Herman Miller’s PortalMill

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As much as we get excited by new product developments, we also love getting underneath the chrome, wood, mesh and fabric. Product innovation comes from advances in manufacturing processes and we are firm believers that, if you want to understand a manufacturer, you have to take a look at said manufacturing processes.

Therefore, when one of the true pioneers of workplace products invited us to look at a new state-of-the-art manufacturing facility, we were hardly going to say no!

Sir Nicholas Grimshaw, recently opened Herman Miller’s new UK manufacturing facility. Known as PortalMill, the new facility in Melksham, Wiltshire, is the third building Sir Nicholas has collaborated on with Herman Miller.

His first project for the company was in 1975 when he was chosen by Max De Pree, son of founder DJ De Pree, who commissioned a custom-built factory on the banks of the River Avon in Bath, when the US manufacturer expanded its UK operations. Described as an ‘Action Factory’, the innovative building, which was designed with modular removable panels, has recently received a Grade II listing in recognition of its place in industrial architecture. His second building – BlueBuilding – was completed in 1983 and enabled the company to further expand its UK operations and manufacturing capability.

PortalMill represents Herman Miller’s ongoing commitment to UK manufacturing and will ensure a long-term presence in the South West, while investing in the future growth of the business supported by a highly skilled workforce. In addition, the new facility will ensure that the company can better respond to customers’ needs whilst maintaining the innovative products and high quality that Herman Miller is known for.

HM_PortalMill_Fotohaus_003_hiThe building’s footprint is an L-shape, with an impressive social/office space tucked into the centre of the L. This layout (in contrast to a traditional rectangular shape) enables the volume of space to be maintained but the distance and travel time from one side of the building to another is greatly reduced.

PortalMill also offers Herman Miller the opportunity to house its operations, research and development, options and supply chain teams together in one space. The building is designed to provide an open and flexible space, allowing for greater collaboration between teams, whilst having a variety of workspaces to accommodate the different needs of each team.

The 170,000 sq ft building houses 200 highly skilled employees, using state-of-the-art equipment and lean manufacturing process, including Herman Miller’s proprietary Performance System and ISO 9000 accredited operations. Products produced here are shipped to customers in over 8,000 cities worldwide, from FTSE100 blue-chip companies to smaller start-ups.

The location was formerly RAF Melksham, a training base which at its peak housed around 10,000 personnel. The RAF station opened in 1940 and over the following 25 years recruits undertook basic training and courses, in particular for the Instrument and Electrical trade schools.

Following the closure of the base in 1965, some of the accommodation was refurbished to become local authority housing, with many of the larger buildings taken over by local businesses, which gradually became the industrial estate it is today.

‘Herman Miller and I both share a unified approach to design and the built environment, so it was a pleasure to work with this revered company again,’ Sir Nicholas said at the official PortalMill opening. ‘There are similarities between this building and the original I designed in the 1970’s, with democracy of space key to the project and a social hub placed at the heart of the building.’

Sir Nicholas was joined at the opening by Herman Miller’s Chief Executive Officer Brian Walker, who commented: ‘I am delighted that I could be here today with Sir Nicholas to open Herman Miller’s newest manufacturing facility. PortalMill ensures that we can continue to deliver our award winning office furniture across the UK Europe and the Middle East, now and into the future. By bringing our wood processing, chair assembly, logistics, research and development and operations teams under one roof our staff can work together more closely to better serve our customers with faster, more efficient solutions.’

We ask about the choice of location. ‘We wanted to stay close-by because we wanted to retain the workforce,’ Brian tells us. ‘It was not easy to find a site that was going to work from the workforce perspective and would also give us the space that we wanted. We looked all over the place – we did think about whether we should be here or not be here. The conclusion was that the economics were right and we really did want to keep our people.

‘This is our largest market in Europe so being right here in the heart of it is really important to us.

‘It is within easy reach of the motorways and the railway. Bath is lovely city – the problem was that we simply couldn’t get our trucks in and out of there any more. The city has sort of grown up around us – and that was problematic.’

Sir Nicholas, of course, was there at the start of Herman Miller’s association with the West Country, and we ask why Bath was chosen in the first place. ‘Bath was always known as a furniture town. Right next to our cream building was always Bath Cabinet Makers and there were joinery companies all along the river.’

‘It fitted our culture,’ Brian adds. ‘Our founder’s son – Max De Pree – picked the location. I think he felt that the company had such a connection with architecture and the idea of being surrounded by this beautiful architecture made sense. Often, our buildings were not where everyone else would put a building. He though about the proximity to people and architecture – that’s what he felt was important.’

Sir Nicholas and his team reconnected with Herman Miller some four and a half years ago, we discover. ‘We knew that our lease in Chippenham was coming to end, so we had to do something with one of our buildings,’ Brian explains. ‘Over time the Bath building, which had served us super well for many years, was getting harder and harder to operate out of. We decided to take a leap.’

Sir Nicholas and Brian reveal that the first plans for a consolidated site date back some 20 years – when Brian was working here in the UK. Those grand plans for Bath never came to fruition, of course, due to operational and economic considerations. Now, however, Herman Miller can boast one of the most impressive facilities in the UK. We’re told, for example, that one of the main production lines here will deliver a new chair every 50 seconds!

HM_PortalMill_Fotohaus_034_hi‘This site does have its challenges,’ Grimshaw Principal Architect Ben Heath tells us. ‘It is actually quite an awkward footprint – but this led to the idea of the ‘elbow’. This was essentially the process of bringing two buildings together. We worked closely with Herman Miller to understand the operations and functions. By placing the social heart in the centre it enabled us to get the footprint right.’

‘There were some social issues too,’ Sir Nicholas continues. ‘There was an old athletics track on the site and we’ve ended up building a whole new sports pavilion to keep the sports side happy. They didn’t have to do that, but I was very impressed with that.’

‘Often in today’s world you need industry and the global community to come together,’ Brian considers. ‘This was a win/win for us as we want our people to be able to live close to where we are and we want to create great places that people are attracted to. It’s good for us and it’s also good for the area.’

We ask our hosts about the other major challenges faced here at PortalMill. ‘One of the major challenges in Bath was always access and distribution,’ Ben explains. ‘Here we have this great vast service centre behind us, which is fantastic from an operations point of view but sits within the natural environment.

We’ve been able to completely screen this from one side so it now feels as though you are arriving at a smart office environment rather than a distribution centre. We really wanted to create that sense of arrival. Once we had ‘wrapped’ the building, that all started to fall into place.

‘The key to all this is the social space in the centre. In reality this is simply the space between two simple buildings, but you can have exhibitions here, presentations here…it enables you to mix things up and use the space in a variety of ways.’

‘This space allows everyone here to be involved,’ Sir Nicholas adds.

We’ll leave the final words to Brian. ‘We don’t just want the hands – we want the whole person to be involved! If you involve people and allow them to move around then their creativity goes up and they end up identifying improvements – and they have a happier, healthier life!’