Reimagining Our Town Centres

1 May 2020

We have been working with renowned regeneration specialist First Base to reimagine Swindon town centre. The project is being developed in collaboration with the borough council, site freeholder and leaseholders, and illustrates the opportunities that exist for the declining high street. 

Working with the existing circa 200,000 sqft building, our approach of selective demolition, adaptation and extension brings a dynamic new mix of uses to the site. The design includes the conversion of the Debenhams store into a training, conferencing and innovation centre. Former office accommodation located above, which has been vacant for many years, is converted to provide new homes. The roof top parking deck is transformed into a public playground and the linked parking structure is demolished to make way for a new 70,000 sqft Grade A office building.

The current department store provides a great base structure, with tall volumes on a 10m by 12m open concrete frame. The reimagination of the building is achieved through renewal of the external facade to provide a more attractive face to the public realm. Aside from the changes to the building envelope, a series of interventions are made to the concrete frame to create a new entrance, a conference/lecture hall and a new light well to increase the quality of the workspaces to the west. The separate building functions are organised clearly into three sections: collaboration, education and focused work.

From the days of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Swindon has had strong links with engineering excellence. In recent times, BMW Mini and Honda have been major employers of highly skilled engineers, both directly and through their extended supply chain relationships with other smaller companies in the area. The Dyson Institute in nearby Malmesbury also taps into the concentrated talent pool in the area.

In late 2019, Honda reaffirmed their decision to close its plant in Swindon, threatening 12,000 jobs in the area. The training and innovation centre that is at the heart of this proposal is conceived as an incubator hub that will support individuals, ‘start up’ and ‘move on’ businesses pursuing new opportunities in the void left by Honda. By gathering these groups together, knowledge and expertise can be shared, and resources pooled.

The conferencing facility will offer a platform for the promotion of engineering excellence, alongside a wider programme of events. The ‘shop window’ to the public realm will activate the wider area, bringing much-needed footfall and energy to Swindon Town Centre.

When considering how this model could be applied to other regional towns, it is unlikely that they can all support such a specific use. However, there are many options for capitalising on the deep open floor plates and tall volumes in these larger commercial buildings. One example is further and higher education institutions which benefit from flexible, centrally located buildings.

We are currently working with the University of Surrey to design a new Student Hub on their Guildford Campus. The Student Hub will exhibit and accommodate the University’s 24/7 life and provide the best study environment for both the students and the staff. The 4,000m2 building houses a 500-seat lecture theatre, multi-function studio space, 120 cover ‘Wagamama-style’ teaching restaurant, 200 individual study spaces, bookable classrooms and seminar rooms, touch-down study spaces, and roof terraces. A ‘market square’, located in the courtyard fronting the building, acts as an extension of the ground floor. The space accommodates markets, concerts and events, encouraging connectivity between the learning inside the building and the community outside.

The brief for the University of Surrey Student Hub is very similar to the Conferencing and Innovation Centre. Our design is for a new standalone building which links seamlessly to the rest of the university campus. There is a case here, and there will be opportunities elsewhere, for facilities such as this to populate former retail spaces in city centres. Aside from the public regeneration benefits, the mixing of ‘town’ and ‘gown’ supports students’ development and business innovation.

It is likely that a mix of uses needs to be combined to bring about the best results for the location. As illustrated in our approach to Debenhams in Swindon, it’s advantageous for some uses to have a street presence and others – such as the lecture theatre – not to. Thinking of current trends, the service facing areas, away from the primary public frontage, would be ideal for use as central distribution hubs required to meet the shift to online commerce.

This shift towards more flexible, mixed-use assets will be accelerated by COVID-19 as habits are changed and retail businesses are challenged to survive. Reimagining our town centres in the 2020s is going to be an enormous challenge as we find a new mix of uses to create vibrancy and community.

– Matthew Chamberlain, Director

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