Meet the designer of Sunderland’s newest landmark

Simon Doody may have designed high profile buildings across the globe but there’s something special about Sunderland’s newest landmark, The Beam…

His practice has designed the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, re-purposed London’s Alexandra Palace as well as the South Bank Centre. It has also designed a number of offices including the National Trust headquarters in Swindon, but it’s Simon Doody’s latest project in the heart of Sunderland which he believes could have ‘the largest social and regeneration impact yet.’

Peering over the Wearmouth Bridge, The Beam – standing four storeys high – is set to be the North East’s only new city centre office development to complete this year and is the initiating phase of the city’s largest regeneration project in decades.

Located on the site of the former Vaux Brewery, the £20m building will provide mixed-use Grade A office space in the heart of the city, and will also include two ground floor open-plan highly flexible spaces which will accommodate vibrant retail or leisure enterprises that will overlook the River Wear and Wearmouth Bridge.

It is hoped the building will capitalise on the city’s growing reputation as a place to do business, after it was singled out as one of the best places in the UK to start up an enterprise. And with an impressive cluster of businesses, including Nissan, Arriva, Barclays, Nike, EDF Energy, EE, Hays Travel, Tombola and Berghaus, as well as exciting smaller companies such as Tombola, Coatsink, and SaleCycle, The Beam will create a new space for businesses to invest in Sunderland.

So, what makes The Beam so special? For Doody, a partner at Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, it’s more than just a workplace, it’s the sign of a post-industrial city reinventing itself and a catalyst for the future.

He explains: “As a practice, we work across a range of sectors from healthcare to residential, education to cultural, and from new build to creative use, but I think if you’re looking at projects that are real catalysts for redevelopment, then this is one of our most significant.

“When you look at the possibilities of the wider VAUX site, not just this project, the benefits and the opportunities that the city will reap are immense. It’s a major regeneration project which, once complete, will extend the footprint of the city centre, create thousands of jobs and also spawn high-quality leisure, retail and housing developments which will transform the city’s offering.”

Once work is completed in the Spring, The Beam will accommodate businesses looking for contemporary working environments from as little as 2,500 sq ft (a 20-person office) up to taking all floorspace. This means the building could be home to anywhere from one to a dozen businesses.

However, it’s not just the economic impact which caught Doody’s eye, it was also the creative freedom he was given when designing the building and the rich heritage of the city and its people that he could draw inspiration from.

“A lot of people probably won’t notice this at first glance however The Beam has been meticulously designed to pay homage to the city’s culture, from the Wearmouth Bridge to the city’s maritime and lighting heritage,” he adds. “The first thing we considered was the position of the building and its proximity to the bridge.

“The bridge is built on these glorious Victorian structures and, coupled with its heavyweight girders and trusses, this informed how we started to think about the front of the building which looks out over the Keel Line.

“Another key influencer was the site’s shipbuilding heritage which inspired the horizontal ribbon windows which, because of how they’re designed, boast stunning panoramas with breath-taking views of the sea, the port, the lighthouse, the stadium and the newly erected Northern Spire.

“Then, as we considered the colour of the building, we looked at the brass and bronze castings used in maritime metalwork – and also the vats and vessels used in the brewing processes at the old Vaux Brewery – and we wanted to bring that through with the warm, bronzey colour materials which have been used in the external façade.

“As an architect, I’m a firm believer that buildings should be locked into context and that members of the public feel some sort of synergy and ownership of them. It’s important that people feel a connection with their city and I hope The Beam echoes this notion.”

Developer Siglion has developed a masterplan that will deliver spaces with wellbeing at their heart, where people can ‘live well, work well and feel good’ and The Beam is no different. It’s position on the edge of the river gives stunning views, and floods the building with natural light, while the internal courtyard allows natural ventilation, creating a space that will promote wellness. The connectivity between the site and the seaside is also a major asset that Siglion hopes will prove attractive to investors, as well as The Beam’s position in the city centre, connecting it to the city’s cultural assets and venues.

Siglion has also brought in a number of local businesses to work on The Beam. One example of this is Sunderland-based Desco UK, an award-winning electrical and mechanical design practice which has worked closely with Simon and his team to bring to life the vision they had for the building as well as offering advice on the site wide energy strategy, BREEAM assessment duties and specialist lighting designs.

“We always try to work on buildings inside-out so this whole idea of The Beam offering something new as a workplace was vital and the themes around wellbeing were especially important,” he added.

“This has affected and informed how we have developed the concept of this building, everything from the natural ventilation through to the courtyard in the middle which is an external, shaded and protected amenity space, it’s all about how we create a flexible internal environment which tenants can use in a variety of different ways.

“The courtyard is especially unique as it’s an open-air space, protected by the wind on one side by glass, which will lend itself perfectly to staff meetings, lunch breaks and even events which could be anything from product launches to yoga classes, evening wine tasting sessions and even musical performances, it’s adaptable for lots of different uses.

“It’s like no other Grade A office space I’ve worked on. It’s a really different offer to not only other workplaces in the city but the wider North East and has been built to cater for businesses from an array of sectors. It’s more than just a building, it’s the sign of a city which is reinventing itself from a post-industrious behemoth to a dynamic, forward-thinking city of the future, and we’re delighted to have played a role in this transformation.”