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The Willis Building, London, United Kingdom 
Tuesday 13 May 2008
 
Crunch! And the Willis Building is sold? 
 
 
 
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Editorial

The much anticipated Willis Building opened to the press last week...but reports say it is already being sold 

Foster + Partner’s gleaming glass Willis Building held its press preview this time last week marking a move for insurance giants Willis into their new London headquarters. The building, which is the fourth tallest in the city, is being touted as the city’s new landmark offering a strong visual presence in London’s cityscape to match its' neighbouring Norman Foster design, the Gherkin. But just a few days later the Financial Times (FT) have reported that the building is being sold by British Land, the owners, to Kuwait Investment Authority. The move could indicate that the credit crunch is affecting even the biggest firms.

The FT reported that the building could be sold for as much as £400million and would represent one of the biggest property deals since the crunch began. While the sale is encouraging, British Land will release their end of year finances later today and it is expected that the alleged sale will help to buffer significant loss in net asset value. WAN contacted British Land's Director of Corporate Communications, Laura de Vere but she refused to comment saying only: "It is standard policy on speculative reports not to comment."

Despite the revelations the Willis Building is still something to wonder at. Currently leased to Willis, it is situated where the 1958 Lloyds building once stood. The Willis Building's three-tiered structure stands at 125m high with 370,000 sq ft of interior space. The facade is glazed with 3,771 windows and atop the two frontal tiers are roof terraces offering open views across London from the Thames on the left to the gherkin, which stands side by side with the new structure, and beyond to the right.

The views are central to the spectacle of the Willis Building and are available on all levels above ground due to the 3m floor to ceiling windows which flood the floors with natural light. This is one of the features which helped to gain the Willis Building an “excellent” BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method) sustainability reading meaning that it is the latest London ‘greenscraper’. During construction 77.6% of material from the demolition of the Lloyds building was recycled and crushed for use in the foundations. A six-storey ‘green wall’ concept covers the North side facades encouraging bio-diversity, rain water is collected and stored for use in the landscaping and many other initiatives are in place for a greener office including the controversial removal of under-desk bins to encourage recycling.

The man responsible for this and many other business practises is Willis CEO and Chairman, Joe Plumeri who has made massive changes to Willis since he joined the company in October 2000 including returning the company to public ownership. Having coined the buzz-word ‘Glocal’, meaning the provision of global resources delivered locally, Plumeri believes the new Headquarters embody this spirit. He said of the move: “It was about moving the business into the future. Willis used to talk a lot about today and not about the future. We are taking the company and shaping it and this building allows us to do this.” In a written statement he adds: “The Willis building is a monument to our past, current and future success. It represents our commitment to stand tall as the change agent in the global insurance industry, challenging the status quo and modernizing the way we all do business.”

The floorplate of the building is arranged around a central column allowing for wide open spaces unlittered by pillars. There is also a bold no-door policy, which is relaxed only where strictly necessary, offering ‘visual transparency’. Plumeri believes this is a solid business strategy stating: “If you’re gonna talk, talk to each other openly and freely.” When one sharp journalist asked Joe Plumeri, “Do you have a door on your office?” He could honestly say “No - there are restrooms on the floor, they have doors.” This policy and the £40million interior outfit also allow for the adaptation to change in the building, desks can easily be moved around or a space can be reallocated.

The building is currently at 80% capacity but plans are underway for the remaining floors including discussions on creating sleeping space for business partners. Other facilities include a 375-seat auditorium, a 6000 sq ft ‘Wellness Centre’ a 300-seat Associates restaurant and many conference and dining rooms.

Planning was initially granted to British Land for a much larger building in 2001 but Willis decided that this would be contrary to their requirements and asked Fosters + Partners for a redesign. Realising that this was not tradition a spokesperson for Willis was said to have remarked: “Surely this is the first time that planning permission has ever been sought for a smaller building.”

While the redesign took around 14 months the new design allows for a more successful integration within the area. There is no longer one imposing block but two separate buildings with curved edges creating an avenue which is sympathetic to the original landscape. To the east of the current Lloyd's Building, the 9-storey building at 1 Fenchurch Street responds to the smaller scale of the nearby streets where the 28-storey Willis Building rises to the west of the site. Ian Whitby, Partner at Foster + Partners said: “Originally there were two roads here which were lost in the original design. It was a monolithic structure so a sweeping curve was used to soften the impact. But even better still, with the redesign when we were able to separate the buildings it furthered that effect.”

The area on which it stands is a bustling warren of side streets and avenues representing the home of the insurance industry in the UK. Outside the entrance to the building the original frieze from the Lloyds building has been lowered to offer a focal point upon entry and to the public. Pleased with the way the Willis Building is able to add to the local atmosphere rather than quashing it, Paul Burgess, Head of London Leasing for British Land said: “The Willis Building is a new landmark for London. It has opened up the whole area, it enlivens it.” Time will tell if this is the fond farewell.

Niki May Young
News Editor

Key Facts

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Foster + Partners
www.fosterandpartners.com

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