Lloyd's counts cost of keeping 'The Espresso Machine' sweet: Jay Thompson on more dents in a battered institution

Click to follow
The Independent Online
LLOYD'S was taking a battering last week. And that was just the building. As investors struggled with the continuing problem of their high losses in the insurance market, Nick Phillips, Lloyd's premises manager, was struggling with the high cost of maintaining its ultra-modern building in Leadenhall Street in the City of London.

The building - designed by Richard Rogers and referred to by some as 'The Espresso Machine' - is the arch-exemplar of function as form. But that form costs about pounds 1.5m a year to repair and maintain, around 50 per cent per square foot more than in less sophisticated premises.

The committee that commissioned the pounds 91m building might have assumed it was buying the very model of modern efficiency, but the building's 'functionality' has bred its own problems. The regular maintenance schedule book is an inch thick. Top priority are the exterior 'wall climber' lifts. Then there's the exterior steel cladding: it has to be kept shiny, which means regular cleaning. But the lift cradles carrying the cleaners bang against the cladding, leaving dents; and the cleaners themselves make more dents in the struggle to find a solid purchase as they reach for the more difficult spots.

So the Lloyd's building has to be cosseted by what Mr Phillips describes as 'our very own dent team', which periodically removes the damaged panels and takes them away for repair.

The flip-side of hi-tech architecture - function as intensive care - is not just a London phenomenon. In Plymouth, Western Morning News journalists in Nick Grimshaw's glass-hulled ship of a building have had to lash yards of cloth to the windows to enable them to see their computer screens properly.

And at Norman Foster's Stansted Airport terminal, highly praised, all of the roof's steelwork had to be completely repainted before the building was finished.

Some architectural commentators say that the technical sophistication of buildings such as Lloyd's highlight the need for a simpler approach. 'There's a major swing away from hi-tech architecture,' said Roderick Bunn, editor of Building Services magazine.

'Hi-tech buildings haven't performed in the way professionals had promised. It's almost getting to the stage where you need fully-fledged engineers to maintain buildings designed by fully- fledged engineers.'

Bill Bordass, a leading building technology consultant, agrees: 'Somebody's got to pioneer buildings for the future. But the problem is often that the mistakes become the icons. The danger is where the image of the technology hijacks the functionality. A lot of hi-tech solutions are just too clever for the skills that can be marshalled to keep them going.

'The cleverer you are, the more conditions have to be met for the building to work the way you hoped it would, so the chances of those conditions being met decrease.'

Philip Gumuchdjian, of the Richard Rogers practice, defended the Lloyd's building. He agreed that a building of its technical complexity would, inevitably, have high maintenance costs. Its 'deliberately articulated' shape - to give it scale - added to the challenge of caring for the exterior.

But he said that the building's 'one-off' design had overriding virtues, notably its highly flexible internal space, which more than compensated for the costs.

There is another factor: sellability. Mr Phillips explains: 'If you commission a highly individual building, you have got to consider if you ever want to sell. Many who commission this sort of building don't reckon on being in a position where they have to realise the asset.'

Lloyd's, he maintained, was proud of the building, techno- warts and all. This is just as well. As Mr Phillips was showing us round the building, he spotted one of the plate-glass entrance doors propped wide open by a large plastic bucket. A security guard told him: 'Underwriters getting a bit hot, sir. Wanted a bit of ventilation.'

Members' revolt, Business Section

(Photograph omitted)

Comments