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Shaping the BBC: in conversation with Sheppard Robson’s Helen Berresford

Sheppard Robson’s Partner and Head of ID:SR Helen Berresford discusses shaping the way we see the BBC and creating spaces from the inside out.

06/12/2022 6 min read
This article first appeared in Mix Interiors Issue 222

Words: Chloe Petersen Snell
Images: Courtesy of Sheppard Robson

Set back from the chaos and colour of Camden’s high street, Sheppard Robson is based in a courtyard of yellow-bricked buildings and dichroic glass. Previously a piano factory, the studio has made this peaceful spot its home for over 40 years, developing and renovating the building alongside the growth of the practice.

Dressed head-to-toe in monochromatic red, Berresford cuts an effortlessly creative figure. Describing her childhood as ‘hearts and minds’, thanks to a ceramicist mother and modernist architect father, she cultivated a diverse appreciation of beauty and craft from an early age – eventually attending the Royal College of Art to study architecture, where fellow students included the Chapman brothers and designer Philip Treacy. After getting involved in more mainstream architecture, she describes the ‘real education’ that came from her position at David Chipperfield Architects.

“Working with Chipperfield was brilliant, because it was an education in sculpting space from the inside out,” Berresford notes. “Every detail counted – he was as interested in the door handles, the furniture and the pottery as much as he was the façade.”

Berresford eventually returned to Sheppard Robson – where she had previously interned – and soon took the helm of the practice’s award-winning interior design arm. She now looks after a growing 70-strong team, with projects ranging from education, workplace and, more recently, residential.

“My journey began from the outside in and I felt restless in a way, until that was combined with the inside out. Coming to Sheppard Robson was all about fascination with people and occupiers and has allowed me to help create something much more integrated. My career has really focused on people and the understanding that even the most beautiful spaces and details are only relevant when you add people,” she continues. “People are at the heart of design.”

Most notably then, is the practice’s unwavering relationship with the BBC, which Berresford has worked with for over 20 years – softly joking that her team knows more about the BBC than the BBC do. At the BCO award-winning BBC Cymru project, 1000 employees were relocated from its former building in Llandaff, north of Cardiff. The project started by working in partnership with the BBC teams on an assessment of the former facilities. “This revolved around the fundamental question: should they stay, or should they go?’” Berresford explains. “It was more expensive to refurbish lots of technical, heavy studios than to design new, super digital studios. The digital age is so fundamentally different.”

Working with BBC’s Director of Workplace and Corporate Real Estate, Alan Bainbridge, the 10-year long process eventually resulted in a diverse range of working and production spaces, designed to thoughtfully reflect its home of Wales, support major investment in Welsh broadcasting and, most importantly, shape the future of the broadcaster in such dynamic and shifting times.

Thanks to the interior architecture and clever acoustics, filming can now take place in open rooms, revealing the magic of creating content to the public. The team struggled to source Welsh wool for the ceiling’s 50% acoustic requirements, eventually working with a local mill to reintroduce Welsh wool into the local supply chain and quite literally weave it into the fabric of the workplace. A romantic addition, Berresford describes, but one that is functional and typical of the BBC and ID:SR’s relationship.

“Every time we work with BBC, the result must be useful and local, but not clichéd. Using Welsh wool to do something very functional – and to affect the local supply chain – that is the best of the BBC. We all have a vested interest in the BBC and they have that sense of corporate social responsibility with their approach.”

The design language is inherently Welsh while avoiding the usual tropes of leeks and red dragons, and ID:SR worked with Welsh design studios and universities to help design the furniture and fabrics.

“Again, the idea was that we could affect local income,” says Berresford, “so instead of taking things off the shelf, it really was made in Wales – with excellence. That was key. As a result, there’s fabric in the building that’s on furniture and the ceilings that is inspired by the students. They got to work with commercial organisations to help evolve their career and the organisations got some interesting new ideas!”

Sheppard Robson has been shoulder-to-shoulder with the BBC throughout some of its most challenging and interesting times, says Berresford, starting with their rethinking of W1 (a project the practice is still working on), its biggest ever people-move for BBC North, and embracing agile working throughout the pandemic – for 22,000 employees no less.

Indeed, the landmark arrival of BBC at MediaCity, Salford, was a serious game-changer for both the corporation and the once derelict dockland it now stands on. Marking 10 years in situ in 2021, the move marked the start of a substantial transformation of Manchester’s – and more broadly, the north of England’s – socioeconomic landscape, at a time when how we consumed media was rapidly changing from analogue to digital. Berresford describes a politician visiting the site and being dumbstruck at tweet booths within the collaborative spaces – once a private social pastime, now a platform on which many could argue elections are won and lost.

“There was a huge change in how broadcasting was going to work and stay relevant,” she explains passionately. “It was the ultimate sort of purpose driven building in many respects. Our society has absolutely transformed, and it was all about building digital into the space.”

The BBC North workplace captures the vibrancy of shared spaces and amenities, offering more choice in less space than its London equivalent. Amenity-centric rather than desk-centric, the workplace supports agile working across a variety of desirable work settings, tailored to a range of activities, whether holding a team meeting, making a phone call, editing content, having an informal catch up, tweeting or blogging. It even doubles as a studio space, providing the backdrop to a variety of broadcasts, then replicated at the Wales site.

Berresford describes large office projects, like the practice’s work for BBC Wales and Media City, as a microcosm of a city, and that projects of this scale need master planning. “After all, it’s about weaving the right mix of places together, bringing together civic spaces, alongside private technical spaces. Bringing together spaces to live work and play – just like all the cities you love do.”

Another British institution radically rethinking its estate and ways of working, BT’s ‘Better Workplace Programme’ aims to create a new generation of people-focused workspaces, with agility and wellness design principles at their core. Consolidating BT Group’s UK footprint from more than 300 locations to around 30 was no easy task, especially designing throughout a pandemic. Despite the obvious changes the pandemic turbocharged, for Berresford and her team, the way in which they designed the space didn’t change. Organisations realised they could work digitally – a process which the BBC had been working on for nearly a decade.

“In a way, a lot of the learnings we found from BBC master planning. It was a quite comparable process, taking an organisation that really needs to reinvent itself in the digital world and making it relevant – but also bringing the people along during that process, because it’s quite a transformational change.” ID:SR created a flexible ‘toolkit’ for a full range of work, amenity and collaborative requirements, which can be used in different ways, aligned to people’s day-to-day requirements. These can contract or expand as and when BT need them, evolving with the potential changes in hybrid working that are still to come.

“We’ve rejected seas of desks and workplaces inspired by Taylorism, with its ideas of surveillance (a precursor to presenteeism) and clear hierarchy, looking even more antiquated.”

Next for Berresford and her team is growing its residential and hospitality presence, but she already has an eye on the future beyond and the challenges it may hold. “It’s been a turbulent couple of years, but office design has never been so interesting and important to people’s lives,” she ponders. “Environmental responsibility is obviously top of the agenda and being efficient and doing more with less is fundamental to this. It’s not just about specifying sustainable products, but also important to work with clients to ensure they are efficient with their space and that they use what they have in a sophisticated and thoughtful way.

“For me it always comes back to our team – how we solve problems together and create a culture to deliver excellence.” The latter is clear as we’re given a tour of the studio after our conversation, which features stripped timber beams, flexible work settings and a giant and inviting purple modular sofa ready for brainstorming. “It doesn’t matter if you are a blue chip or SME, we always want to understand the culture of an organisation and what people need to do their best work, as well as enhance their life. After all, people really are at the heart of design.”

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