Heelis was built in 2005 as the head office for the UK's largest charity, the National Trust. Located in the midst of all the railway heritage of Swindon in northern Wiltshire, it is thought to be one of the greenest office buildings in the country. Occasionally open to the public for open days and tours, it is a fascinating building to visit and a glimpse of just how environmentally friendly, sustainable and efficient workplaces can be.
Heelis was created when the National Trust decided to consolidate their four offices around the country to reduce costs and improve efficiency across the company. The Trust is the largest charity in the UK, founded in 1895 and responsible for the care and upkeep of historic buildings and precious landscapes. It owns over 600,000 acres of land, 780 miles of coast and more than 500 buildings which include stately homes, chapels, pubs, barns, factories and more. With over 10,000 employees and 53,000 volunteers, a lot of work is required to run such a large and diverse company.
The building was designed by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, British architects renowned for their sustainable and social design, who say they 'design with empathy for the human condition, with science for sustainable outcomes, and with art for crafting beautiful places.' This is certainly applicable to Heelis, which is truly innovative in all aspects.
It was built on the site of an old foundry in the midst of Swindon's railway heritage, home to Great Western Railway and once one of the largest railway engineering complexes in the world. Although many of the original buildings have been repurposed, the railway heritage is still prominent in the area, and Heelis was designed with recognition of its unique location.
Heelis gets its name from Beatrix Potter, one of the first people to donate land to the National Trust: Heelis was her married name.
It was built with natural resources and all of it can be dismantled and repurposed - even the bricks are in lime mortar so that they can be re-used. It was designed with two foundations, walls which will absorb the heat and 1554 solar panels. The double-glazed windows are thicker than standard ones and they open at night to purge the building so there is a complete change of air. Apparently the staff refer to this aspect as 'cardigan culture', as everyone has to wear a cardigan for the first hour of the morning while the place warms up.
There is very little aircon used inside the building; instead there are a mixture of windows you can open and large vents which open automatically. Protected by mesh, they allow air to circulate throughout the building keeping it at a constant temperature and were in fact manufactured by staff from the original foundry which was on the site. Both lighting and heating are controlled by a computer which updates every 15 minutes, automatically adjusting the temperature and turning off lights in rooms which are no longer in use.
The building references the historical aspects of the company in several ways. One is with its use of Tudor style light wells which allow natural light to filter throughout the building. There is a grand wooden staircase made of oak from Trust properties, and a slatted wood feature which uses 11 types of national tree, all of which fell in the Great Storm of 1987. Wood was used by the Tudors to absorb noise, as were tapestries, and a series of tapestries hang in the atrium by the staircase. Made in 2005 by textile artist Eleanor Pritchard who wove them on a handloom, each tapestry displays a different aspect of the Trust. Seaside, woods, gardens, farms and buildings are all represented, and you can see her inspiration boards on display.
There are two internal gardens within the building which provide light, air and natural beauty for the staff. One is a kitchen garden which so many of their older properties have, and this supplies all of the garnishes for the staff meals from the in-house café. Apparently one year it also supplied some very tasty rhubarb fools too. The other garden is a breakout garden, used for when staff just want some fresh air or time to themselves. The garden has a pathway shaped like a two railway lines meeting at a turntable.
It is not just the environmental and historical aspects of the building which are unique though, as its design has an impact on the way that people work within its walls. Even before Covid the Trust was moving towards using technology to bring staff together from their separate locations, meaning that far less was being spent on transportation costs. Staff there now work two days a week in the office, the rest from home, and there is a complete hot desk policy in operation. Some desks are supplied with computers, other just with the terminals required to plug in laptops and headsets, but each desk is kept totally devoid of personal possessions with a direct 'Clear by Night' policy to ensure that it always stays that way.
Although phones are used, they are permanently silenced and the offices are said to be a peaceful place. Each desk has a view so that the occupant can focus on the long distance to rest their eyes, and is also in the sightline of a pretty picture of one of the properties to look at.
Photocopiers and printers are kept in special pods away from the desks so that people need to walk to collect their documents, and across the offices the number of photocopying machines has reduced from 250 to 6, saving the Trust a huge amount of money. These pods also house all of the recycling and waste bins, saving the cleaning staff from having to empty hundreds of separate desk bins each night.
There are six kitchen pods throughout the building, each with a dishwasher, fridge, food waste disposal and special taps which dispense hot water for teas and coffees and cold water for drinks. All mugs are identical, a uniform white so that there are no garish designs and so that everyone uses the dishwashers rather than handwashing them, which is discouraged for hygiene reasons.
There are plenty of separate conference rooms where people can separate off for small groups and private conversations, as well as large open spaces. One large open space is known as the 'Town Hall' and is where senior management and the Directorate meet regularly as part of the decision making process, another called 'Brownsea' is a flexible space used for training. There is a space for meditation and private prayer and a few areas of comfortable seating and low tables, even a few deckchairs, where staff can relax and unwind.
Heelis also has an extensive archive as they keep a copy of every magazine, handbook and publication, as well as a development kitchen where they test new recipes, and a café. Before the pandemic the café used to be open to the public, but is currently just for staff. There are plans to re-open it to the public again at some point in the future.
A visit here is fascinating not just for the sustainable architecture but for the innovative way of working in a corporate office, and it is sure to inspire envy in those of us stuck working in windowless boxes overflowing with coffee cups and years worth of corporate clutter. It shows how streamlined, people friendly and calming an office environment can be if designed with a new approach to how businesses can function as well as an awareness of what staff need to perform their best.
Keep an eye on the website for open days and tours dates