One of Britain's biggest firms had to use its commercial muscle to get its new HQ built. But, says Martin Spring, Vodafone's Newbury base is not the colossus you might expect
Vodafone is never far from controversy these days.

Its share price has halved since December, it declared the UK's biggest ever corporate loss of £13.5bn in April and its decision to pay chief executive Sir Christopher Gent a £1.6m bonus drew fire from shareholders at last month's annual meeting. Even its plan to move into a new headquarters, due to be put into effect this week, provoked a campaign of opposition when plans were unveiled three years ago.

Since setting up in 1983, Vodafone has been based in the unassuming Berkshire market town of Newbury, where it employs about 4500 staff spread around 60 premises. In 1997, a plan was hatched to consolidate them into four "campuses", including a new-build headquarters for 3000. A 15 ha greenfield site at the northern edge of town was earmarked for this element. Vodafone's plans to build a giant HQ in the greenbelt became a flagship battle between the forces of conservatism – who opposed the destruction of a chunk of countryside – and development – who argued that 3000 jobs on the edge of town was better than no jobs at all.

The development lobby won – aided, no doubt, by Vodafone's threats to relocate to local rival Reading – and planning permission was quickly granted, despite threats from deputy prime minister John Prescott to call in the scheme. The main proviso was a drastic cut of the car parking provision and the requirement that the firm implement one of the most advanced "green travel" plans in the UK. This involves an incentive of up to £85 a month for staff to share cars to work or use a fleet of four buses provided by the firm.

As for the architectural design, this was not a contentious issue in the planning application, according to Mike Fletcher of consultant architect Fletcher Priest. Rather than combining the scheme's total floor area of 51,600 m2 into a single large building, Fletcher Priest divided it into seven blocks of about 9000 m2 each. This configuration has the commercial benefit that individual blocks can be let if Vodafone is ever to vacate them. The architectural benefit is that, instead of one corporate megastructure, the seven buildings are only three storeys high and are arranged in an informal layout that settles them snugly into the natural valley.

Since BA Waterside near Heathrow Airport, designed by Niels Torp, was completed in 1998, it has become accepted practice to divide large corporate headquarters into smaller blocks. But whereas the blocks at BA Waterside spur off a central mall, at Vodafone they are free-standing elongated pavilions arranged loosely around an artificial lake. The only circulation links are white fabric canopies between the gable-ends of pavilions and first storey footbridges at either end. This arrangement gives the buildings a more informal character suitable to their woodland setting. One building in the loose cluster contains a restaurant that opens out on to the lakeside. And surrounding the buildings is a ring of double-decker car parking structures, a small forest of trees and earth banks by the site boundary.

The external materials add to the natural character of the scheme, which Fletcher describes as "autumnal". These are predominantly large terracotta hanging tiles and untreated western red cedar. The cedar has been used as sun-shades over horizontal window strips and as curved slatted screens to external escape stairs. It is also used for banks of louvres that provide open-vented enclosures for services stacks at the rear gable end of each block. The combined effect of informal layout, low-profile massing and natural materials is that the building complex looks – without contrivance – like a cross between an upmarket business park and a well-heeled stud farm.

Inside, the style changes abruptly and is deliberately geared to Vodafone's young workforce. Instead of mellow browns and greys, the interiors have a fizzy lime-green colour scheme that Fletcher calls spring-like and which complements the scarlet of Vodafone's logo. The desking by Vitra is cool industrial-chic in style. "Our aim was to create a great place to work, as opposed to just a great office building," says Mike Newens, Vodafone's property director. "We wanted to introduce fun and sparkle into the place and improve staff efficiency."

The buildings have the contemporary low-energy configuration of two parallel strips of 25 m wide office floors on three levels, separated by a 7.5 m wide atrium strip capped by rooflights in translucent ETFE foil. A familiar combination of displacement ventilation system, opening windows, exposed concrete floor soffits, chilled beams and external sun-shading has been devised to reduce energy consumption to half that obtained by current good practice, claims Fletcher.

Instead of the sculpturally curved and expertly crafted ceiling troughs you might have expected, the undersides of the concrete floor slabs have been value-engineered as flat soffits in a relatively rough finish. The plain concrete soffits are partly masked by ranks of suspended perforated steel booms, which contain the chilled beams, uplighters, downlighters and cabling. The combined effect is more industrial than commercial in character.

As you would expect, Vodafone's offices are at the cutting edge of IT, though as yet only the telephones are wireless. Flexibility is key to the building's design, which has affected the layout of the power and data cabling. A dense grid of cabling, supplied at a 20% overcapacity and pre-wired at regular intervals to socket outlets, has been laid in the floor voids. This enables desks to be quickly relocated around the office and wired up simply by lifting up reserve socket outlets from under the floor and dropping redundant ones down below.

With an eye on shareholders nursing their shrunken share values, Newens comments: "This hasn't been an exercise in marble and stainless steel but in providing our staff with a sharp, exciting environment and one that is relaxing to work in." And this week, he will find out if the Vodafone staff agree.