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Mix Roundtable: Making great spaces and great places in Birmingham

When ‘unlockdown’ comes, Birmingham workspace will need to meet changed demands from a changed world. We teamed up with Wilmott Dixon Interiors to challenge a group of the city’s leading property practitioners.

Feature in partnership with Willmott Dixon Interiors

22/06/2021 9 min read
Willmott Dixon Interiors
London, Birmingham

Words: David Thame

The late spring sunshine in Birmingham’s St Phillips Cathedral Square matches the upbeat mood in a city that is beginning to feel good about itself. And about time too – both for the sun and the improved self-image.

Whilst good weather helped lift spirits, real world decisions – like Goldman Sachs’ decision to move its engineering department to a new 50,000 sq ft Birmingham office confirm that the city really has turned a corner.

Goldman Sachs has yet to choose a location (although Tristan Capital/Sterling Property Ventures’ 103 Colmore Row is tipped). What matters is that they arrive at a time when the city centre office market is re-thinking its future. The wave of new speculative developments that began in the wake of the Brexit referendum in 2016 are now completing. Developers are considering what to build next to add to the modest standing supply of grade A floorspace. According to Savills, this has plunged by 62% and now stands at just 229,000 sq ft. A few more deals this summer and it will be gone.

With a nationwide return to work now close, developers and investors ponder how best to create stimulating spaces inside buildings and outside them. They are also keenly aware of the dangers the city faces if they flunk the task.

That’s because data suggests Birmingham is bouncing back faster than most other UK and European cities.

Oxford Economics says that Birmingham is the only UK city to feature in the top 10 recovering European cities, placing it ahead of Manchester and London.

So what needs to happen for both workspaces and civic spaces to become places worth leaving home to visit? Does Birmingham have the right stock of appropriate office space and great public spaces to make a success of post-lockdown?

Rob Valentine is is Leeds & Birmingham Director at Bruntwood Works, and one of the forces behind the 110,000 sq ft Cornerblock refurbishment in the city’s Colmore Row business district. The building’s roof garden was among the city’s first and, as our discussion goes on to show, still a showstopper.

‘Birmingham is in a very positive position,’ Rob says. ‘We’re seeing quite an influx of inward investment and occupiers looking at new workspace. Newcomers and existing businesses are asking, ‘What do we need to deliver for growth?’

‘There’s a dearth of Grade A floorspace in the city. And whilst we have some great schemes like Paradise, and Arena Central, most of the new floorspace is a bit corporate. If the Goldman Sachs team are looking at options, they will find there aren’t many, and corporate floorspace is the only show in town.’

Rob suggests that the city needs a wider variety of workspace, declaring the city’s office stock to be safe and slightly vanilla.

‘Workspace needs to be blowing people away if we want to attract people back into the cities,’ he says.

‘I’m mandated to grow Bruntwood’s Birmingham portfolio and we’re looking at half a dozen options – and, when we look at buildings, the questions I ask is how can that building deliver something that will resonate, and will it provide the services and wellness environment that will appeal to a progressive occupier? That is how we deliver something truly sustainable. Get that right, and it will be successful.’

This means tackling some ingrained conservatism in Birmingham office occupiers. Peter Jenks, Director at Thamesis Asset Management, and one of the inspirations to the current transformation of the 210,000 sq ft block at 10 Brindleyplace, says occupiers need to be led. ‘Only two years ago, the idea of exposed services was a shock-horror in Birmingham. We were told it is not done here. Now those same people are embracing the idea. Design is a journey and it takes time for landlords and developers to embrace the new design criteria Birmingham occupiers want.

‘It also takes occupiers time to know they want it – particularly among the more conservative professionals. It means developers and agents have to be a little bit brave because they might not be offering what the occupier is expecting.’

Trevor Ivory ought to know. Trevor is Birmingham-based Head of Planning (and Birmingham Partner) at law firm DLA Piper. Under his leadership, DLA signed for 40,000 sq ft of new office space at the £700m Paradise development. In 2019, they agreed to a 15-year lease at Glenn Howells Architects’ designed Two Chamberlain Square, an eight-storey 183,000 sq ft block.

‘Lawyers and accountants are still at the conservative end of the occupier spectrum. Things that most people long ago accepted are slow to happen, like open plan, where I’m telling my colleagues this is a new innovation,’ Trevor confesses.

The important thing about their new workspace, where Overbury’s six-month fit-out completes this summer, is that it works for clients and recruitment.

‘Definitely there is a role in satisfying our clients, but there is a critical role in recruitment,’ Trevor explains. ‘The questions we get from newcomers today aren’t like they used to be – they ask about things like air quality and the kind of workspace, and there is a big justification for investing in workspace because we have to be able to show graduates who are looking at other options, and other workplaces. And we want them to say they like our spaces.’

Lisa Deering, Director at Glancy Nichols Architects, says getting to grips with the minds of Birmingham’s Generation Z workforce is key to rethinking the workplace.

‘Generation Z isn’t just about going into work, and heading home again. They want a nice workspace environment. They want a place where they can have their friends round for a drink outside and be proud of where they work. It’s almost a status thing,’ she insists. ‘Really good workspace that people are happy using means more engagement and more productivity. It is a huge thing.’

Alec Stewart, Partner at Cundall, agrees that the mood has changed, but also that tastes change. What an occupier wants today may seem dated tomorrow, as the occupier viewpoint evolves. This has been Cundall’s experience at its Colmore Row base.

‘We took this space six years ago. It was very vanilla. Fan core system, suspended ceilings, raised floors…but we were very fortunate with our landlord, who allowed us to invest in what we thought was important and, today, it is nothing like what it was. We’ve created something very different,’ Alec says.

The suite enjoys the WELL Certified gold standard, and provides the open, transparent, healthy workspace that younger graduates want.

‘Lisa is absolutely right. The ability to recruit has been a significant benefit, and it is one we probably didn’t anticipate when we started on this journey,’ Alec says.

In other words, the pressure to rethink Birmingham workspace is coming from below – from graduate staff and clients exerting influence on occupiers who, in turn, influence landlords and developers.

Dr Matthew Jones, Associate Professor at the Birmingham School of Architecture and Design, believes that is right. But he also points to top-down influences like Birmingham City Council’s emerging re-think of the Big City Plan it drew up in 2010. The new document, Our Future City, will guide development up to 2040.

The plan envisages the city centre spilling out into neighbouring districts, a rethink of development around the Curzon Street HS2 station, potential backing for the new studio complex touted for Digbeth, and more creative use of city council property to stimulate development.

The city centre will break out from within the Middle Ring Road. This means strengthening the links with the city centre and its integration with surrounding inner city suburbs such as Aston, Nechells, Balsall Heath, Small Heath and Sparkbrook. More green spaces, cycling tracks and walking opportunities are promised.

‘What we’re seeing is demand and response about how we work and where we work. And yes, that is bottom-up from occupiers to developers, but the drivers are also coming top-down from the city council and government,’ Matthew says.

‘Birmingham has always been an innovative city – it is true that it has not always worked out quite right – but it is often ahead of the others, and I would expect it to be ahead when it comes to driving new workspace. This will be about sustainable development and the way the city works – not just workspace, but civic space between the buildings.’

Which sounds good, but how do you make the transition? In part, this has to be about seeing office buildings as something more than simply shiny glass factories.

Phil Crowther, Regional Director at Wilmott Dixon Interiors, and today’s host, says the key will be to enrich the amenity offer. His firm is currently working on the interior at 10 Brindleyplace.

‘We’ve got to be brave. That’s the big step. Birmingham is so lucky to have the HS2 high speed train line coming, and that is a real opportunity to maximise the offer and really give people the workspaces they want,’ Phil says.

‘Look at other sectors of the build economy – for instance at co-living, where developers are taking the kind of risk with new youth-oriented concepts that we need to take with workspace. We have to learn from them to make workspace attractive to younger people, using the great building stock we already have and improving the more shocking examples of bad stock.’

Phil points out of the window and across the Cathedral Gardens to Birmingham’s former House of Fraser department store. Landlord Legal & General has been plotting a redevelopment for the best part of three years. The Temple Row site is slated for redevelopment as a 1 million sq ft scheme with a heavy bias towards office space. The development has run into trouble from heritage groups.

‘You look across the square to the former House of Fraser store and that enormous building needs some love. All around the Cathedral Square we have some incredible space and it would be good to give the city something great.’

The trouble for Birmingham is that brave ideas do not always work, as Peter Jenks points out.

‘Some ideas work, some don’t. Rather than chuck everything at a new or refurbished office development, I think you have to target, and to accept that some ideas will not work. And that, in another 10 years, the idea of amenity will have changed again – to another new normal,’ Peter says.

The search for amenity can also create new connections with the world on the other side of the reception desk – the world outside work. That is because many of the amenities office workers most value are not in their workplace at all. They are out in the big bold city. Are designers and developers helping to dissolve the boundaries between indoor spaces and outdoor places?

Lisa Deering says they are – up to a point. ‘Around Digbeth you do see more transparency. You see ground floors of office buildings, which are basically public spaces because the occupiers upstairs can’t all have their own little kitchens or breakout areas. But in larger buildings, when you get occupiers on a larger scale, that is a different question.’

Lisa guesses that the large office buildings have some catching up to do. ‘Are the larger office occupiers open to sharing facilities with other tenants or the public?’ she asks.

Phil Crowther applauds those who try. ‘Opening the doors is the first step to unsealing the workplace,’ he says.

Rob Valentine agrees – but wonders how open to sharing some occupiers are. He points back to higher quality design and a sense of adventure.

‘Nobody wants to go to a dull office with a suspended ceiling and a bleak carpet. They want to feel part of something. I like the idea of opening up at ground floor level and having public access, creating spaces where you can feel comfortable being offline or having a conversation. But this kind of space needs creating – and it is not easy. It is not just about facilities, it is about managing it well,’ Rob says, pointing to the wellness standards mentioned by Cundall’s Alec Stewart.

However, a well thought-out amenity could surprise with its popularity. ‘At Cornerblock, we originally thought we needed to reinforce only part of the roof to support a garden, but it turned out to be nowhere near big enough, so we had to retrofit steel to support a larger garden. And that in turn has driven the success of the building,’ he says.

DLA’s Trevor Ivory is also a fan of roof gardens. ‘When we were choosing our new office, it wasn’t really the building, or the interior. The bit that excited most people was the terrace. They loved the idea of having lunch out there,’ he says. ‘That shows the importance of the spaces around buildings, which Birmingham developments like Brinleyplace, and now Paradise, are showing. It is not the desk that draws people back to the workplace, it is the bars and restaurants and places around it.

‘Generation Z wants their friends to come and have a drink outside their office building, rather than outside any other,’ he adds.

Lisa Deering turns the discussion back to the Future City plan being devised by Birmingham City Council. ‘The important themes are not about buildings but about what we can do to improve the public realm, the sparks and spaces between the buildings, and that is something Birmingham has been missing,’ she says.

‘In part, that is about developers not feeling they have to use every square inch of their plot to build on. But it is also about breaking the collars around central Birmingham. Love it or hate it, demolishing the old central library achieved that – it makes the city more open, it creates links, and we need to see a lot more like that.’

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