These are the comments we have submitted to SDC in response to the cladding proposals for Axiom House – planning reference: S.15/2850/FUL
NB Another similar application by Ecotricity for another building, New Imperial House, has also recently been submitted. Our comments on that, which complement our comments below, can be read by clicking here.
Comment: Stroud Civic Society objects to the proposed cladding, new windows and alterations to the elevations of a building on such a prominent site.
Axiom House occupies a highly visible and commanding position at the southern end of Merrywalks. This forms Stroud’s north-western bypass and is one of the busiest roads in the town as it is also a commercial strip and the location of the bus station.
Axiom House stands on the northern tip of a scarred post-industrial wasteland carved up by roads, roundabouts and the patchwork of spaces left in their wake.
The canal now passes through a crater bordered by the below ground remnants of the original Stroud Brewery and vacant land.
This was once a highly urbanised industrial area and townscape, where roads and the canal wound their way between the high walls of the brewery and ancillary buildings.
This ruined space is encircled but not enclosed by a haphazard collection of freestanding structures, of which the po-mo palazzo of Lion House is the largest and most dominant—but also including The Bell Hotel, the offices of Travis Perkins builders’ merchants, the back of Stroudwater House, Bankfield House and Axiom House itself.
Axiom House occupies a prominent position on a gateway site overlooking this Industrial Heritage Conservation Area. It is adjacent to the Grade-II listed Dirleton House, and the Grade-II listed 12 The Hill.
Designed by L E Webster of the Ministry of Works, Axiom House was built in 1957 for the Inland Revenue. It is of concrete-framed construction with the columns expressed and stone-clad on the main façades, dividing them into a series of vertical bays—seven on the principal façade and six on side. The bays are infilled with large windows interspersed with spandrel panels of composite material. The stone-clad south-east corner features the main entrance—including a charming Festival-of-Britain style curved porch—and encloses the staircase and toilets.
Axiom House is a competent if uninspiring 1950s government office building somewhat lacking in the charisma department. It currently looks old, tatty and rundown and is clearly in need of a thorough overhaul.
In particular, the windows are large and single-glazed and the building’s overall thermal performance is in desperate need of upgrading. In response to criticism about working conditions for staff temporarily housed in Axiom House while Lion House was being refurbished, Ecotricity had this to say:
‘When we bought [Axiom House], we assumed it was fit to be used as an office, since HMRC had been in it recently. But it was almost impossible to get the temperature up in winter, amongst other problems. What’s shocking about this for us is that for several years this was normal for people working for HMRC (as were oil filled radiators) – for us it was an unpleasant few winter months – and yes we used every means we could to warm it up, including electric (oil filled) radiators – why wouldn’t we? And our people moved out as soon as Lion House was complete.’
The application states: ‘The proposal is to update, modernise and to improve the environmental rating of the building and also link the design with Ecotricity and the Imperial House proposal by the railway station. The plan is also to use Eco-friendly but modern materials to do this and to strive towards creating a “green” office building which generates energy, retains energy and uses less energy.’
It is proposed to ‘link the design with Ecotricity and the Imperial House proposal’ by cladding the corner of Axiom House with the identical ‘branding’ applied to both principal façades of Imperial House, using a jumble of five colours vaguely related to Ecotricity’s corporate colours.
As with Imperial House (see our comments here), the design uses five colours (green, white, light grey, mid grey, dark grey, black), and the green is a sludge colour nothing like Ecotricity’s bright green. The Ecotricity trademark green union flag uses just three colours (green, white and black).
And it is just these three colours that are applied very effectively to (for example) Ecotricity’s vans.
By using five continuously-alternating colours, the proposed cladding is restless, unsettling and garish:
The proposed cladding scheme has been compared unfavourably with Lego, Minecraft, and to the Morrisons Regional Distribution Centre near Bridgwater on the M5.
This sort of variegated cladding is normally used in an attempt to camouflage very large sheds in rural locations. Despite which, in a poll run by the local paper, the Bridgewater Mercury, 75% of readers stated that they thought the Morrisons Regional Distribution Centre was an eyesore.
For the remainder of the principal façades, it is proposed to replace a series of vertical bays divided by stone piers with narrow bands of horizontal windows divided by white cladding—turning a building that has a careful balance between vertical and horizontal elements into a building that is entirely horizontal in emphasis. The design is uncannily similar to the refurbished façades of Ecotricity’s Unicorn House in Russell Street—the difference being that the former Stroud and Swindon Building Society offices in Russell Street already featured horizontally banded windows.
We are of the view that the branded cladding scheme proposed for the corner is unacceptable and the wholesale remodelling of the principal façades is unsatisfactory. A solution that respects and takes its cues from the building’s original design and proportions should be sought. This might take the form of a ‘living wall’ (as we propose for Imperial House) which would bring a real wow factor to this highly visible gateway site and would be far more in keeping with Ecotricity’s core values.
When Ecotricity’s cladding proposals were first published in the Stroud News and Journal and Stroud Life, in the online comments and on related Facebook pages there was considerable hostility to the ‘Lego’ look proposed and support for the idea of a living wall.
for and on behalf of
Stroud Civic Society