HQ Chester

Design review: HQ Chester

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Places Matter and Hill DickinsonPart of our series revisiting five completed buildings. Reviews carried out by members of the Places Matter! design review panel , sponsored by Places Matter! and Hill Dickinson.

Architect: McCormick Architecture design for the planning permission / AFL Architects for the construction details phase for Pochin Construction

Developer: Liberty Properties / RREEF

Completed: Autumn 2009

Main contractor: Pochin Construction

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DESCRIPTION: 250,000 sq ft of residential, offices, hotel and restaurants located on the River Dee side of Chester near the city's Roman walls and castle. This is a key site within the city, on a major roundabout and thoroughfare. In terms of aspiration as a location it is very high profile. The developer's own description is of highly specified offices, luxury hotel and restaurants. This is a proper mix of uses, not the sort of tokenism sometimes seen elsewhere. This presents a lot to live up to for an architect and a difficult and intriguing mix of uses to pull off.

Approaching the site, it is in a heavily treed and landscaped area. The building is circular in format. That and the fact it is on a busy roundabout is quite an issue for its location. Offices take up half of the building with the hotel a quarter and residential the final quarter looking out over the racecourse. There is a car park underground below a heavily rusticated base.

PANEL'S REVIEW: Overall it is a very strong monumental form. It's a fantastic hill site in terms of outlooks and landscape.

It wasn't active on a Sunday [when the design panel visited] whereas other areas of the city were active; that said it does take time for a destination to establish itself.

In terms of legibility and expression of the building's programme and function, it is interesting to see how that takes place given that strong overriding expression of the circle.

The stairs at the entrance to the residential are quite off-putting. It is presumably part of the overall ambition to be monumental, with high-quality materials, looking over the edge of the hill but there was no relationship at all between the residential and the landscape outside, no sense of being able to take part in or enjoy the landscape.

We're not sure about the internal layout of the residential, it seems to be single aspect. It was difficult to see what's happening inside due to the dark windows and materials. Some are dual aspect, others are single looking inwards and others look outwards.

It seems part of the internal piazza is in shadow all of the time. Quite often at design review we would ask for a sunshine diagram and quite often they're not provided, developers are going to extremes to show there will be sufficient light within the buildings to meet with the requirements but aren't necessarily thinking about the lighting requirements of the public realm.

Cheshire West & Chester Council is the dominant tenant, having taken all of the 82,000 sq ft office space.

The café and hotel wants to address the turning point in the scheme, the residential wants to address the racecourse and the offices are more of a quiet area retaining their own identity; there's a respectful process there.

There is an issue to do with take-up of the ground floor area which is potential retail space but is still partly un-let and the cafes on the right hand side on the road seem to be underused. Potentially this is the darkest area of the courtyard.

The heritage element in a separate small display area outside felt like an add-on which is strange given the history of the area. Also, the heritage display building has so many materials it ends up being quite complicated.

There was a decision made to take a powerful form of the Roman coliseum type but it stops a bit short of what it should have done, it lost confidence part of the way through.

The roundabout is a strong dynamic and not an unpleasant roundabout and you kind of feel this building is sitting at the edge not playing its part.

There is flimsiness about some of the public realm detailing. It could have been more robust in the way it was done; a glass balustrade doesn't feel appropriate here and could have been a big sandstone wall, properly robust with a rustic base.

There is an ambition to be a really significant part of Chester but it's not really happening.

At design review we would have said keep on the monumental and don't get distracted.

It could have achieved a lot more and had the potential to be a great scheme but it's struggling to be a good one now.

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