By Rob Brown Thu 8 July 2021 - Property Week
You might think San Francisco and Reading have little in common. One has blue skies, giant redwoods and bronzed surfers; the other has the UK’s longest railway viaduct and a jail with a dubious history.
Building blocks: V7 Asset Management’s redevelopment project Here + Now comprises 145,000 sq ft of workspace at Thames Valley Park
Well, think again. One East Reading business park is transforming into the kind of green, amenities-rich, campus-style workplace that Silicon Valley is famed for. Thames Valley Park is already home to some of America’s biggest tech giants, including Oracle, Hewlett Packard and Microsoft. Now, it wants to attract more tenants of this ilk.
“It’s never been more important as an employer to bring people to quality locations with lots of amenities and better designs,” says Chris Hunt, co-founder and director at V7 Asset Management.
Hunt’s company is the development manager of Here + Now, the bold new redevelopment of two buildings comprising 145,000 sq ft of workspace at Thames Valley Park. So what are the chances of the project luring more tech titans to the park?
BauMont Real Estate Capital acquired the two buildings from Microsoft in the middle of last year at the height of the pandemic and teamed up with V7 to create the kind of workspace that the current generation of tenants really wants, according to Natalie Harrison, director, head of investments – UK at BauMont.
If you are happy at work, you are likely to be more productive
Chris Hunt, V7
“While the emphasis on sustainability continues, the pandemic has fast-tracked emerging trends in the office sector with occupiers intensifying their focus on employee health and wellbeing in order to attract and retain talent,” says Harrison.
“The BauMont team has a long-standing experience of investing in out-of-town business parks and believes that the highest-quality buildings in out-of-town locations are capable of being repositioned to offer amenity-rich, sustainable environments, which will prove particularly appealing in the new and future environment.”
One of the key things occupiers are looking for at the moment are well-located, high-quality buildings. Hunt says the flight to quality was happening before Covid and the pandemic has accelerated the push.
“If you are a massive plc occupying three or four buildings across the Thames Valley area that are all substandard, how on earth do you expect to get your staff back to work after so long working at home?”
The answer, says Hunt, is by offering your talent more than even the swishest, most cutting-edge workspaces of central London – or the previous generation of drab out-of-town business parks – can provide.
Business parks need to offer everything city centre sites cannot – clean and green with wide open spaces.
“Forward-thinking business parks in the region are undergoing a renaissance, creating a natural habitat that enables talent to thrive,” says Shiraz Jiwa, chief executive of Valesco Group, owner of Microsoft’s UK HQ at Thames Valley Park, which is next door to V7’s Here + Now development.
“Campus-style layouts with multiple occupiers encourage the cross-fertilisation of ideas. This is exactly the kind of collaboration that businesses have missed out on over the past 16 months,” he says.
Prize place: the Here + Now scheme is on course to win the BREEAM ‘Outstanding’ standard for sustainability
“This is one of the main reasons that many [occupiers] are gravitating towards best-in-class business parks in the Thames Valley and South East. Their vibrancy and cohesion make them a holistic option that’s worlds apart from isolated floors in individual buildings.”
This is central to the philosophies that underpin Here + Now and the Microsoft HQ, which is undergoing a redevelopment similar to the Here + Now project. Both are about helping the people who work there strike a better work/life balance.
“We have initiated a large-scale repositioning and rebranding of Thames Valley Park and will be looking to make it one of the premier technology parks in Europe,” says Jiwa.
“This will involve opening up the public realm, including the nearby nature trails and riverfront, revolutionising both the offline and online occupier experience, creating a landscaped amphitheatre, a summer cinema, as well as a luxury food and beverage offering that is anchored by a barge moored on the water meadow.”
Here + Now will include two cafés, an outdoor cinema and outdoor working area, as well as a large area of landscaped space including lakes, rivers, wildflower-rich meadows and running trails. At the centre of the development will be a large indoor and outdoor gym. “People have said to me that the only other places you’ll find a gym outside is Muscle Beach in LA or prison,” jokes Hunt.
Out-of-town business parks are long overdue a re-evaluation
Nick Gaskell, Hawkins\Brown
“We think amenities like this are much more important than the office space itself. If you are happy at work and have a lovely experience while you’re there, you are likely to be more productive for your employer.”
There is certainly plenty to distract workers at the park from the pressures of the job. “Here + Now has got 1,000 acres, the River Thames and some beautiful places to go for a walk or a run along the towpaths or just sit and read,” says Hunt.
“In your lunchbreaks, you can speak to our lifestyle manager and get kettlebells, yoga mats or wetsuits and pump up a couple of paddleboards and go paddle boarding along the Thames.”
This all sounds decidedly Californian. As does the outdoor workspace. “Yes, we’ve got office space, but we’ve also got an outdoor working area,” says Hunt. “It’s flooded with very quick wifi so that you can go outside and work just as efficiently as you could if you were inside at your desk.”
Being able to work in the fresh air has become more attractive since Covid, as have offices with sensor-controlled doors and toilet flushes to reduce touchpoints and opportunities for germs to spread. Prior to Covid, V7’s schemes were Reset-accredited, meaning indoor air quality is maintained and monitored by a network of sensors that occupiers can access via an app. Since its arrival, good air quality has become a prerequisite for many.
Fresh air: Here + Now will feature an outdoor working area
“There has been a huge swing in what people are focusing on,” says Hunt. “Before, it was all urban, urban, urban. Investors wanted buildings next to train stations and they didn’t really care if you could open a window and get some fresh air or go for a walk in nature during your lunchbreak.
“There’s been a massive uptick in enquiries about Here + Now because it’s in the countryside and offers so much more than those urban sites.”
This is reflected in the rents tenants are prepared to pay for out-of-town developments in the Thames Valley area. Rates are approaching £40/sq m, close to what quality office space in central Reading can command.
To justify such prices, developments like Here + Now, which is offering leases of a year, need to be able to demonstrate their sustainability to would-be tenants.
“The trend towards some degree of decentralisation out of our city centres has been accelerated by the pandemic,” says Nick Gaskell, partner and workplace sector lead at Here + Now’s architect Hawkins\Brown.
“One of the consequences has been a re-evaluation of out-of-town business parks,” says Gaskell. “In recent years, these have been much-maligned as outdated, unsustainable and car-dependent. However, they offer enormous opportunities. They’re long overdue a re-evaluation, driven by sustainable and worker-focused design principles.”
As part of an initiative to position Thames Valley Park as a sustainable and attractive place to work, the park’s private shuttle bus to central Reading is being converted to electrical power. The Here + Now redevelopment includes the installation of multiple electric vehicle charge points.
All timber used in the buildings is FSC-certified, the fabric in the atrium is made from recycled plastic bottles and all carpets in the buildings are carbon neutral.
Rooftop beehives will contribute to the site’s biodiversity and the development will be net zero for both operational and embedded carbon with emissions offset by tree planting.
Such efforts have put Here + Now on course to win the BREEAM ‘Outstanding’ standard for sustainability and has helped it achieve the three-star Fitwel certification, the highest rating for emphasis on health and wellness in building design, development and operation.
“Our team has left no stone unturned,” says Hunt. “There’s only one other three-star building in the world, which is in Canada, so we are really proud of that.”
And so they should be. After all, it gives Thames Valley something that not even California has to offer.