Willis Building

Year:1975

Duration:4 years

Cost:Unknown

Country: Ipswich, UK

What did this project achieve?

Create a workspace that really brings everyone together – before open plan existed

The Willis building in Ipswich (originally known as the Willis Corroon headquarters) is one of the earliest buildings designed by architect Sir Norman Foster.

Now seen as a landmark of the 'high tech' style of architecture, the building uses elements of modern industry and technology as part of its design.

The client for the structure - a family-run insurance company called Willis, Faber and Dumas - wanted to bring a 'sense of community' to the workplace.

Foster created a 3 floor open plan building to meet the brief - years before open-plan offices became commonplace.

The unusual bulbous floorplan of the block reflects the land available in the centre of Ipswich. The site is squeezed between several road junctions and the Unitarian Meeting House, a Grade 1 listed building built in 1700.

Foster was inspired by the 1939 'futurist art deco' Daily Express building in Manchester. They share features including tinted glass and curved corners.

In 1991 the Willis building became the newest in the UK to be given a Grade 1 listing. Unusually, this meant that Ipswich had two Grade 1 listed buildings next to each other.

Difference the building has made

The Willis building was one of the first in the UK to have an open plan layout. It's seen as having a major influence on office design as most offices built in Britain are now open plan.

As well as being the workplace for over 1,300 people for more than 40 years, the building has become a local tourist attraction.

How the work was done

Engineers constructed the Willis building from a grid of concrete pillars. These are 46ft (14m) apart and support cantilevered concrete floors.

The structure is low-rise, to fit in with the area around it. The building curves for similar reasons as it aims to follow the irregular plan of the original medieval streets.

The exterior is covered in 890 smoked glass panels. During the day the dark glass reflects the streets opposite. This also helps the building fit in with its surroundings.

The building was given a roof garden, again unusual for office blocks at the time, as well as a staff restaurant. The rooftop recreation area for workers – along with a place where people could eat together - aimed to create the democratic atmosphere the client wanted.

The block was designed to be eco-friendly. The grass roof, for example, acts as insulation to help keep in heat. The Willis building has won many awards for energy efficiency.

"​‌

I knew it was there and went looking for it. It was not in a part of town that you could just stumble across it.

Norman Foster

On the Daily Express building in Manchester, an inspiration for the Willis building.

Fascinating facts

Other well-known high tech buildings include the Pompidou Centre in Paris and the Lloyds building in London.

The Willis building used raised office floors as part of its design. This meant that when computers became commonplace there was plenty of space for the cabling and other new demands. Many companies had to move premises to do the same.

Although it was designed for flexibility the Willis building's Grade 1 listed status means in fact that nothing can be changed.

People who made it happen

  • Client: Insurance brokers Willis, Faber and Dumas (now Willis Towers Watson)
  • Architect: Norman Foster
  • Structural engineer: Anthony Hunt

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