GM Building of the Year shortlist: Soapworks

With three weeks to go until the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce names its Building of the Year for 2015, Place North West reviews the only office scheme to make it onto the shortlist this year.

Soapworks is a 400,000 sq ft redevelopment of the former Colgate-Palmolive factory in Salford Quays. Phases one and two at Soapworks totalled around 230,000 sq ft, including the 20,000 sq ft Boilerhouse, while phase three can deliver up to 160,000 sq ft.

Taking a factory that looked like an office, and turning it into an office that looks like a factory, the £70m redevelopment by the Carlyle Group, Nikal and Abstract Securities could have been an identity crisis. Instead it resulted in one of the most successful commercial properties in the region. The architect is shedkm.

Sandwiched between Manchester city centre and MediaCityUK, there was a risk that occupiers might pass over the Soapworks for the sake of its noisier neighbours. Instead, the scheme has been quietly and diligently plodding away on the fringe of the Greater Manchester office market, and the next thing you know you turn around and it’s 90% let.

And that’s not a surprise when you look around the building. With big floorplates, full height windows and extensive parking, it would fit the need of any big corporate or public sector occupier. Indeed, TalkTalk and the Home Office have both taken sizable leases for new headquarters. But to say that the high-quality office spec is the only thing going for the Soapworks is to do the building a disservice.

The conversion has stripped the Soapworks back to its essential parts, removing unnecessary fripperies and exposing the structure’s frame both internally and externally. Where once the former factory’s vast blocks looked dated and worn, now they appear modernist and cool.

Describing a fit-out as ‘industrial’ is often shorthand for a poor finish, with rough concrete masquerading as a design choice rather than the result of budget constraints. However, in the case of the Soapworks the description is deserved; the industrial aesthetic reflects the property’s history and adds a sense of character, even if the various steel girders jutting out from the ceiling pose a serious concussion risk to office workers.

However, with hot competition for the Building of the Year title from the likes of the home of graphene, a research centre delivering cutting-edge cancer treatments, and a gallery refurbishment in one of the most deprived areas in the country, will being one of Manchester’s best offices be enough to clinch the top spot for Soapworks?

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