A confident vision of life in the 21st century was carved in stone almost 20 years before the old one had ended. Or more accurately, landscaped in grass. By now countless technocrats would be gazing pensively from glazed pavilions across rolling acres, considering whether to dawdle after work over a Campari next to the lake, work out in the gym or drift home in one of the hundreds of electric-powered cars discreetly hidden behind groves of blossoming cherries.
Business parks still conjure such images. Every brochure shows fountains sparkling over stretches of water; every developers’ office boasts a model carpeted in green. But are they living in the past?
Sir Stuart Lipton seems to think so. The future may still be green but that applies to sustainable buildings rather than the surroundings. Brown is the dominant colour as development is forced back into recycled sites in towns. That means more than higher density, however. He believes it will return developers to the streets.
The rural idyll was just a dream. ‘We called it PhDs rolling in the grass,’ says Lipton. The dream continues because most of the big parks going up today were master-planned as much as 20 years ago. But the dream does not fit 21st century reality. Even if the car had not been demonised, a new generation of footloose, skilled workers would have dragged development back into towns. They want vibrancy and energy rather than rural bliss; bistros and clubs rather than sparkling fountains; and a loft apartment within walking distance rather than a parking space.
‘He would say that, of course,’ scoffs one leading agent. Lipton’s firm, Stanhope, is busy promoting big ‘mid-urban’ developments in west London and Hertfordshire. True enough, but he has earned a reputation by anticipating trends the rest of the industry eventually followed. The first UK business park, Stockley, was dismissed as a fringe industrial site carved from a rubbish tip. Broadgate was initially a laughing stock, as no big names would ever migrate from the heart of the City. Ludgate Place added to the sniggers by not providing parking.
Each sprang from keen observation of occupiers and the legendary £1m a year Stanhope spends on research – and every idea was proven correct. This time around Lipton came back from a study tour of the US with the conviction that history was not, after all, bunk. Towns evolved around streets because they provided the interaction people want.
Chiswick Park, a site in west London also shunned by the rest of the industry after being lost by Stanhope during the wilderness years of recession, was reclaimed and replanned. The 1.5m sq ft scheme is no more dense than proposed back in 1990. Nor is the attention to landscaping less significant, at a cost of £1m an acre. But instead of a mini-campus clustered around pedestrian plazas and hidden behind manicured groves, massive rectangular glass blocks line a broad main street. The 700,000 sq ft just started on a green site at Hemel Hemptead will follow the same pattern.
So is the ‘traditional’ business park dead? Will they all go back to the streets? Lipton’s case is not yet convincing. His wide streets look rather antiseptic and are still too new to judge. Only when Chiswick and Hemel are crowded with tenants can the theory be tested. Nor is this dense, linear pattern seen as suitable for wider spaces away from urban areas.
‘There will room for both approaches,’ says Damian Cronk, a partner at Strutt & Parker responsible for the classic greenfield parks created by Arlington. ‘Urban parks will naturally be more concentrated but the linear plan is just one approach.’ In the meantime, existing parks are not standing still. ‘They must follow some continuity from master plans laid out in the Eighties but they are evolving,’ he says.
Politics and business transformation are influencing the changes. ‘Planners once demanded low density development because they saw this as low-impact on the environment,’ says Gavin Davidson, MEPC director in charge of business parks. ‘Now they have shifted after realising the cost of energy and transport makes greenfield sites high-impact.’
Even the most rural of parks are shifting towards a more urban pattern as parking restrictions bite and development clusters around public transport nodes. Density on the massive Green Park in the Thames Valley has risen from 16,000sq ft/acre to between 20,000 and 24,000 sq ft/acre, according to Mike Rolls, director of development at Prudential Property Investment Managers. The 1.25m sq ft third phase could be even higher.
Buildings are also changing along with the layout. Early development concentrated on low-rise pavilions hidden behind trees and banks. They may reach five or six floors at Green Park, clustered around a rail station. Davidson and Cronk don’t see this just as a step change following planning fashion, however, but part of a slow evolution reflecting demands from occupiers.
Today’s tenant is more likely to be looking for 100,000 sq ft blocks than a small pavilion. This is not just to take large staff numbers but provide flexibility. Businesses now tend to work in teams which emerge and dissolve, so they look for large floorplates which can be switched and changed.
There is also a move to greater intimacy as occupiers seek closer co-operation with like-minded neighbours. One solution is Lipton’s streets but greenfield developers are also moving in this direction by clustering around squares. The difference may be more a matter of degree than principle.
Lipton has always tried to create ‘places’ - inward-looking schemes which create their own environments. He boasted how workers in Broadgate walked faster between buildings because they were so buoyed up by the place. Chiswick is heavily sold on its lifestyle as an oasis in dull, suburban west London while the Hemel brochures bubble over about the way buildings are flooded with light and energy to attract the best workers.
In other words, they are idealised town centres, without the pollution, traffic congestion and cramped buildings. The massive glass rectangles are the kind of thing anyone would kill to put up in a town centre. And arranging them along a street enables standardisation, so that even while using top-draw architects like Rodgers and Foster, costs can be kept down.
Greenfield parks have tended to produce a more diffuse, campus-style product , looking outwards at greenery to sooth the soul. It was the equivalent of country houses set in their own estates. Now they are evolving into miniature villages.
Rolls believes there will be no single solution, with each site adopting a style to suite the location depending on factors such as accessibility via public transport and the amount of parking. For Cronk, the street is an urban concept and will suite urban parks ‘These are not two currencies,’ he says. ‘They are two sides of the same coin.’
The UK’s oldest business park shows how ideas have evolved the first buildings emerged in the late Eighties. Stockley was never a classic greenfield park, as the former rubbish tip was planned for light industry, but high technology tenants quickly moved in
The first buildings were rarely over two storeys and set back behind lawns
And hedges to provide what was considered the sophisticated isolation these new industries required. By the Nineties the blocks had evolved into pure offices running to three or four storeys. The final phase, dubbed Dawleywood, takes yet another direction after an intense investigation of occupiers by architect DEGW and Buck Consultants.
‘Business has changed since we started,’ says Stockley Park director Andrew vander Meersch. ‘They are looking for integration between different departments, so they need flexible space. Cisco, fopr instance, would bring in people ranging from engineers and designers to PRs for a project and then break them up afterwards. Glaxo operates on business platforms each involving a cross section of 400-500 employees.’
But the research also found that companies were often keen to work with neighbours on projects. This contradicted old ideas that they wanted to keep arm’s length to protect business secrets and even staff poaching.
This has led to a further intensification of development. Density was always higher than greenfield parks and the gross floor area/site ratio had risen in the first two phases from 0.5 to 0.65. The final tranche of five buildings will take this to 0.7. ‘Clustering organisations within a more dense urban environment …..will provide a new, highly innovative way of working,’ says the DEGW/Buck brief.
The aim is to create what vander Meersch calls ‘hard urban squares’ where workers can mix informally, much as they do on other business parks via bars and clubs. The buildings themselves will also encourage mixing and matching. Larger occupiers will get the receptions matching their status plus the opportunity to extend and link buildings. Smaller, more volatile firms, which work in a more collaborative community will be offered separate entrances and buildings linked internally.
They will be hugely configurable, ranging from 27m deep pavilions for collaborative and support work to half that in the wings. ‘No matter what the theorists say, people still have cellular offices, so we must make allowance for them as well as the teams,’ says vander Meersch.