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Investment in future workspace

Above: round-table discussion at abrdn PLC's London offices on 'New models for work places, mixed use and ESG - with the BBC and Tower Hamlets Council above others

How are the big institutions such as the BBC investing in their new work places that both serve the specialist demands of projects and employees while meeting sustainability requirements? How is the re-purposing of heritage buildings helping to grow the economy in the creative industries? How can hospital buildings be converted into social and community workspace in new town halls?

We asked both the BBC and Tower Hamlets Council about their projects at a discussion event held at the new offices of abrdn PLC in Spitalfields, London.

Tower Hamlets Council's project leaders described the challenges around the conversion of the historic buildings of the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel into the new home for the Council's town hall.

The former Royal London Hospital building, built between 1751 and 1757, had been derelict since it closed in 2013 when the hospital moved into a new building behind it. The Grade II listed building was both a hospital and a medical college over four different centuries which have included treating the wounded from two world wars and being a maternity hospital.

The council saved the iconic building after buying it for £9m and overseeing a four-year project to restore, renovate and extend it, so it can continue to serve the local community for centuries to come. The new Town Hall also provides local people with a permanent and more accessible town hall compared to the council’s previous civic centre at Mulberry Place.

The old Town Hall, in East India Dock on the edge of the borough was difficult for residents to get to. It also cost the council £5m each year in rent.

The entire ground floor of the new Town Hall will be dedicated to public use with a Residents Hub to support people with housing and welfare issues; a chamber which doubles up as an event space; a soon to open café; meeting spaces; and partners including the Clinical Commissioning Group and Tower Hamlets Homes. The council has also created a multi-use public space in the Grocers Wing extension and is currently looking at potential uses.

The project recently won in Future Cities Forum's Summer Awards 2023 category for new workplace. Director Yasmin Ali and manager Sarah Steer talked of the all-female team that worked on the conversion and the efforts to make the town hall open and welcoming to all genders and cultures.

Yasmin said:

'There were discussions and challenges around how much of the historic and existing buildings you could keep. Some of the buildings had already been changed because they were not fit for modern day healthcare purposes. There was the original hospital building built in 1757, the Grocer's wing and further buildings dating from the 1800s. The main facade had to be kept because it was sitting over the underground, and if you were to remove such a facade it would have released pressure on the TfL structure below. There were many conversations over the project with Historic England. We wanted to go up higher with the building design but with the new hospital behind and the helicopter landing pad, that wasn't possible'

Sarah continued:

'We are opening an exhibition at the end of the month to tell the story of the design and what we have kept, the choice of colours that we have used, like oranges and reds that link back to the original hospital and the League of Nurses came to visit and thoroughly approved of these design choices.

'We wanted to ensure that it would be a very permeable building that welcomes everyone in and creates unique spaces that you can move through and around. People are drawn towards the two historic staircases rather than using the lifts and that is a very good thing. We didn't just want rows of desks but more break out spaces and we were very conscious about how the sound would travel and keep a sense of calm in the building.

Yasmin confirmed that importance of having so many women's voices on the project:

'It was very much a women driven project with our architect Sam Scott driving ideas. So we ensured there was a nursing mother's room but gender neutral toilets caused some issues. Our staff rejected this and women didn't want them. We realised that we still needed gender separation as well as keeping the gender neutral toilets. We have a female staff forum and that has enhanced our thinking around the security outside and inside the building.'

Below: the front of the new Tower Hamlets Town Hall, remodelled from the original hospital in Whitechapel with the Royal London Hospital behind (courtesy Bouygues UK / AHMM / Tower Hamlets Council)


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