Boots' 1960s head office has been imperceptibly updated so that a building that was beautiful on the outside but showing its age on the inside now works as a whole.
Developing a classic of modern architecture can turn out to be a double-edged sword, as Boots The Chemists has discovered at its head office in Nottingham.

Thirty-two years after completion, the long, low pavilion in steel and glass is as inspiring as the day it was completed. Designed by US architect Skidmore Owings & Merrill, it was so meticulously put together that the shell has hardly required any repairs, other than a new roof membrane. Inside was a different matter. Although it was the first open-plan office in Britain, staff were stuck behind high screens, the resulting spaces dubbed “pig-pens”. And the building’s official grade II* listing discouraged alterations.

The building’s internal restrictions proved too much for Boots. In 1993, it set up a two-phase project to provide up-to-date offices for 2100 staff, with DEGW as architect and Mace as project and construction manager. A large office pavilion was built close by in 1998, then the SOM building was refurbished and a new entrance block inserted to link the old and new buildings.

To the company’s managing director, Steve Russell, the project was a way to bring together scattered departments and to introduce dynamic, state-of-the-art working methods supported by electronic aids. In addition, he stipulated that the working conditions should be identical in the new and old buildings.

For the SOM building, this meant a package of changes that are more organisational and environmental than architectural, but nevertheless exploit the building more intensively than before.

Accordingly, the splendid cellular offices built around the perimeter to house top executives, have been retained.

But they now serve as general meeting rooms, and executives share open-plan space with their departments. Meeting areas, some enclosed conference rooms, others groups of comfortable chairs around coffee tables, are vital to Boots’ new way of working. Gone are the objectionable high screens, allowing the lofty interiors to be opened up and turned into a sea of desk clusters.

“It’s now like a big shed or studio,” says Stephen Greenberg, architectural director of DEGW. “Product buyers can hang up samples of their merchandise in racks and connect up with other departments involved in generating and marketing products.” Some of the original screens have been cut down about a foot in height, separating open-plan office from circulation space. Other screens have been recycled to enclose office “hubs” containing staff tea and coffee points, fax machines and photocopiers.

Other major but imperceptible changes concern services and the internal environment. Raised floors 300 mm high had to be installed to feed cabling to open-plan desks and electronic equipment. However, the installation created another problem: as the original external glazing panels stretched from floor to ceiling, raised floors would have deepened the beautifully slender floor zones in the external elevations. This was unacceptable to Nottingham’s conservation officer, so a compromise was reached. The perimeter of the building was designated circulation space that did not need cabling. The raised floors stop at the edge of this circulation area, and the step up is masked by timber screens.

Upgrading air-conditioning and lighting was also a challenge, this time for services engineer Roger Preston & Partners. The office’s increased occupancy rate and the extra computer equipment threatened to raise the cooling load of the building, and the problem would be exacerbated by the lighting levels, which were too high by the latest office standards. In the end, the ceilings were entirely replaced to match the originalceiling grid, but with half the light fittings removed. The air-conditioning supply and extract diffusers, which had originally been housed in the light fittings, have also been repositioned as imperceptible slots along either side of the fittings.

“The new components are more technically advanced, and they are more precisely profiled to diffuse light and air than the ones of 30 years ago,” says Nick Bullen of Roger Preston. “So the lighting and air-conditioning works more efficiently than before.”

The same could be said for the building as a whole. Up-to-date technology, a sensitive approach to conservation, and a fuller understanding of how office staff work best together all liberate the open-plan spaces from their divisive screens. And as for Boots, there is an extra bonus. Designed for 2100 staff, the building now accommodates 2700, with no sign of it bursting at the seams.