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Eclectic electric
Regeneration & Renewal – 30 March 2009

Open 24 hours a day and with office space that can be expanded or shrunk at a month's notice, Sheffield's new creative business incubator offers firms maximum flexibility - and a helter-skelter. Mark Smulian takes a tumble with economic development expert Karl Dalgleish.

Use of an indoor helter-skelter is not something normally specified by tenants seeking rented workspace. But Electric Works' 12 metre high slide, which descends from the third floor to the ground floor, is more than a huge executive toy.

The slide - the most notable feature of this building in the first phase of Sheffield's Digital Campus project - also says something about the kind of workspace offered by Electric Works and the type of firms expected to use it.

This is unconventional serviced office space. It is a new building designed for the creative, digital and media industries on which Sheffield is partly pinning its hopes for future economic growth, following the decline of its traditional heavy engineering base.

Enough creative and digital firms are already in the city for providers to know that these companies are not interested in standard offices. Instead, they want "to sit on a sofa and work with a laptop, or bring in a freelancer to a workspace, but not disturb staff in their bit of the office", says Toby Hyam, managing director of Creative Space Management, which has been contracted to look after Electric Works for its owner, Sheffield City Council, and make it financially sustainable.

Electric Works has 3,700sq metres of letable space, broken up into rooms that companies can rent and open spaces with chairs and tables that self-employed people can use 24 hours a day by paying a subscription. It also offers catering and rooms to use for presentations.

Developers Scarborough Development Group and GMI Property Company built Electric Works, and an adjacent speculative office building, for 35 million, with the public sector contributing 10 million. The project is a public-private partnership between the developers and the city council. It opened for business earlier this month and occupancy is at 20 per cent.

Hyam says that the diverse way in which creative companies work has to be taken into account in the office space they inhabit. "What we are seeing are smaller businesses operating with complex supply chain relationships, with freelances and subcontractors in software, design and marketing and so forth. They need very flexible space," says Hyam.

"For these firms, the business planning horizon can be very short, so at Electric Works they can change their space requirement with one month's notice. If a contract goes, they can alter one of their main liabilities - their rent - very fast."

The 24-hour opening on offer is a recognition that creative and digital industries attract people with unconventional outlooks who may "go out to eat or for entertainment in the evenings and then come back and do some design work", Hyam says. That is, if their bosses can get them off the helter-skelter.

Regeneration & Renewal asked Karl Dalgleish, director of the local office of the Ekos economic development consultancy, to give his views of the building.

"This is an unusual building. Is it right for the creative and digital industries?"

"It appears to have got the right people in place to manage it, people who have got experience of running similar facilities. That said, it is still a challenge to be trying to get 60 or 70 firms and about 400 people in the building. It would be fantastic if they can do it. The managers say they are having lots of enquiries, and, although I don't think anyone would be naive enough to make bold statements in the current economic climate about their ability to achieve full tenancy, I would say they stand as good a chance as anyone of achieving that. Sheffield does need flexible facilities of this kind and quality."

"The building is aimed at a sector of businesses that is growing but still relatively small in Sheffield. Is that viable?"

"They're not starting from scratch and Sheffield has a strong manufacturing bedrock, which brings with it a degree of innovation and creativity that has spawned the modern creative and digital industries. The sector is now a cornerstone of Sheffield's economic masterplan and of the city council's aspirations. This is a business sector that the city is backing in a big way."

"Electric Works is designed around the idea that creative businesses based there will network, and grow together as a result. Will the project fulfil that aim?"

"To some degree, the building itself helps to create a critical mass of creative and digital business. This is a sector that loves to network, and industry experts have told me that you need to create the right environment for that to happen. I think a building of this kind is absolutely perfect for stimulating networking opportunities. From speaking to Toby Hyam, it appears that he has links with the right networks, including the universities. Electric Works is a product of very high quality that would rival any similar complex nationally. Sheffield has been crying out for smaller entrepreneurial spaces like this where businesses can be nurtured."

"Is the location right?"

"It's right by the rail and bus stations and Sheffield Hallam University and a short walk from the city centre. It would have been nice if it could have been in the heart of Sheffield's creative quarter (the Cultural Industries Quarter), but there was not enough space there. It is, however, on the edge of the quarter and only a few minutes' walk from its centre. I suspect that when the Digital Campus is complete (which is due to happen in the next five years), it and the Cultural Industries Quarter will more or less merge in the long term."

"Electric Works looks cutting-edge now, but will it date too quickly?"

"One would hope the design would be adapted and changed with time so that it does not obviously date. The helter-skelter is a unique feature that is probably helpful as a marketing tool, and quite good fun. It's there to break up the work environment and, as Toby Hyam says, to give people an adrenalin shot, and it has certainly stimulated interest in the building.."