All hands on deck

The UK’s official agency for shipping and Royal Navy data has a new headquarters in Somerset, designed to push collaboration to the fore, in an open and fluid structure enhanced by timber throughout. Jack Wooler reports on how the AHR-designed project helps workers engage in a ‘one team culture’

Based in Taunton, Somerset, the new headquarters for the UK Hydrographic office has reached completion, as what’s claimed to be a unique timber-enhanced construction that provides an inspiring workspace for one of the world’s leading marine geospatial information agencies. The 11,000 m2 building was created to deliver a specific vision of openness and movement, both in terms of its architecture and its functionality for its users. This has been realised as an open plan, collaborative environment, with key emphasis placed on increasing the ability of the staff to work together and choose how they do so, all within a healthy environment that heightens productivity. At three storeys tall, the building includes a range of amenities, including high specification office space, a staff restaurant, a gym, and meeting facilities for the Government agency.

A collaborative relationship

The UKHO wanted to replace its former buildings in Taunton, which were inefficient and expensive to maintain. As such, the agency was looking to create an environmentally friendly new home for itself, which, as well as bringing financial benefits, they hoped would provide the up to date technology infrastructure and working conditions necessary to enable the organisation to sustain its long-term future. Employed to enact this vision were architects AHR, engineers Hydrock, cost consultant Mace, and main contractor BAM, with the budget for the new office being met by the UKHO from business receipts as a self-funding agency. AHR, awarded the design services contract in 2016, was reportedly chosen for its significant experience working on similar projects, in particular a new headquarters for Bath and North East Somerset Council – which had won a number of awards, including ‘The best of the best’ award 2015 from the British Council for Offices. From the outset, there was an extremely close collaborative working relationship between the client and the practice, bringing UKHO staff into the design process and allowing the agency and its workers to contribute to the vision and eventual feel of the building. When the practice first discussed the proposal with the client, Adam Spall, regional director at AHR, explains that the UKHO’s aspiration was for “a ‘one team’ culture.” Spall explains how they approached this, telling that it was vital to create a “physical and visual connection between all parts of the building,” which resulted “in an impressive sense of openness for such a large facility.” With this open facility now being completed, its success is testament to the collaborative approach undertaken. This is evidenced by its deliverance to an ambitious timescale – completing exactly three years since initial work began in January 2016. The speedy build process was enabled in large part by BAM, who achieved this by splitting the project into two phases, which allowed the car park construction required by the UKHO to be undertaken while the design and costing were completed for the headquarters building itself.

Agile workspaces

The building is in the main constructed as a system of two large interconnected floorplates, which bend gently in a controlled geometry in constant motion. These two floorplates are connected on the ground floor by a dramatic 800 m2 atrium. The fluid motion of the floorplates is continued in this space, with timber panels running along the twisted linear design. Looking upwards from the ground floor here, users see curving timber elements, adding to the sense of fluidity, ample daylighting coming between them from rooflights covering the atrium roof. Connecting both sides physically and visually on the first floor are open balconies and bridges. The central atrium’s large staircases lead users up to these levels, which provide access to the two symmetrically placed wings. The occupants are encouraged to engage with this atrium as they move around the building, with provisions created for stimulating and creative encounters between colleagues. To facilitate this, there is a gradient of activity types with breakout and social spaces within the atrium, including collaborative and agile workspaces around the balcony edges on the first floor, and individual desking towards the perimeter. Arranged around the atrium on both sides are the rest of the building’s various amenities, including 700 desks across flexible work spaces, broken down into 10 smaller neighbourhoods with a range of work settings, including team tables, ‘scrum’ areas (as part of the agile working concept), height adjustable desks and quiet work zones. These wide open working environments were a vital step in meeting the client’s brief, creating the feeling that workers are all as part of the same space, able to interact and co-work with each other to make up a workforce that is more energised and synchronised to achieve their daily tasks – with acoustic and lighting barriers allowing for more private spaces where necessary. This brief was intended by the agency to promote a cultural shift within the UKHO itself, prioritising the wellbeing and functionality of the 850 members off staff working in the building. As such, it required a building which cultivates this kind of collaboration, and provides a modern way of working with the ability to accommodate future business needs – and the design and engineering behind the new building allowed this to be achieved both subtly and efficiently.

Structure & design

The structural engineering design for the site is based on a concrete flat slab structure, chosen to fit the grid shape of the building, and for effective thermal mass and services distribution. Hydrock’s structural design solution ensures that, by day, heat generated by people and IT is absorbed in slab. At night, the vents then open up, allowing the heat to leave the building. The resulting exposed soffits have been designed in order to fit into the aesthetics of the structure itself. Another interesting piece of structural engineering is the atrium, which is covered with 203 rooflights. The unique V-shaped pre-cast concrete beams that form the gutter to the atria roof support this extensive array – the beams spanning 10.5 metres to 16 metres. According to Hydrock, the advantage of using pre-cast concrete beams is that no access is needed inside the building for repair or maintenance, while on the outside it is possible to stand in the gutter to clean the roof lights. Dermot Parkinson, project manager at BAM, explored the construction of the atrium further: “The atrium roof showcases our use of innovative, modern methods of construction within the delivery of this new headquarters.” He continued: “Designed as a kit of precast concrete elements and cast off-site only 5 miles away, it was installed using a 300-tonne crane in just 6 weeks. The 200 modular rooflights were installed safely from above, without the need for scaffolding and delivered significant time efficiencies.” The facades are a key part of this considered structural design, the brick work including 600 mm long bricks and horizontal larch panels which reinforce the linear concept that is present in all aspects of the design. This natural wood and brick finish conceals the concrete smoothly, and joins together precisely. The holistic design concept of both the exterior and the building’s interior reportedly took inspiration from the hydrographic office’s work, following the theme of ‘Seabed to Surface,’ with images of strata, contours and water current influencing the aesthetic design throughout. This has been highly thought-out, with a bespoke artwork and graphics package having been developed with UKHO staff to follow this theme. These bespoke graphics cover much of the building’s interior functionality, carried through the signage, the IT facilities, lockers, furniture, and the graphics identifying a room’s purpose, such as for meeting. Throughout the design process, the team aspired to a high level of specification, always exceeding the ‘minimum standard’ in order to ensure the building is highly durable, agile, and will deliver for decades to come. The whole project was modelled to BIM Level 2, with detailed inputs from the BAM supply chain that ensured all the exposed services were fully coordinated. This was achieved in part by the simple palette of materials employed, as well as early input of the supply chain – all in order to create a robust and well detailed building that could deliver a high quality throughout – and to a deadline.


The brief was largely structured around not just the functionality of the building for its users, but on the wellbeing of the employees, and the necessity to achieve this in a highly sustainable, low energy format. Being central to the design ethos, the team has succeeded in this through the adoption of a robust approach to sustainability, and by utilising natural light and ventilation sources where possible. Thermal comfort models were undertaken by Hydrock to ensure that this ventilation strategy was sufficient to meet current and future climate demands, while meeting workers’ wellness needs. Chris Bowie-Hill, technical director at Hydrock, says that this adoption, “with the headquarters prioritising the wellbeing of the staff,” has enabled the building’s users to “be in control of their environment and access to fresh air on demand.” This is exemplified in the Building Management System which controls the opening and closing of the top half of every window in the building, with occupiers able to control the opening of the bottom half to give them an immediate sense of control over their environment – while the overall temperature of the building remains automated. Copious amounts of natural daylighting compliments this ventilation, owed to the porous atrium and the 3.5 metre floor to ceiling heights, which both allow for significant levels of glazing, helping to reduce the need for artificial lighting. Another aspect of wellbeing particularly important in an office space is noise distractions. The sinuous larch clad baffles hanging from the atrium roof – atria being areas that attract echo – are key in providing acoustic absorption. According to Hydrock, the acoustic design allows the workers to be able to comfortably speak at a normal volume throughout the open plan office environment. Alongside this – the baffles being an integral part of the passive environmental design – they also eliminate glare to the offices below by diffusing low angle sun. As a result of the services strategy employed, the sustainable, low energy operation of the building means that the costs for installing, operating and maintaining fans, pumps and chillers were significantly reduced. This is helping to push the building’s standards, with the project being on course to achieve BREEAM Excellent. The project is also following the Government’s Soft Landings (GLS) process, which provides a post-handover period to enable the UKHO to get the best out of its building and optimise environmental systems for both the building’s expenses, and the workers’ wellbeing. The GSL process is beneficial because, while moving into a custom built structure should be a great experience, far too often there is a large gap between what the client expects of a building and the end product. The Government process promotes early engagement, providing a framework from ‘before the beginning,’ where a construction project can fulfil a need, right up to annual post occupancy evaluations for three years after occupation to ensure the end users’ needs are being met.

Strong reception

The project has been extremely well received by the wider community, including achieving the RIBA South West Award 2019, the RIBA South West Sustainability Award 2019, and the RIBA Awards South West 2019 Winner of the Commercial Category. The building’s users, too, have been vocal in their approval. Jo Funnell, new build project manager at UK Hydrographic Office, for example, lauds the project team’s work: “I am delighted with the outcome of the project and the standard of the building. The collaboration between all parties has been the key to the project’s success. “The new environment will support smarter ways of working at the UKHO, using new technology and modern office practices, which is hugely exciting for our business. The design and quality of the building is something we can all be very proud of having delivered in Taunton.” With critics and users happy with the building, the AHR’s designs are set to provide a significant legacy for the UK Hydrographic Office – not just in terms of a striking and fluid use of timber and brick, nor its porosity or heavy focus on wellbeing, but in its role as an exemplar in how offices can be run; it is open, engaging, comfortable, and even inspirational.