Space Exploration: Spacelab

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When leading architecture and design firm Spacelab kicked off its 15th anniversary celebrations in style, inviting friends and partners to join the team in King’s Cross for a party likely to be remembered for the next 15 years, it got us reminiscing.

We’ve been fortunate enough to know Spacelab’s founding partners Andrew Budgen and Nathan Lonsdale for some time now and, thinking back, aside from reveling in each other’s trials and triumphs in our shared love of football*, it’s when we’ve been able to celebrate each other’s professional successes that’s brought us together over the years. This night was one such occasion.

*Just for the record – and remaining purely unbiased – Nathan is a huge fan of the mighty Liverpool FC. Andrew likes some other team called ‘Manchester City’.

During that fantastic 15th birthday event, Andrew and Nathan took their guests on their own trip down ‘memory lane’, looking back at the highlights of the past decade and a half.

In 2002, Spacelab’s first project, Westlake House, was featured on Channel 4’s Grand Designs programme, with the project picking up a RIBA Design Award the following year.

‘It was a little box in the middle of a field,’ Nathan grins. ‘I remember Kevin McLeod asking us, ‘So boys, in your commercial life, are you always on time and on budget?’ We then stand there, really seriously, and say, ‘Kevin, we’re always on time and always on budget!’

‘Then, if you fast forward, there’s Kevin saying, ‘So, we’re now two months late into the project and £100,000 over budget!’’

Spacelab are working with ASOS to develop their new London headquarters in Greater London House, Camden. Moving 2,500 people to a much more fluid and collaborative way of working

Despite these teething problems, more success was to follow, and soon they were up to four RIBA Design Awards – one awarded for the design of Great Ormond Street Hospital’s The Orangery in 2005. ‘At the time, we couldn’t believe (and still can’t) that such a young company would be selected for the award,’ Nathan recalls.

The project was also shortlisted for the prestigious Stephen Lawrence Award and mid-listed for Britain’s top architectural accolade, the Stirling Prize.

Other highlights of this 15 year journey include scooping the national BCO Award for best refurbished/recycled workplace in 2012 for the transformation of Virgin Money’s HQ in Edinburgh and the BD Interior Architect of the Year Award in 2014.

“I still remember the two of us sitting in the pub one day and Andy suddenly said, ‘Our kid, I’ve got it – I’ve got the name: Spacelab!”

The story behind Andrew and Nathan’s friendship and working partnership goes back further still. ‘We first met at college in Birmingham. After that I was working for a company called Cunningham Associates,’ Nathan tells us. ‘My main client was EMAP – and the Head of Property there was leaving to set up an estates business within Anglian Water. I was asked to come along with them and, about three months in, I phoned Andy and said, ‘We’ve got a great opportunity to start up our own little business here’. He said, ‘You’ve got to be joking – I’m working on the Urbis project in Manchester!’ I really did see this as a great opportunity to start our own business within Anglian Water and then, eventually, to head off on our own.

‘So, after a little bit of persuading, Andy came up and joined me. We spent more time in public toilets in the Anglian region, picking out wall colours, than we did anything else! We eventually changed things and by 2002 we found that about 80% of our work was coming from outside of the group – and we decided it was time to fly the nest.

‘I still remember the two of us sitting in the pub one day and Andy suddenly said, ‘Our kid, I’ve got it – I’ve got the name: Spacelab!’

‘I thought, ‘That’s a little bit different!’ We’ve always believed that architecture is not about egos, it’s about people. We didn’t want to go down that Budgen Lonsdale & Partners route.

Spacelab worked with Haymarket Media Group to successfully wrap space around their business strategy. This resulted in 1,000 people accommodated in 46,000sqft. All working in an agile way

‘We wanted to create something different – to create a real brand. Today we’re 50-strong. Two years ago, when we moved into our space, we were 20. We’ve not got ‘new business’ people – we never have. We never thought we needed it. Our philosophy is that if we just do good work, then that will naturally bring us more work. We just want to do the right thing and trust people – and it’s also about respect. You have to respect the people you work with. One of the big beliefs that Andy and myself have always had is that Spacelab is not about us – it is about the people we work with, and it’s about the team. We have a young, talented team and they are so good – we’re really proud of them.’

‘I think we’ve always tried to be really honest,’ Andrew considers, ‘and I believe the people we work with find that appealing. The culture starts with us, but our guys have that same belief and ethos; it’s about breaking the status quo. We all believe the research-backed nature of our work does this. We all believe it creates great spaces which both work for people and look good.’

And as they stand and talk in front of their (many) friends and partners in the industry, you can genuinely feel the connection between the current team around the room.

They’re all present; they know their roots, but more than that, they know the part they play in the next chapter. And, like their leaders before them, they seem to actually really like each other.

The warmth and emotion even gets to the two guys; at certain points both find their voices cracking, ever so slightly of course, (and going against the grain of their northern DNA) as they acknowledge the close-knit team’s support and successes.

To mark the 15th birthday, Spacelab have launched an exciting new brand identity, together with a new website, however, the firm’s mission remains the same today as it did back in 2002 – to create spaces for people to feel good and be great.

The Lab Foundation’s latest project in Rochester Square, Camden is giving an art space back to the local community

‘But we don’t want to stop there,’ Nathan tells us. ‘We want to revolutionise how people use and view space. It’s not about the designer. We’re here to design great spaces that solve problems, support individuals and help them achieve more.’

Which brings us nicely to the big announcement of the night – the launch of the Lab Foundation.

Under this new banner, the firm will donate 10% of their profits – in time and skills as well as cash – to projects that strive to empower individuals and communities within the arts, housing, education and social welfare. ‘We’ve been thinking about this for the last 18 months,’ Andrew tells us. ‘It really stems from the fact that we started to look back at the business and what we’ve done over the past 15 years. We thought, ‘What are we going to do next?’

‘We’ve been very lucky in our careers and we wanted to do something where we could give back – giving back space to those who don’t have those opportunities.’

‘We wanted this to be at the heart of everything,’ Nathan continues, ‘at the heart of Spacelab and also at the heart of Urbanlab – our development company.

‘We’re now on site with a new build development in Hackney, where we are working with the local Baptist church to provide 24 flats. We’re giving them back a new church, a new community centre to support the local area and a café so that they are self-sufficient – and they’ve not paid a penny.

‘We’re also doing a development project in Stratford for 17 flats and we’ve just gone into planning for nine flats and a new Community Use Space in Camden, which will provide 3,000 sq ft of community arts space,’ Andrew explains. ‘About a third of it is studios with subsidised rent for artists to use and then two thirds is community arts space, which might be used by kids from local schools or by yoga groups or for community events.

‘The idea is that the artists will have a studio space at an affordable rent but will give a few of hours of their time to get involved in the management of the events or to run workshops for the homeless or to work directly with the local schools.

“The culture starts with us, but our guys have that same belief and ethos; it’s about breaking the status quo.”

‘We do have all these amazing skill sets within the business and we feel that this is a great way to utilise those – rather than just giving money. Giving some of our time and those skills just made sense to us. The idea is that the Lab Foundation is given the space by Urbanlab – the developer – at half the cost of its value and then, over 15 years, the mortgage is paid off by the rent from the studios, and then it’s granted in perpetuity to the Foundation. So the real goal is to make everything the Lab Foundation does self-sustainable.’

‘I would love to see the Foundation grow and go from strength to strength,’ Nathan enthuses. ‘The more spaces we can bring into the Foundation, the more opportunity we’re going to be able to give everybody to better themselves. It’s quite a simple formula really – and everyone is on board. Our guys love it. They are so up for it. We’re all aiming for the same goal.’

‘The idea is that the Lab Foundation becomes self-sustainable – and ultimately makes a profit, which then goes straight back in,’ Andrew explains. ‘Therefore, it’s not reliant on third-party donations – however, if someone wanted to make a donation with a community interest company that’s been set up here, then they can. Obviously, we’d be more than happy to accept donations to develop it further – whether that’s time or money.’

And so the Spacelab story continues. From humble beginnings (naturally, in the pub), to being in the enviable position of using their success to give back to others. It’s clear the Spacelab movement, like the inspiration for its name, knows few boundaries.

Watch this Space(lab).