Bracknell: Talk of the town

Bracknell is the first post-war new town to be comprehensively demolished and rebuilt - to the tune of £750m. Building visited just weeks before completion to see a scheme that hopes to get shoppers and visitors returning in droves

Bracknell’s reputation as a grey town of decaying brutalist concrete architecture is about to change. The Berkshire new town was built in the 1950s to give those from bombed-out London estates the opportunity to embrace a new modernist future outside of the city’s green belt. Sixty years after its formation, however, the commercial heart of the town was in decline, its shops deserted by retailers and shoppers alike. Now, a new £750m urban regeneration scheme, one of the largest in the UK, is set to transform the town.

Under the initiative, Bracknell town centre is being comprehensively demolished and rebuilt - the first post-war new town to undergo such radical remodelling.

Fundamental to the success of the scheme is a £240m, 580,000ft2 retail and leisure development known as The Lexicon. This ambitious scheme, now nearly finished, will regenerate over 60% of the town’s centre. Almost all buildings north of the high street (as far as the ring road) have been demolished and in their place contractor Mace is building shops and restaurants and even a new street.

It is a giant scheme which, it is hoped, will revitalise the town centre and bring life back to the town’s commercial heart. The challenge for Mace is not so much the scale of the project but the need for it to rebuild over half of the town centre while allowing the remaining shops and cafes continue to trade. “This project is all about keeping the public realm open while getting materials to the site,” says Carl Wright, project director at Mace.

Works to rebuild the area of town north of the high street are nearing completion. New retail units line wide, welcoming pedestrian streets where some of the site’s 120 paving operatives are busy laying the last few sections of granite paving. High above, another team is at work slotting the last of the diamond-shaped glazing panels into the lattice of glulam-trusses that cover areas of the streets to create elegant covered arcades.

And inside the retail units, the retailer’s fit-out contractors are already hard at work; the rattle of concrete breakers fills the air outside of what will soon be a new Boots store as contractors remove a section of ground floor slab to enable construction of a lift pit.

Meanwhile south of the high street, in what remains of the old town centre, another team of paving operatives is at work. Screened from the shoppers by a cordon of Heras fencing, this team is replacing the street’s original, chewing-gum engrained brick pavements with unblemished granite pavers that match those carpeting the pristine new streets north of the high street, linking the old to the new. Contractor Knight Harwood has been replacing the tired facades of the stores that line the streets in this area of town to refresh their appearance in time for the redevelopment’s grand opening in September.

A long time coming

For Bracknell’s residents the opening will signal the end of the 20-year saga to breathe new life into the centre of their town. Redevelopment was first mooted in the 1990s, with competing proposals for a much larger retail development which would have put Bracknell in competition for retailers and shoppers with the nearby town of Reading. These ambitious proposals were, however, rejected by John Prescott, the then environment secretary, on the basis that they were too large in scale for the region.

The current more modest scheme was masterplanned by BDP. The architect was brought on board in 2006 by developer Bracknell Regeneration Partnership, a joint venture between the formerly competing developers of Legal & General Capital and Schroder UK Real Estate Fund, which are working in collaboration with Bracknell Forest Council. “This scheme is not so big that it is unwieldy in terms of its letting prospects,” says Simon Russian, head of development for Legal & General.

In addition to its reduced scale, BDP’s design is also significant in that it has been conceived to bring life to the streets of Bracknell. It is what Russian calls “an open street scheme” as opposed to a gated Westfield-like shopping centre, which is closed off from the public at night.

“The design suited us because the new scheme knitted in with the existing developments that we owned in the town and which are being upgraded to deliver a cohesive scheme,” explains Russian.

One of the few buildings to have been retained in the BDP scheme is the Grade II listed Bull pub, parts of which date back to 14th century. The timbered building is now the focus of a new town square. “We’ve made it the centrepiece of the scheme because the building is so different to anything else in Bracknell,” Russian says.

To distinguish the new scheme from its homogenous predecessor, BDP has designed it as a series of eight linked blocks. The blocks are further differentiated by variations in their colour and style of cladding. “All eight blocks are designed to look different so that the scheme appears as a high street of different buildings rather than as a uniform shopping centre,” explains Russian.

The design also mixes retail outlets with cafes, bars and restaurants to deliver what Russian terms “an enhanced shopping experience”. It is a combination he hopes will attract new visitors to the town centre at lunchtimes and in the evenings. “Some 25,000 people work in the town, mostly on out-of-town office and retail estates, but very few choose to shop in Bracknell or spend their lunchtimes here - that is one of the big targets for us,” he says. The shops and restaurants will also be open later to help develop an evening economy. “Currently all the shops shut at 5.30pm and Bracknell becomes a ghost town, but soon all the shops will stay open until eight,” Russian says.

BDP’s scheme was approved by the planners in 2007, just as the recession that followed the 2007 financial crisis hit. The redevelopment was put on hold as a result and the design reassessed. Rather than commit to the major redevelopment, the developer decided instead to build a new standalone Waitrose supermarket to the west of the main development under an initial phase (Waitrose is the biggest employer in Bracknell). “It was the first new building in the town centre in 25 years and it gave people and the market confidence that the scheme was going to happen,” says Russian.

The second phase of the scheme is being built by Mace under a design and build contract. The contractor tendered for the project in 2013 and signed the contract to build The Lexicon in 2015. This gave the contractor just 24 months in which to construct 1 million ft2 of new retail outlets.

By the time Mace had been appointed, the area of town north of the high street had already been demolished and the site cleared. The contractor’s first task was to level the site, which has a 7.5m fall from the high street in the south to the ring road in the north. It then installed 750 piles, cast the pile caps and installed a concrete ground floor slab before erection of the shops’ structural steel frame could commence. “It’s simple, low-tech construction that works,” says Mace project director Carl Wright.

The key to the scheme opening on time was to ensure the retail units have been completed in time to allow the retailers’ fit-out teams early access. “On a retail scheme you have sectional completions, the first of which will be the anchor units, which are occupied by Marks & Spencer and Fenwick, because these are the biggest units at 80,000ft2 and they have the longest fit-out period; these will be followed by a succession of completions primarily geared to retailers’ fit-out periods,” he says. “Once you’ve started on the anchors, the rest of the retail construction follows on behind.”

Site restrictions

One of the biggest challenges Mace had to overcome with this scheme was a lack of storage. “Although the site has a big footprint, we had multiple workfaces which meant there was very little space available for the on-site storage of materials,” says Wright. With no off-site storage facilities available, material deliveries were arranged on a just-in-time basis.

Site restrictions influenced Mace’s construction choice for the development’s multi-storey car park, which is situated between the two anchor stores. This is the largest single element of the redevelopment. Initially it was to be built from concrete poured in-situ, but Mace decided that, given the site’s restrictions, it would be easier and simpler to build it using off-site manufactured precast concrete sections. “Precast concrete worked well because of the repetition in the design,” explains Wright.

Alongside construction of the new-build elements north of the high street, the scheme includes regeneration of the remnants of the existing town centre to the south. “We had to upgrade the existing town centre to ensure that we delivered a cohesive regeneration scheme,” says Legal & General’s Russian.

Mace is responsible for the works in this area too. In Braccan Walk a new block of shops has been created by extending the existing structure to form larger stores. The works involved extending the floor plates of several existing stores onto what was originally an open square, known as Charles Square. Mace’s Wright says this was a particularly challenging aspect of the project because it involved the refurbishment of existing structures, some “tricky” demolition and extensive temporary works to hold up the structures while the floor areas were extended.

Leading on to Braccan Walk is Stanley Walk. Here the addition of a PTFE roof means that the shops’ old concrete canopies, built to shelter shoppers from the elements, are no longer needed. When Building visited, the first of the canopies was due to be removed that evening. Wright explains that removal has to take place in the limited time window between the shops closing at 6pm and the 10pm construction curfew imposed because of the proximity of the nearby Grange Hotel. Scaffold supporting columns had already been erected beneath the canopy in preparation for the evening’s work. “We won’t really know what we’re dealing with [in removing the canopy] until we make a start so we’ve had to put in a substantial support - hopefully it will be what we’re expecting,” says Wright.

Removal of the canopies will be followed by replacement of the shops’ facades to help revitalise the appearance of the retail outlets in this area of town to stop them looking like the poor relations of the swanky new outlets north of the high street. The facade replacement is one of the final tasks as the contractors prepares to leave the site. Most of the development has achieved practical completion with the remaining elements due to complete in the next few weeks. After this date retailers will have three months in which to fit-out their stores before the grand opening on 7 September 2017 and the completion of Bracknell’s transformation.

Project Team

Client Bracknell Regeneration Partnership
Concept architect BDP
Architect for Charles Square redevelopment Chapman Taylor
Structural engineer Arup
Building services engineer Hoare Lea
Contractor Mace / Knight Harwood
Steelwork contractor Severfield Rowen
Building services contractor Dornan
Cladding and roofing contractor Prater

 

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