words Alex Wiltshire
McLaren's new Technology Centre in Surrey is as meticulously designed as one of its F1 cars.
Building and driving some of the fastest racing cars in the world in one of the richest and most watched sports in the world would make anyone a fanatic when it comes to detail and function. A loose screw or the smallest deformity on a spoiler can make the difference between winning and losing in Formula 1. And it explains how Ron Dennis, CEO of F1 team TAG McLaren, knows everything about his new 57,000sq m Foster & Partners-designed McLaren Technology Centre in Woking, Surrey, from the wind loads on the glazed cladding system to the optimum amount of hand soap dispensed in the lavatories.
The meeting of high business and high technology that makes up a Formula 1 team has led to McLaren specifying a building that is part brand, part factory and part Ron Dennis's vision of future working environments.
The McLaren Technology Centre is touted as one of the most ambitious private commercial building projects in Europe, bringing together divisions making up TAG McLaren, including the F1 team, automotive division, electronics division and marketing, under one roof for the first time. The diversity of business types places heavy demands on the building, which will accommodate between 1,500 and 2,000 people, housing the production of the new Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren, research, development and build facilities (95 per cent of an F1 car is made onsite), administration and a new visitor-learning centre. And, as if the size and variety of functions were not enough, Dennis wants each to be the very best in its field, such as the 145m-long wind tunnel in the basement ("the most advanced of its type in the world"), and bespoke self-adjusting lighting systems to provide an environment where "the people enjoy their work so much that they don't want to go home".
The multifarious usage was coupled with heavy planning and site restrictions. Because the site is greenfield, the maximum build height was set 31m above sea level (just nine metres above the existing ground level), so one of the three levels is underground. No earth was allowed to be taken offsite, so the waste earth was used for landscaping.
Foster & Partners' solution is clever and holistic. The plan of the main site is circular, divided into yin-yang halves. One half is the building and the other a lake, fronted on to by a long, curved, glazed façade. The lake acts as a cooling system for the building, in particular the wind tunnel, which generates enormous friction-based heat when in operation. A cascade that follows part of the lake's shoreline is also used in the cooling process and provides filtration and anti-algae measures. Cooled water buffer tanks are exposed at one end of the main hall (which extends the length of the frontage on to the lake).
The various departments are in divisions along the width of the above-ground building, with double-height light wells and the top levels reserved for offices and meeting rooms. While different (yet muted) colour schemes are planned for each section to keep a sense of individuality, the dominant theme of these areas is uniformity. An 18-unit dimension has been used throughout the building - partitions are divided laterally at 180cm and office sections are 18m wide. Each area is glazed so all one can see are identical offices stretching into the distance. These areas have not yet been moved into, but Dennis's clean-desk policy and promise of hidden computers and identical flat-screen monitors for all suggests that personalisation of workspaces will be very limited.
The repeated dimensions continue throughout the complex, extending to the glazed façade for the "boulevard", the double-height main hall fronting on to the lake. Unfortunately, because the divisions between glazed sections are at 180cm intervals, a large mullion obscures the view of the lake for most adults at ground level. It was apparently the result of a long debate, but the aim to achieve absolute consistency won out: "It would have thrown out the balance," says Dennis.
Detailing is consistent and attentive as well. Most evoke the spare, engineered look of F1 components, such as the aluminium "windblades", part of the glazed cladding system developed with SchŸco. These features, measuring up to 12m across, transfer the weight of the glass on to vertical columns. Other details include the office lighting system, developed with lighting designer Claude Engle and Targetti. Hung below narrow light wells in the slightly vaulted ceilings, the curved diffusion units control natural light from above and feature end-pieces that look a little like engine blocks.
The boulevard area acts as the main connection between all the divisions and comprises a 400-seat restaurant at one end, with a raised "VIP walkway" snaking through, off which reception desks for the divisions will be placed on rotundas. The lower area is intended for gatherings of people, and for screenings of grands prix.
Visible from the boulevard on the ground level are the production facilities for the Mercedes SLR. The first to move into the building, the automotive division is already making the new car in white workshops that resemble operating theatres. Technicians, elevated in their appearance by the antiseptic surroundings, wear white gloves without a single spot of oil visible; Dennis maintains that white is the easiest colour to keep clean. He asked that all the Foster & Partners architects on the project read about Lockheed-Martin's Skunkworks R&D department, in which integrating the design and the engineering departments increased productivity. The design departments are therefore placed alongside the car-production line.
Many elements of the building are bespoke and the result of McLaren's partnership programme. Dennis doesn't see McLaren as clients of Foster & Partners, Targetti (lighting), Faram (desking), Grohe (water systems), SchŸco and so on; he sees the relationship as reciprocal. He makes clear the amount of input he and the rest of the McLaren design team had into the project as a whole. For instance, it was McLaren that insisted on making the windblades out of aluminium in order to achieve higher manufacturing tolerances.
The building is meant to be part of the McLaren brand, exemplifying the engineering and business prowess of a successful racing team. Accordingly, their approach remains pragmatic. "I wanted proven technology, not new technology," says Dennis, "so we can take a safe path while pioneering." The shrewd businessman is revealed in the partnership programme, in which McLaren was also able to obtain relatively cheap prices for bespoke products from high-end manufacturers.
Living up to McLaren's "exacting standards" seems to have been a challenge for all. When Dennis says that it hasn't all been pain to gathered representatives of each of the partner companies, you begin to get an idea of the trials faced. Dennis himself attended 250 four-hour meetings with Foster & Partners. David Nelson, the partner in charge of the project at Foster, says: "His [Dennis's] commitment is very unusual."
Indeed, the building has become something of a built expression of Ron Dennis himself. Many of the operative features of the building are a result of his personal ethic, such as his clean desk policy, a rule of no food or drink in desk areas, his hatred of blinds, pipes and cables ("How can a mind be right if under the desk is a chaos of wires?") and his no-touching plan for many office systems, such as the lavatories, in which the flush, soap dispenser, tap and dryer are all operated by sensor. Dennis wants to achieve a space that attracts and facilitates the best minds in the business through what boils down to social engineering. The problem is that the metaphor of the building as an extension of McLaren's F1 cars reduces the people inside it to cogs and valves, as did the sometimes beautiful corporate buildings of Eero Saarinen and Mies in America. The company's organisation and the aesthetic language come out as retro - evoking a world where IBM maps out your life for you, and the environment in which you work starts to form you as the perfect employee.
Space is a matter of taste and the McLaren Technology Centre isn't going to prove an inspiring space to work for all. It's not a purely beautiful building. It appeals to minds like Dennis's, for which beauty exists in function. "Our aim has been to create an outstanding industrial building," Dennis says. "But it doesn't matter how wonderful the box is, how shiny it is and how beautifully designed it is if it is not also functional, inspirational and motivational. If we achieve the standards we have set for ourselves in all those respects, then we hope they will be something that other companies will wish to follow, once they see the benefits of providing a better place to work." It's a noble cause, but such determinism has no guarantee of working for everyone.
architects Foster & Partners
project architect David Nelson
project management Arlington securities
structural engineers and acoustic consultants Arup
services engineers Schmidt Reuter Partner
quantity surveyor Davis Langdon & Everest
planning and landscape Terence O'Rourke
infrastructure and environmental engineers WSP Highways
planning supervisor Intec Management
lighting consultant Claude R Engle Lighting
lake consultant Atelier Dreiseitl engineers for CAT3 Amec Services