[ ROUNDTABLE ] Back To life: New Offices Revitalize London’s Sea Containers House
Sea Containers House was originally designed in the 1960s as a luxury hotel, but by the early 1980s, an economic recession forced the building to instead transition into an office block, housing a shipping company that gave the building its name for decades.
Fast-forward 30 years and today those heavily partitioned offices are now home to a luxury hotel and over 225,000sf of office space for global communications and media firms, Ogilvy & Mather and MEC Global. Creating a modern, open workplace in a decidedly unmodern, segmented building was a daunting challenge.
Dean Manning: Sea Containers House on the Southbank—has not always been the most fashionable part of London. Plus, Sea Containers is an iconic building but has historically been a little challenging. How did you come to the decision to move here?
Max: We were not particularly fixated on any one location. We looked at a huge number of buildings. The choice was more about the building itself and its specific location rather than being in Southwark or Waterloo, for example. So had this building been two streets back, had it not had the sort of iconic elements that it has, we maybe wouldn’t have chosen it. This was not an easy project to visualize. I remember looking at the building five years before anybody moved in and it was so heavily partitioned; it was a labyrinth. Only once it was all opened up and the floors were much more visible did we realise, “Actually, this could work.”
Colin: There was a huge amount of intervention from the developer and landlord just to get it to the point where it was as open plan as it could be. It wasn’t a very welcoming arrival experience. When you were in it, the floor-to-ceiling heights were so low.
Dean: The 12 floors of offices have nine staircases connecting them. So, Colin, what’s with your fixation with staircases?
Colin: In their location at Canary Wharf, Ogilvy and MEC were on two very big floors, with several of their brands housed there. Communication, connectivity between floors and interaction with each other was quite easy. Then the other brands in the company were over on Westbourne Terrace and isolated in their own spaces.
So we had two completely polar opposites. A major part of the brief was to enhance communication and interaction between all of the brands as they came together in one space.
They’re moving into this building which has three completely different types of environment: a sky terrace, a central terrace, and then the river terrace. And the hotel is in the middle. So the reason for lots of stairs is to link all of them together and basically retain the ease of movement that some of them experienced before, and enhance it for those who were in Westbourne Terrace. There are only six lifts yet over 2,300 people in the building.
Dean: What were the particular challenges on this project?
Guy: First of all, WPP have very high expectations in terms of extracting value for money. Given strong economic conditions at that time, we were procuring in a very buyer-unfriendly market, so achieving best value for money in those market conditions is tougher. Asking contractors to take risk is also tough, particularly when you have a complex scheme containing a high degree of structural work, overlapping the developer’s work by nine months. As a result of the overlap we were working on live MEP services. All of that adds extra complications to what is already an efficient timeframe. It was a fairly sophisticated lot to manage.
Colin: With a fully functioning hotel thrown into the mix in the middle of the building.
Guy: Yes, and you add to that a fairly complex design from a visionary architect/designer/workplace specialist. Delivering all of that a high pace is complex.
Dean: Managing multiple agencies all coming under one roof must have been a huge challenge as well.
Max: Yes, it was, but they had a good central leadership team.
Colin: The senior leadership of all of the businesses were involved in strategic decisions. I was surprised at the lack of politics. We had a really good all-around team—from the professional team, to the real estate team, to the client team.
Guy: The legal team, too. Everybody worked together well. The client knew from the outset that they had to properly consider what Colin and his team were offering up, then come back with some fairly efficient and solid feedback, which they did. Given their operation changes rapidly with new account wins and the like, we were fortunate to have such a businesslike approach. They had a good facilities team involved, appointed all the right people, took on board the advice that was given to them and were very supportive.
Max: I think in a way the time pressure actually helped.
Guy: A lot of that was because they wanted to relocate from Canary Wharf to the new location as soon as possible, so they understood that any procrastination from their side would delay things.
Dean: An article in the Financial Times suggested that the vision for the space is going to create an environment with a genuine wow factor. Did it create that kind of wow factor with the staff who work there?
Max: I think so, yes. But “wow factor” is probably only going to apply the first few times you come into work. After that it becomes more a function of how the space works as an office building and how it works for you individually. Having said that, first impressions from clients and from other people in the property industry have been incredibly positive.
Guy: Yes. I think “wow” in terms of location, views and design. The way the space is used, too—the offerings they have in terms of practical facilities like catering and meeting space.
Max: I mean when you open the door it’s pretty impressive, isn’t it?
Guy: Yes, the building just works. That’s “wow” in itself.
Colin: I think Ogilvy and MEC are already seen as good employers but this has an added level to it, hasn’t it? You always get the sense that people like working for Ogilvy, so to then give them an environment like this just pushes it to the next level. It’s great.
Dean: How about Ogilvy’s position in the market around this area, this sort of “Creative Mile” that is seemingly being developed?
Colin: There’s definitely an attraction in this part of town for the creative industries, in being around cultural buildings. You’ve got so much culture here—from the ballet, to the Tate Modern, to the Globe, to the National Theatre. Then you’ve got BFI, Royal Festival Hall.
Max: I’ve rarely kicked off a project within WPP where anyone is really fixated on location. Location matters but I can’t remember anyone saying, “It must be Clerkenwell or it must be Shoreditch,” you know? Proximity to clients, good accessibility for staff and value for money are the main focus areas. Then, of course, it must be a decent building. I think a lot of the commercial demographics in London in the last few years have been created by pricing as much as anything else.
Colin: I agree with that. I think if this building had been pre-let full with multi-tenants you’d still have had 2,000-plus people here. But the fact that a couple of big, signature, creative clients in media moved here definitely enhances the location again.
Dean: What are you most proud of with this project?
Max: A number of things. Cost profile, for one. We’re definitely proud of the deal. It provides long-term cost certainty, which is something all businesses strive for. In addition we’ve created an environment that gives us a really good platform for a lot of the other projects we’re doing. Particularly in terms of the design and the flexibility and amount of shared space we have in this building. That’s a real positive when we go to other markets and talk about the projects we’re going to be doing in the future. We can reference that roughly 40% of the space is shared and only 30% or 40% of space is allocated desk space. You can talk statistics until you’re blue in the face but here people are actually seeing it in action and can say, “Well, actually, it works and it’s great.”
Guy: After seven long years of being involved, actually it comes down to the same metrics we’ve always held to, which are time, cost and money. We held to those three measures and the space looks amazing.
Colin: For me, pitching and winning the project was absolutely a highlight, particularly against a field of world-class designers from the UK and overseas.
Colin: It’s very difficult to describe this building as an office building. I think anyone who walks around it, you can spend over an hour in this building and never see a desk but you still know it’s a work space, you still see people working. I think that’s a real testament to the client’s commitment to making something unique and different from the norm.
Max: The interesting thing will be to see how it actually affects the business and the productivity of the people who work here. If you’re looking for a new job, one thing’s going to be salary, but another is going to be where you work and quality of the environment. With this new space, nobody is not going to join Ogilvy because of the office. I don’t think that was necessarily the case in their old offices.
Dean: Do you think the quality of the working environment will have a positive effect on Ogilvy’s and MEC’s bottom line?
Max: I think the property industry has struggled to come up with a way of measuring the impact of real estate on productivity and on business success. Anecdotally, we all probably accept that it’s true but there’s no hard evidence around that. We’re certainly making a case for it here.
Max Holliday, WPP (Ogilvy and MEC parent company)
Guy Rockingham, Colliers International (formerly Bollingbrook Ltd)
Colin Macgadie, BDG architecture + design
Dean Manning, Structure Tone London