The Twentieth Century Society

Campaigning for outstanding buildings

Concrete in context

A 1990s suburban office park, with offices for the Ready-Mix Concrete company, built in the setting of an early C18 Grade II former country house, a C19 stable block and a C19 half-timbered and gabled house, a listed wall and part of a Conservation Area, all in the heart of the Surrey green belt? Prepare to be amazed: this development in Egham won nine architectural awards in 1990.

The concept behind this ‘magical office-cum-parkland’ by Edward Cullinan Architects was to restore the historic buildings and conceal 5000 sq m of new single-storey office accommodation under continuous landscaped roof gardens. We know of no comparable scheme of such sensitive and contextual commercial development in the UK. But the complex is now threatened with redevelopment, and there is a campaign
to save it – with backing from Ted Cullinan and other high-profile supporters including Sunand Prasad, former president of the RIBA. We too have strongly supported calls for listing.

The offices, which link up with the existing buildings at first-floor level, are crafted around three separate courtyards – full height glass walls in effect forming the fourth wall of every office. The courtyards reflect the proportions of the historic buildings and carefully-planned axial views are created throughout the site. Given the client’s core business, it is not surprising that high quality concrete – both in-situ and pre-cast – was widely used in the structure and landscaping.

The low height of the development preserves the setting of the existing buildings, and the richly landscaped roofs provide a whole new setting of lawns and yew hedges which act as balustrades and informal seating, and there are viewing platforms for employees to enjoy the elevated views.

This ‘stitching together of old and new’ was highly praised, the Architects’ Journal describing it as ‘an intricate tapestry that interweaves elements of order and incident… It transcends the usual distinctions between inside and outside, and demands to be read as a whole. The constant theme is a dialogue between modernist design principles and the English tradition of the picturesque.’

Cullinan placed particular emphasis on place-making and creating a ‘humanistic’ working environment. The atmosphere was designed to be consciously non-institutional, with emphasis placed on leisure. One commentator remarked that ‘when one is in the building it is hard to remember that one is in work’, another that ‘RMC has the finest, most magical head office of any company in the construction industry. In fact, hanging gardens make it look more like uninterrupted parkland than a headquarters.’

The company prided itself on its concern for the environment, and the brief specifically ruled out air conditioning. Internal temperature was controlled using the thermal mass of the structure combined with a system of mechanical ventilation to draw cooler night air through the concrete floor void and up through powered floor outlets. The air-handling units are dotted around the site at roof level, masked in playful aluminium cases disguised as chess pieces individually designed by Ted Cullinan. Initially refused planning consent by the Council because of its very sensitive and controversial green belt setting, the development was eventually approved at appeal in 1986, with the planning inspector describing it as a development of ‘exceptional quality’ and an ‘outstanding scheme’.

The owners, Cemex, are now preparing to leave the site, and a scheme to demolish and redevelop it for housing has been submitted. A decision on the planning application is due this summer, but all eyes will be on the recommendation from English Heritage.

Henrietta Billings