From its founding in 1922 until the start of this century, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) had been a fairly London-centric institution. The BBC’s programing had come to be viewed as too focused on southern England, while the media landscape had evolved rapidly throughout the country. The Beeb, in short, needed to sharpen its act.
In considering its future as a media organization serving all of Great Britain, the BBC chose to move a significant portion of its operations—2,500 employees in 37 departments—to a new office near Manchester called BBC North. The move has given the BBC and its staff a fresh jolt of energy.
Through a competition process, the BBC hired the design firm ID:SR, the interior design arm of the London firm Sheppard Robson, to design 338,000 total square feet in three new buildings designed by Chapman Taylor. The office is part of a complex called MediaCityUK, a mixed-use property development at the eastern end of the Manchester Ship Canal, on the site of the former Manchester Docks. The complex is part of Salford Quays, one of the largest urban regeneration projects in the United Kingdom.
Complexity of spaces breeds creativity
Change was imperative for the BBC in this move, and inspiration came from the urban condition. Designed like self-contained cities, the interiors of each of the three buildings—Bridge House, Dock House, and Quay House—have unique programs and appearances reflective of the different ways the departments operate.
“We shaped these complex spaces like vibrant, creative cities,” says Helen Berresford, a partner at Sheppard Robson and head of ID:SR. “We used this concept to inspire us as we created a much greater complexity of places in the interior of the BBC’s new home.” The office contains departments such as BBC Sport, BBC Children’s, BBC Radio 5 Live, and portions of BBC Learning.
“For the BBC, it’s no longer just the complex output that counts,” Berresford says. “It is enabling conversations and collaborations with each other, and more importantly, with the audience. Hence, the spaces were radically different from what the teams had in London.
From complex studios, meeting rooms, and edit suites, to a place to have a good conversation and be mobile, the offices are like a vibrant, creative city embracing a digital future.”
The design brief set forth by the BBC’s portfolio director Alan Bainbridge was simply to “provoke smiles.” While that is a basic tenet of most any interior project, the ID:SR task was complex. In what the firm calls activity-driven design, ID:SR began by strategically analyzing how BBC departments and staff operate and how they engage each other. Each floor at BBC North was considered individually, and spaces for less formal conversation were incorporated throughout. Settings such as kitchen tables and living rooms on each floor break down barriers to casual chats. Workspaces are unassigned and designed to enable staff to work more creatively and effectively on more efficient floor plates.
A significant interior highlight of BBC North is located in Quay House, where each of four floors contains 10 to 12 meeting pods lining a central atrium. Custom designed by ID:SR, the pods reference digital pixels, both in their round forms and bright colors. Constructed with stainless steel and fabric covering, they allow two people to have semi-private conversations. The pods, when viewed together, have become an iconic image for BBC North.
A television-inspired material palette
Making the business case for including the pods and other major design features posed a challenge for ID:SR, considering the project had a tight budget and any large BBC project, funded by the government, would be highly scrutinized by the British public. “We had to, on one hand, make a thorough, empirical business case to reflect the rigor of this major public sector organization, accountable to government and audience alike, and on the other hand, satisfy the ambition of one of the most creative organizations in the UK in crafting its new home,” Berresford explains.
Television test pattern colors—magenta, lime green, purple, black and white—inspired the color palette for the interiors, including the aforementioned pods. Designed as a kit of parts, the flexible interiors can be easily reconfigured as needed. The offices will accommodate an additional 1,000 employees by 2017.
The pods, informal kitchen-like meeting areas, and other such features do indeed provoke smiles. “Winning the BBC’s hearts and minds was fundamental,” Berresford says. “And creating a place that helped the BBC produce content that wins hearts and minds of its audience was essential.”
- Designer: ID:SR (the interior design group within the firm Sheppard Robson)
- Client: BBC
- Where: Salford, UK
- What: 338,300 total square feet on 20 total floors in three buildings
- Cost/sf Withheld at client’s request
Key Design Highlights
- Custom-designed meeting pods in Quay House have become an iconic image for BBC North.
- Approximately 73 percent of the FF&E is from British suppliers, which allowed for economical, local solutions.
- Bold color choices were inspired by television test patterns.
- Designed for flexibility, BBC North accommodates 2,500 employees and will take on 1,000 more in four years.