Google’s extravagant new London ‘landscraper’ headquarters faces years of delays

The building is intended for 7,000 workers and will feature a swimming pool and basketball courts

Google’s plan for a new London headquarters initially drew scepticism even from its allies. Thomas Heatherwick, founder of the eponymous design studio, was reluctant to work with the tech giant.

In comments to the Founders Forum held at Soho Farmhouse earlier this year, Heatherwick said that he initially ignored Google’s advances to work on its campus upgrade ambitions in Silicon Valley and London.

The designer, also known for Boris Johnson’s failed attempt to revive the Routemaster bus and his aborted Garden Bridge project, had become suspicious about helping corporations make “private worlds for themselves behind fences”. Yet after a meeting with Google’s co-founder Larry Page, Heatherwick was persuaded to help and the company was appointed in 2015.

At this stage, Google was already two years into its King’s Cross adventure and only a year away from the original, ambitious completion deadline. Heatherwick was approached to completely reinvent the scheme, after Page decided to junk plans from a previous architect on the grounds of being too boring.

London-based Allford Hall Monaghan Morris had originally designed a modern block of more standard appearance, which at a reported cost of £1bn failed to meet Page’s standards of corporate playfulness. Heatherwick obliged with more extravagant ideas whose costs are unknown.

Five years on the site remains little more than a concrete shell. While the rest of the vast Kings Cross regeneration project has been finished to mostly positive reviews, the capital’s biggest monument to the digital age is still years away from completion. 

In the meantime, the pandemic has revolutionised working patterns and posed questions about whether a vast playground designed to keep staff in the office is still a good idea.

The new plans cannot be faulted for a lack of ambition. Heatherwick and Google decided to build a one-million-square-feet “landscraper”, an eleven story building longer than The Shard is tall.

The expected completion date is 2024

Enormous scale is a theme of of a building intended for 7,000 workers. A deal to buy thirty-eight elevators and two escalators for the headquarters marked one of the biggest purchases in the construction industry during 2019. 

Following this, a special turntable for trucks delivering materials was constructed on site by Lendlease, in order to reduce the space needed for three point turns by lorries and tankers.

Moving in day remains on the far horizon, but work has begun on some of Google’s most extravagant finishing touches. Recently, a competition-standard 25m swimming pool has been procured for installation on the building’s ninth floor. Basketball courts and a running track are also planned.

Meticulous processes have contributed to delays. Construction companies had to provide a two minute video explaining how their culture made them suitable to work with Google. One successful applicant, steel company Severfield had jaunty music overlaying an interview with identical twins who both work for the company, a man with the company name tattooed to his chest and another describing the prospective Google contract as “the pinnacle of his career”.

For some of those who have won contracts, the pressures of a project so far behind schedule have been intense. Steelcon services, a company responsible for the initial installation of steel on the site, worked for 32 days straight on the project, according to company documents. The month of unbroken work was driven by Google’s “tight” deadlines, it said.

Full-scale models of timber facades were built in Gundelfingen, a town on the outskirts of Freiburg in West Germany by Gartner, a facade and steel company initially founded in 1868. Yet the inherent challenges of construction next to a major transport hub has caused problems big and small. 

In order to prevent issues for Kings Cross station, specific trees were scouted for a lush garden roof to limit the leaves dropping onto the train tracks below.

The wider Kings Cross regeneration project has been met with largely positive reviews

Sources working on the project expect a completion date around 2024, marking an eleven year process from announcement to completion.

While the unique design and household name were beneficial to King’s Cross during earlier stages of development, those in the property industry now see the delays as a source of frustration in the area. Agents now prefer to talk about projects in the area that began with less fanfare but have had more impact to date.

“King’s Cross is bigger than Google,” Patrick Ryan, partner in central London offices for estate agent Gerald Eve.

“It’s frustrating it’s not up and running, but the inactivity is not a game changer. If you look at the Francis Crick and Wellcome Institutes, as well as local Universities including UCL, they’re now driving the expansion”.

ULI Europe chief executive Lisette van Doorn said that the burgeoning “knowledge quarter”, is still pulling in talent, but that pharmaceutical and biomedical companies are now the magnets.

“The life sciences need centres of excellence at universities and teaching hospitals and the Knowledge Quarter arguably evolved around the collaboration of six leading biomedical organisations at the Francis Crick Institute.”

“And for these institutions, as well as the businesses, attractiveness to talent is key. And the Knowledge Quarter appeals to talent, not just because of its excellent connectivity nationally and internationally but also of the high quality public realm and amenities.”

The 'landscraper' will be longer than the Shard is tall

Credit: Hayes Davidson

Lisa Webb, senior planning partner at Gerald Eve agreed that following the delays to Google’s headquarters, King’s Cross had evolved past the tech giant.

“Google is a fantastic addition to Kings Cross, which now has YouTube and Facebook too as part of the Argent master plan. But it’s not Google that’s had the impact. Other developments are moving the space on – Google is the last company of the original masterplan to move in, and since then the area has evolved. There has since been a pivot to life sciences, which is the next stage of Kings Cross.”

Van Doorn also credits the original masterplan by developer Argent for the success of King’s Cross, transforming an area previously known as a red light district, to a cultural hub home to tens of thousands of jobs.

“The vibrancy of the area achieved through Argent’s approach to regeneration is unique. [Argent] cultural and education programmes have engaged a broad range of people and made the most of the master plan’s public spaces.”

Since the pandemic, Google has shown increased hesitancy towards big office projects. In April 2020, the tech giant began a partial retreat from real estate deals. Two million square feet that was being negotiated in San Francisco was dropped, as were numerous projects globally.

In the UK, Google’s campus in Camden was shuttered earlier this year, as the company shifted away from offices quickly following a year of lockdowns and working restrictions.

The disposals went against Google’s traditional reputation as a hoarder of real estate in the property industry. A source involved in the transactions with Google described its process as “acquisitive”, adding the company “doesn’t return space, it just expands and expands”.

Despite this, eight years in, Google remains committed to King’s Cross. It declined to comment. 

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