Over the years, we’ve taken many an East Coast train up to the fantastic cities of Newcastle and Edinburgh. On each of those journeys we have, without fail, reached Durham and vowed that, some day, we would find a way to stop there. Today is that day!
If you’ve also taken that train journey, you’ll be all too aware of why we were so keen. The railway snakes high above Durham, giving brilliant views across the city, with its stunning cathedral almost on the same level as the train. So, when FaulknerBrowns’ Head of Interiors, Steve Dickson, asked us if we’d be interested in taking a look at a project the firm had recently completed in that part of the world, we jumped at the chance – although the truth is that we’d have said yes wherever it had been!
Steve told us that he’d been working on an interesting office building for City Electrical Factors (CEF) – the UK’s leading electrical wholesale network, with almost 400 branches nationwide (that’s almost twice as many distribution outlets as its nearest competitor). A private limited company established in 1951, City Electrical Factors’ group of electrical companies not only extends throughout the UK today, but also North America, Ireland, Spain and even Australia.
‘A few years ago, we were asked to design CEF’s IT headquarters in Durham,’ Steve tells us, as we make our way out of the town and to that point where business estate meets countryside. ‘Pivotal to the expansion of the business, the IT teams required a new home as they were distributed around a variety of buildings, each with poor facilities and limited appeal. They were, traditionally, in and around this area, but not only had the facilities become tired, they had also virtually doubled the number of staff in a pretty short period of time.’
The new building brings together various departments including IT programmers, data prep teams, finance, graphics, marketing and the call centre into one creative environment.
‘It’s important to CEF that they are seen as a creative business,’ Steve reveals. ‘They recorded an impressive growth last year, while others had shown the opposite – and put a great deal of that down to their online skill.
‘So these people are incredibly important to the business.’
On approaching the building, it’s immediately clear that it stands out from its neighbours on the estate. ‘The whole premise of the design is based around what is the lowest commodity they have as a wholesale business – which is a piece of wire!’ Steve points out. ‘We quite like that metaphor because it’s about how CEF communicates. So we took the visual of a wire and stripped it back. The black architectural block is symbolic of the protective coating of the wire; then you get an armored secondary skin, which is represented in the southern block, then an insulator – which is the internal concrete structure here – then the colour, which is the plastic around the copper and, finally, the copper itself.
‘So the whole building has that nice analogy about it – CEF really wanted a building that was ‘of them’.
‘Moving inside, we’ve also got braided wire forms throughout. One of the first things we were asked to do was to use as many of CEF’s own products as possible in the building. An example of this is the Tamlite lighting products – which are slightly utilitarian – and we’ve wrapped them and created grand feature chandeliers. We really got into the idea of using their products.’
Walking into the double-height space, Steve tells us that each side is home to teams with concentrated activities, such as data processing and coding. ‘This space is defined by the black box, with its perforated skin that wraps around it and the street, which links the work zones. We’ve tried to keep everything black, lightweight and almost ‘wire-like’ when it comes to the furniture and you’ll see that there’s a constant reference to this throughout the various workspaces.’
We can see the first examples of this in a flexible multi-use space opposite reception, where training, functions and large-scale presentations can take place. Steve reveals that there is, directly above us, a full-on gym with both facilities boasting views out over the local countryside and bags of natural light. ‘CEF takes wellbeing and the welfare of their staff really seriously,’ he tells us.
In fact, as we walk through the ground floor of this amazingly open and bright facility, we notice that a great deal of the space benefits massively from serene views of greenery and natural light. The open nature of the main street is cleverly punctuated by a series of bridges and interventions. ‘We’ve used a lot of CEF’s own fittings in these areas – for example, we’ve created this large industrial lantern, which looks like a safety light you’d clip onto a building, but on a giant scale. It looks great at night – it really glows!’ Steve grins. ‘To this end of the building we’ve created a breakout and social space, with games consoles and pool table, while the café then wraps around this area. Everything is networked and has WiFi – and we’ve added little punches of red and green and some really beautiful soft seating.
‘We’ve used a super-thin concrete material on a lot of the joinery – which picks up the concrete that runs throughout the building. The concrete helps to cool the building because of its thermal mass and the water pipes that are embedded in it. The system we’ve employed here is actually taken from car park design and gives us huge spans – we have 15m unbroken spans here.
‘The street connects the different departments and we’ve added some softer breakout spaces here, which have a really good spec. It didn’t take any convincing for CEF to buy into design quality and longevity. We went through a debate about what would go where but, other than that, CEF were fully on board. They previously had very little breakout or social space and only two meeting rooms. We went through a major presentation phase and a mock-up stage with them to help with what are pretty enormous cultural changes.
‘One of the key strategies with the street was that we didn’t want to make it a straightforward, parallel void. We wanted to make it articulate sculpturally, so we have pushed and pulled the skin of the black ceramic, which gives us balconies, meeting rooms, semi-protected discussion space and then these pods, which cantilever right out.
‘Departments are given collaborative space away from the main desk space as well as breakout facilities. In terms of ratio, this is probably 60:40 in terms of breakout space to dedicated space – so an awful lot of the building is given over to collaboration.’
Throughout each department we see a continuation of the smart ‘wire’ theme in both the base build elements and on the furniture solutions.
There are smartboards, project tables and acoustic products, all designed to further aid collaboration in the heart of the dedicated working zones. Furthermore, as we look along the street, we can see that each of the different settings – from standing height meeting tables and pods, through to meeting rooms and aforementioned café and pool table – are all being used. One thing that we don’t say too often, but which is incredibly relevant and true of this facility, is that City Electrical Factors’ people appear genuinely happy, creating a welcoming, healthy buzz throughout the heart of the building.
Moving up to the first floor, we get to see the inside view of the discussion spaces and cleverly ‘protruding’ pods. Not only do we get fantastic views back over the street below, but we also discover just how different the nature of each of these different facilities is: from individual quiet space through to formal meeting space, relaxed informal meeting space and open collaborative space – and all within a short, easy stroll from each department.
The integration of City Electrical Factors’ own products really works well, not only smartly suited with the base build’s materials and furniture and furnishings, but also adding a unique personal touch to what must be a pretty unique facility in this part of the country (and beyond).
‘What’s truly rewarding is that, through this process, CEF has actually looked at its own product offering and really stepped up to take notice of where the market is. They’re really creative people and that is intrinsic to their business.’
So, we’ve had our day out in Durham and it really is a beautiful place. The next time we’re on that East Coast Line heading through (or should that be above?) the city, we’ll be thinking of our visit to CEF. Impressive, creative, welcoming and putting people at its heart, this is how a modern workplace should look, feel and function.