumped and uses it to create energy. It's pretty spectacular."
The system, which includes a 240 kW absorption chiller and has been designed to work without thermal storage, is designed to handle around 10 percent of the building's requirements.
"The plant has all the efficiency of a standard CHP plant," says Ludlow, "but with the added bonus of having this waste product to fuel it. The CO2 value for a litre of fish oil is just fractions of what it is for standard biofuel."
This is amongst the reasons behind the architects' bold claim that the centre is "the most sustainable local authority building to be completed in the UK". Rainwater harvesting and green roofs add to the building's green credentials.
The building has also won the RIBA national and regional awards. Discussing its award, RIBA noted, "the adjacencies (between civic, public and administrative functions) diminish the differences between departmental and professional boundaries".
The FM function within Brent is part of the council's property and projects team. (As a borough, Brent looks after more than 100 properties, from commercial and residential to offices.)
James Slann joined the team in December 2012 when the building first opened and the Bilfinger Europa contract - a five-year TFM deal - began. For Bilfinger Europa, the contract is unique and seen by the service provider as very much a flagship account.
The initial design of the centre - one that that had been under discussion for 10 years - had two fewer floors until the scale and number of office workers transferring from other buildings was realised.
Operations manager Nirmala Kerai is the link between Brent's past and its high-tech present, having worked alongside the team preparing the council's workers for their new life next to Wembley Stadium.
"The team that led on this project conducted a lot of consultation forums, invited workers to look at the furniture we were specifying. That team also went out to the satellite offices see what was there, what they were actually delivering, and how that could be accommodated into this building. There was a lot of work scanning in files. As you can see, we no longer have tall storage cabinets here, just low level units. Staff were each given 0.7 metres of space for their storage. We knew were really reducing storage levels down, and there was a big exercise to prepare everyone for the move to flexible working."
Up in the offices, the now-familiar elements of flexible working are all present and correct. Each member of staff is issued with a mobile instead of a landline (in this case Apple iPhones) while users can log into their PCs within their work groups or from home. The office space has been deliberately designed to accommodate fewer people than actually work for the council, while team members from departments that might not previously had the opportunity to discuss issues with colleagues from others sited across the borough now have ample space within the offices and in the public realm to sit down and discuss their joint objectives.
"It's totally unique," says Ludlow. "In terms of looking after the building there is nothing I've seen quite like it."
Cleaning is the service that has seen the most change between initial specification and actual operational requirement. Slann says: "We've a morning clean from 5.30 until 08.30 with 26 people on that clean, then we have two day cleaners on all day until 5.00pm, then we have another group of nine who do another three hours." At weekends the pattern is repeated, but without the big morning cleans. "It works well," he says.
But it's with the events and catering activities that Brent and Europa have had to adapt the most. One of the catering units, originally designed to serve alcohol, has been adapted to become another food outlet; this 'theme bar' serves office workers and visitors with 'quick bite' menu, allowing the main restaurant to provide a hot food menu separately. "Catering here has become very flexible," says Slann," and we have plans to do a lot more."
The FM service has had to be most flexible in adapting to accommodate the events.
"I think we've all been taken by surprise," says Slann. "I don't think any of us envisaged we'd be hosting Hollywood blockbusters."
"The variety of events here is unique," adds Ludlow. "And it started early on when we were asked by UEFA to provide catering for VIPs at the Champions League final."
You may think that the stadium across Engineers Way was better placed to handle UEFA's demands, but it turns out that the siting of the civic centre affords users of the stadium a first-class alternative for VIP activities. For UEFA, the building was used for the three days leading up to the match as well as on the day of the match itself.
Subsequent activities in support of Wembley Stadium events have included hosting the NFL, while major product launches have also been held on site. Truly, there's considerable benefit in the centre being part of a rapidly growing network of businesses and buildings across the park. Where once stood just car parks and the Sunday Wembley Market, the park development has recently seen the opening of a Hilton Hotel, a major fashion brands outlet and five-a-side centre.
"There's been a boost in civic pride," says Ludlow, "and a more positive attitude towards Brent since we moved here".
The whole area continues to develop, with a general 'buzz' during the day that simply didn't exist previously. The prospect of serendipitous connections between businesses is high.
The area around the civic centre and the stadium was once little more than industrial units and car parks. Now, the area is being promoted as "a new lifestyle destination" with the huge Wembley arch at its centre. As well as commercial and entertainment venues, new residential blocks are also rising.
So - this is civic centre life, but not as we once knew it. It brings to mind other innovative mixes of council and public activity such as The Hive in Worcester, which also brings together council services and a library.
Slann routinely meets with the FMs of the other buildings on the Wembley , while Kerai and Ludlow had just returned from meeting other Wembley Park officials to discuss events and developments across the park.
The final word goes to Nirwana Kerai, who's been involved before, during and after the civic centre project.
"I'm a resident of this borough and I take real pride in what we've achieved and what this building is now doing in keeping my council tax down. There are plenty of workers here who are also residents of the borough, and I think this building has helped us all have a feeling of being part of the Brent team."