Revenge of the Anti-Uglies

Copyright: David Lawson - first published BCO magazine  March 1991

 The Anti-Uglies must be celebrating, wherever they are today. Thirty years ago this self-appointed group of design arbiters from the Royal College of Art hijacked the launch of Barclays' new HQ in Lombard Street, London, lugging a coffin and mourning the "death" of British architecture. Now the not-so-old place is coming down. Not to please a crowd of ageing artists, of course, but because it cannot meet the technological demands of tomorrow's tenants.

  That may not be surprising  in today's City of London, where even younger buildings have been rendered obsolete by the voracious demands of the computer. But note that Barclays does not push forward its own demands as the prime reason for starting again on the site. When the distinctive 450,000 sq ft barrel-vaulted block is complete in a couple of years, around 1,000 staff will probably move back in, expecting the most efficient and flexible space their employer's money can buy. On the other hand, they may not come home.

  The bank has decided to build in the flexibility for other options. Perhaps some people may move in, perhaps none. Who can tell what the future may hold when financial markets are going through traumatic changes? So the new space is being designed to suite a range of other financial tenants.In effect, Barclays has set itself up as a developer. Operational departments were politely asked  about their future needs and the building costs come entirely from internal resources, but the operation is being run like any pure property investment.

  Many a company planning new headquarters has made similar claims over the years about conforming to market forces and institutional standards, boasting that space could be let off or the whole place sold as an investment if necessary. But internal demands almost inevitably distort the process, moulding the building to the owner's particular needs and leaving a hybrid that satisfies nobody.David Turner, who heads the bank's property services division, believes his new baby will be different.

 This confidence hinges on the way Barclays  organises its property resources. The bank transformed its approach back in the mid-Eighties, long before the Big Bang sent a frantic financial sector scrambling for new premises. A team of property specialists was set up and immediately  took a long, hard look at all the group's buildings. "We assessed our portfolio like any property company and 54 Lombard Street stuck out like a sore thumb," says Turner. "By the time the Big Bang came along we had already drawn up plans for a new building purely on financial grounds."

 Rebuilding was approached in the same detached way. "We thought the space would most probably stay with Barclays but we weren't sure. So we had to produce a financial services building for letting in the same way as any other developer." Architects GMW and project managers PMI were called in and have spent the last five years honing the project.Turner says there was a sharp learning curve as he hammered home the message that this really was going to be a lettable building, not a purpose-built HQ.

 "I refused to let them call it a signature building. We wanted something Stuart Lipton or Greycoat would have done if it had this special site, providing maximum income but also the high specification tenants demand in the City core."

  For years the project popped in and out of the headlines as journalists rescented a story - usually after spotting the latest model in some ante-room or exhibition. But Barclays kept its counsel, hoping a calm exterior would ensure that Son of Anti-Ugly would not emerge to cause the sort of problems Peter Palumbo was facing with demolishing the Mappin & Webb building at the other end of Lombard Street. But like a swan swimming against the tide, calm above belied frantic activity below.

 The HQ was only part of a massive property rationalisation  programme which would see plans put in hand to shift around 1,000 jobs out to Coventry and hundreds more shunted around central London as Turner tried to sort out a total of 22 buildings as well as the new HQ.  John Lerche of PMI was  running five programmes simultaneously as he juggled with competing demands from different departments. Originally brought in to assess London Bridge City, PMI found space instead at Royal Mint Court to decant staff out of Lombard Street.

  "The most important factor was hitting operational targets without breaking continuity," says Lerche. Dealing operations, for instance, were moved on three successive weekends - with a contingency plan to scuttle back home if things did not work. In fact everything went to plan and the umbilical cord was severed on time. "We hit every single deadline," he says with a note of self-satisfaction.

 Meanwhile, PMI was helping produce  plans for a "developer-friendly" new building. But it was also able to draw on years of experience finding premises for other clients and feed in the sort of details which would please potential tenants. One of the most important was timing contracts to to make sure incoming firms would have access to individual floors so their own contractors could start fitting out space rather than wait until it was all finished. "Like any pure development. it is crucial to get rents flowing in as quickly as possible," says Lerche.

  That is something Turner will appreciate. Part of the shake-up in the bank's property operations means his department is an independent profit centre. He is effectively the landlord for Barclays' operational departments and totally responsible for the financial performance of the project. "They pay us rent and we are paying interest to the bank on the debt we hold for the site."

   Just to make it even more difficult, the land is not held at a comfortable historic cost - a minimal amount since Barclays has been there for 200 years. It is regularly revalued to current levels, setting a harsh target figure for Turner to meet. This is not just lip-servive to the developer ethic, it's the real thing.

  So what have GMW and PMI produced for Turner to match the claims of marketability? The new building will straddle the middle of the range between pure spec and a purpose-built HQ for owner-occupation, says Lerche. But specifications are high: "It is still a common problem not to have enough provision for information technology. Developers are very aware that it takes away from net lettable space," he says.

  Turner draws on memories of  Ebbgate House, a spec block on Lower Thames Street where he installed BZW a few years ago after spending almost as much as the purchase price to bring it up to standard as a Big Bang building. He has made sure no-one can accuse him of the same thing in Lombard Street. "To a certain extent it is subjective whether to choose one or two vehicle lifts. We chose two because that is what we felt a tenant for a building like this on such a prime site would expect." It is also hard for tenants to add extra lifts later. Other services can be uprated, however, and the team has built in extra capacity for tenants to meet specific needs when they come to fit out the shell-and-core project

  Some moans are bound to emerge from Barclays operational managers when they start to move in - after negotiating a market rent with Turner, of course. "They might ask why we didn't put in more generators, but we have to take the same care as any developer not to over-specify and stay within cost parameters." In a couple of years the development team may be in the curious position of filling a contract for departments within its own company to add extra facilities to its own building.

     Similarly, if the dealing operations move back it will instal escalators between the first two floors. If the building had been designed from the outset without thought of letting, these would have gonne in automatically. But as a speculative block it merely has the capacity to accommodate them.

  "I don't see this as a compromise between speculative building and providing purely for owner-occupation," says Turner. "Nor are we saying we are doing something better than conventional developers. We are just following the same path. I like to think this is the building someone like Stuart Lipton would put up if he had the site - a speculative development to the highest level of specification."