Fledgeling construction manager Exterior has been given the chance to prove itself on a £20m headquarters for computer games giant Electronic Arts. How is it coping?
Steve Trotter, Matthew Giles, John Ness, Mark Rushworth and Ian Blake rocked the construction industry two years ago when they left construction manager Schal to set up rival company Exterior.

Schal never quite recovered from the loss of these five senior managers. In the past year, it has battled to finish the Royal Opera House on time, hit problems with the redevelopment of the Tate Bankside, and presided over four missed deadlines at the Royal Court Theatre. And now managing director Malcolm Bairstow is leaving Schal for a job in parent company Carillion.

But what of Exterior? The fledgeling company soon won a couple of high-profile jobs: architect Rick Mather's refurbishment of the Wallace Collection, and a Foster and Partners-designed UK headquarters for US computer games giant Electronic Arts. Since then, clients have been waiting to see how the firm performs. They will not have to wait long: the £20m Electronic Arts building is nearing completion on a P&O-owned business park in Chertsey, Surrey.

The building is an office HQ, a hybrid structure of steel with concrete columns that rake forward at the building's crescent-shaped front. How has Exterior coped with the management contract to implement a superstar architect's design for a group of Californian computer whizz-kids?

A walk around the pond-fringed site tells a happy story. A gang of EA employees, none of whom looks older than 25, take photos of each other smiling and joking next to the crescent-shaped curtain wall that is the front of the building. Client satisfaction levels seem high.

Project manager Stuart Rowney of Rowney Sharman confirms that the job is running well, although he does report one or two problems. Concrete subcontractor Ascon had to take down one of the giant raking columns because of excessive bubbling when the concrete was poured down the sloping formwork. But Rowney says he would have no hesitation in putting Exterior on a tender list again: "They've proved to be great on buildability issues."

This happy ending is even more surprising when you consider the complexity of the design. The most stunning features, and the trickiest to build, are the two giant fully glazed doors that run on rollers at the front of the building. Fourteen metres high and 6 m wide, they are intended to make the best use of the building's two atria. These atria sit between three fully-glazed fingers of two-storey office space. The spaces between the fingers can be closed in winter by rolling the doors over the gap, and opened in summer by rolling the doors out to the side of the building where they stick out, like two huge flanges.

Another complication was combining displacement ventilation with air-conditioning. The number of computers that will be needed – two monitors for each games designer – means that heat loads in the building will be high. And they will be further increased by an oildrum-sized real fire with seating around it situated in the two-storey open space at the end of the westerly block.

The Foster and Partners design envisaged displacement ventilation alone, but, as Exterior director Giles explains, the business-park investors who are co-funding the project insisted on mechanical air-conditioning (held in cores at the south end). He says that if EA quits the building, P&O will find it easier to lease if it has air-conditioning. The extra cooling load means that other potential clients with higher cooling requirements could use it, too.

The orientation of the glazing and cores is vital to the occupiers. EA wanted lots of light but has a high computer use, so the south-facing service cores prevent glare on the screens and the 90 m long northern curtain wall provides natural light.

As well as designing the graphics, EA will be producing sound effects for its games. This has meant an unusual room construction deep in the heart of the building. Two recording studios are lined with no fewer than 11 layers of plywood. Each layer had to be checked off by acoustic consultants before work could begin on the next.

None of this seems to have daunted Exterior.

If there is one criticism of the firm, it is of its document handling, according to project insiders. One project source says: "They could improve handling and checking of documentation, especially their IT methods. But that's just a symptom of being a young company."

EA says the building is on track to be occupied in February 2000, but, with a complex fit-out (and installation of the same beechwood flooring used in the Bilbao Guggenheim) and commissioning of the unusual displacement ventilation to go, anything could happen.

How Exterior won a landmark project with no track record

On its first day of business in December 1997, Exterior approached architects Foster and Partners and Aukett Associates because it wanted to work in the high-value business park market. At the time, Foster was working on Electronic Arts’ new headquarters at a business park in Chertsey, Surrey. Exterior was invited to bid, coming up against Mace, Heery, Laing Management, Wates and former employer Schal. Director Matthew Giles says Exterior was neck-and-neck with Laing on fees but clinched it on the competitive interview. Giles explains that the client wanted to get moving quickly, which suggested the construction management route, but did not want direct contact with the trade contractors. So a management contract, rather than a construction management contract, was drawn up. Two weeks after its June 1998 appointment, Exterior appointed a piling contractor and within eight weeks was on site itself. Curtain-walling contractor Pluswall was appointed by October, so the job is proceeding quickly.