26 March, 2020

The virtuous circle_social cardKnowledge sector organisations don’t move very often. There are always compelling reasons for staying in the same place. Attachment to a purpose-built or heritage headquarters for example, the difficulty of leaving a building funded and named for a benefactor, or perhaps nothing more than a distinct association with a particular location. Inertia never needs much of a justification. In the meantime, the way we use our buildings and how we expect them to support us evolves continually, so that many older buildings struggle to respond effectively. Without the significant investment needed to bring about change, occupiers and visitors are forced to accept more and more compromise. It might mean an awkward disposition of work space that doesn’t support collaboration and collegiate behaviour or building volumes lacking the physical capacity to accommodate modern, intelligent, low energy environmental control systems. Often the decline in building functionality is barely noticed as it’s a gradual process; after all, progress, innovation and change are happening elsewhere, often unseen, and there are always other pressures on the budget than building improvements. 

Our project in London for The Royal College of Pathologists shows the scale of transformation a knowledge sector occupier can achieve through a wholesale property relocation; in this case the organisation made the bold decision to build its own headquarters. But being your own developer is a high risk strategy and definitely not for the faint hearted. Fortunately, it’s not the only way to relocate to a new building and still have control over the end result. Buying or leasing a new building comes with the obvious constraints that it’s already there. Not so pre-leasing, where the transaction between developer and occupier is agreed early, at a time the building often only exists as a set of designs on paper. If there is no planning consent, the deal can be conditional on one being granted that’s acceptable to both parties.

This kind of arrangement has advantages for both parties. For the occupier, the developer’s designs for the building can be adapted to better suit the occupier’s needs. This can happen when the cost of doing so is relatively low. For example, designs can be changed to leave openings in floors to accommodate internal stairs or larger service risers, reception areas can be redesigned to create an exclusive building entrance for the occupier, and modifications to the developer’s mechanical and electrical services design can be made to support the occupier’s day to day operational requirements. Beyond this, the future occupier can seek to influence other aspects of the building’s design or its final appearance. Inevitably there is a commercial dimension to these discussions, but where the occupier’s commitment to the building is the difference between the development going ahead or not, that gives it a powerful voice at the negotiating table.

For developers, agreeing changes for the tenant at this early stage takes risk from the programme, means its receipt of rent may be triggered earlier and gives confidence to its funders and investors. The occupier can also shed further construction risk by engaging the landlord to incorporate its fitting out into the base building project, although this can be expensive especially if the occupier makes changes along the way. All these factors shaped our advice to the Royal College of Physicians when we helped to negotiate its deal to occupy space in The Spine, a ground-breaking new development that occupies part of the new Knowledge Quarter in Liverpool. Getting the right building and getting the building right were both fundamental to meeting the College’s brief, so this cutting edge, highly sustainable development will be the ideal showcase for the College’s new regions base. Knowledge sector occupiers need facilities that often can’t be accommodated in a standard office building template without adaptation. Conferencing facilities for example, or lecture facilities, examination space, member collaboration.

The process of working with the developer and its architect to shape the base building design so that it can express the values and ethos of the occupier, as well as accommodating its functional requirements, is a virtuous circle. Both parties benefit. For example, the Spine’s unique and distinctive architecture includes a series of metaphorical references to human biology and the body which are embedded in the fabric of the building or expressed in the layout of its internal spaces. These help to amplify the College’s presence in the building and can be read as a powerful physical manifestation of the body of science the College represents.

This kind of collaboration between developer and occupier allows knowledge sector organisations to play a prominent part at the heart of a community, giving them the opportunity to better showcase the science or knowledge they represent, as well as providing state of the art facilities for staff, members and visitors. Our work as technical advisers, project managers and cost consultants is focussed on achieving everything the College wants from its new building, as well as protecting its interests through a complex negotiation. When the Spine opens in 2021 it will be one of the healthiest buildings in the word.