RocketSpace design by LOM architecture and design

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When one of our team came across a story announcing the arrival of a unique new co-working business in the UK, we all downed tools and set about discovering how we could find out more about this venture.

Following a short, silent burst of Internet and social media trawling, we found that NatWest and RocketSpace have teamed up as development partners to deliver the first RocketSpace campus outside the US. The facility launched in Islington this May, with LOM architecture and design responsible for delivering the exciting new campus.

Focused exclusively at tech industry startups, RocketSpace London aims to support a creative ecosystem for over 1,500 individuals. The organisation, which was founded in San Francisco in 2011, is geared to providing the necessary velocity – both speed and direction – to help breakthrough innovators bring the future to market. The ‘office as service’ campus includes multi-gigabit Internet, trend talks, networking and peer group testing to support the next generation of tech giants.

RocketSpace has already facilitated more than 1,000 high-growth tech start-ups and 150 corporate brands from around the globe, boasting an astonishing 18 alumni with $1b+ valuations. 

RocketSpace was founded by tech entrepreneurs, for tech entrepreneurs – Company Founder and CEO, Duncan Logan, is himself a technology exec who became frustrated with the bleak options for his new startup in San Francisco.

Faced with the choice of funding a private office in an isolated building or joining a co-working facility where the team would be surrounded by non-technology freelancers, he chose a third option – and RocketSpace was born.

We meet up with LOM architecture and design’s Associate Chris Pyle and Architect Chiara Cantilena outside the neighbouring Angel underground station. After literally 30 seconds’ walk along Upper Street, we can see the transformation that marks the arrival of RocketSpace with the clean lines of an impressive double-height reception framing an illuminated rocket that hangs as the centrepiece.

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Our hosts for the morning take us right past reception, and through the public courtyard, which stands at the centre of this surprisingly sizable building. As we walk, looking up at the imposing, surrounding 80’s façade, Chris tells us about the history of the space. ‘It’s an occupied building and has been throughout the construction period,’ he reveals as we reach the rear entrance. ‘It’s also a very sensitive building. It was once the cash holding depot for RBS London – with a cash counting centre and large strongroom vault in the basement.’ Passing the external concrete turret providing a guard tower, Chris explains: ‘Under previous operations, everything was monitored and recorded from this point onwards. When we first visited the building, the loading bay providing direct access to the underground areas had smoke machines mounted to the ceiling as a measure of security! It’s a really interesting space.’

‘There were large double roller shutters marking the secure line and the trucks would be granted access to load or unload bullion and cash,’ Chiara continues. ‘It was then passed through cash turntables, into the counting room to be processed and stored in the strongroom vault. We’ve now adapted this redundant space and transformed it into a new venue for events and flexible working.’

The initial phase of the project included the removal of 1,200 tonnes of material as the affected areas were stripped back to reveal an impressive structure of brickwork, blast proof concrete and coarse stone aggregate. Chiara explains as we walk through the new event space: ‘In many ways this has been a restoration project of a historical building. The aim of the fit-out was to utilise the volumes above and below ground to create a unique workplace but also to retain the original character that makes the basement so unusual and so special.’

The subterranean level presented a number of design challenges in light, circulation and even access. ‘We had to tackle many issues at the outset of the project to establish that it was feasible. The basement was classified as office ancillary. It had limited means of escape and was capable of accommodating 60 people. The challenge was finding a way to get 400 to 500 people down here.’ Chris continues. ‘We managed to create three additional openings across a 1,600 sq m floorplate by breaking through the reinforced concrete structure. These walls travel through the eight-storey building. Breaking through them was a huge undertaking and strategically planned in a way that ultimately helped to dictate the layout of the basement.’

With a double-height volume and offering the only source of natural light, the vehicle loading bays have been transformed into an event space and cafe. The cash counting centre, located deeper within the floorplate, has become a flexible work space for individual ‘first tier’ Surf members. Monolithic table joinery pieces are clamped to exposed concrete columns to make the most of the space available. Lighting has been designed to overcome the feel of being underground, but also to maintain areas of illumination and shadow. A new resin floor finish reflects light and elevates the character of the basement. The exposed core is complemented by a utilitarian approach to building services, referencing laboratories and NASA space stations, with exposed ductwork, metallics and flashes of colour providing the backdrop.

The impressive event area features bleacher-style seating and a giant presentation screen. Adjacent to this is a cool coffee bar and above is a series of overhanging glazed meeting pods perched on a mezzanine level. ‘We utilised the volume by introducing an elevated floor level and it provides spectacular views across the space. The pods are designed as media rooms, hosting VIPs, speakers and providing a vantage point to film events and beam them across the world’ Chiara tells us.

‘Every little detail brought something special. They wanted this to look and feel unique – to be RocketSpace. We were able to take the core of the building and combine it with the branding, the finishes and the furniture – which was quite an iterative process because they so wanted this to feel different.’

It does feel different. And that’s a very good thing. The concrete base build provides a fantastic backdrop to the modern facilities and settings available to those Surfers. There are reminders of the basement’s former function left in place. Perhaps the best example of this is within the strongroom vault, where the space has been transformed into a games room. Banquette seating, stylish furnishings  and drapes, a cinema lightbox and ornate pool table provide references to the auspicious activities of a former cash vault and offer a playful nod to the Great Gatsby.

Heading to the upper floors, the 3,000 sq m floorplates have been divided into open plan ‘Lab’ space and cellular ‘Suite’ space, using over υ 700 linear meters of acoustically tested glazed partitions.

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All 1,000 fixed desks across the campus are fully height adjustable. The desk system is completely bespoke, designed to maximise space usage and reflect the utilitarian aesthetic. 1,200 x 600mm tabletops in ply sit above raw steel desk frames with cable management and slim-line pedestals and state-of-the-art task chairs designed to optimise ergonomics.

‘The Lab areas provide open plan desk arrangements for ‘second tier’ members who require increased levels of stability and personalisation,’ Chris explains. ‘The spaces are located around the building’s four cores to provide a destination point along internal axis. Each Lab is supported by phone booths, resource points and meeting rooms to deliver a complete ‘office as a service’ facility.’

The cellular spaces, that actually occupy 80% of the astonishingly large floorplates, provide furnished Suites for ‘third tier’ campus members. Each Suite has storage, writeable glass walls and individually controlled lighting, heating and cooling. The Suite model is scalable, ranging from four to 32 fixed desk positions to accommodate business growth.

It’s now that we see the complete model. The basement simultaneously offers an entry level springboard and the campus networking space, while the upper floors provide focused business autonomy. The entire development is structured to create a rich campus ecosystem where the diversity of members is its core strength. The space eloquently provides a platform for growth, placing individual tech start-ups with the next ‘big idea’ alongside established global giants.

We finish at the start, where we find a cool reception space, complete with RocketSpace branding and a variety of smart waiting, seating, browsing and working options for visitors.

RocketSpace wanted the London campus to be different, and with the support of NatWest and the vision of the project team, it really is. Chris and Chiara tell us that take-up across all spaces here has been amazingly strong – including those 32-person rooms. We can see why. We have take-off.

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