Green as a binder: Utrecht Business Park is transforming from office complex to open campus

This article originally appeared on the website for City+Green, written by Paul van der Sneppen. It is part of the Landscape Walks article series.

People are scattered across the central square in the spring sun. There is a consultation, a cigarette is smoked and when it is lunchtime, groups of people take their seats at the patio tables to eat together. “Exactly as intended,” says Thumann.
The space functions as a living room, a meeting place in the open air. There are several businesses at Secoya, including a catering facility, directly on site. The campus also houses an active service point that organizes events in the central square. ‘It can be a culinary happening with food trucks, but also live music or a sporting event. All this adds value to the campus. It attracts people, for example freelancers, who occasionally come here to make use of office and meeting rooms. Here in the square, space has been made for all the people and events.’

This space is shared by users with plants, a lot of plants, because greenery plays the undisputed main role here. Everything that happens in the square takes place around five islands where lush greenery grows. People move between the green islands on the pavement, on which the garden furniture is loosely scattered. ‘A few hundred people should be able to comfortably walk around here during an event. So here a balance was sought between greenery and living space’, says Thumann about the design.

The developers decided to redesign the business park in 2016. All five industrial buildings on the site had previously been let to one tenant for a long time. When it vacates the site, the owners want to transform the site into an attractive five-star multi-tenant office campus where people and businesses meet.

Green islands decorate the square, but leave enough space for street furniture and emergency services. Photo: By+Grøn.

Marketing agency

The new campus concept comes to a large extent from a branding agency with which the clients have entered into a contract. There is a multidisciplinary cross-pollination between the landscape architects and the fire strategists, where the transformation takes place. The gray functional character of the old Secoya gives way to a varied and colorful office complex, where the landscape and parking facilities in particular have become pervasive. The new business campus will be completed in 2018.

“It is fascinating to look at such a task with brand strategists. They are also designers, but in a different way. They see through different glasses. Their initial presentation was very much about people and their lifestyles. We talked to them about target groups, about lifestyle, about enjoying your work and well-being. What do the users of the Secoya campus want, and how do you create a pleasant working environment for them?’

In order to realize the vision of the new business campus, facilities were also added that at first glance might not evoke associations with office work. There is catering, there are shared bicycles and there is a fitness room.

“It is therefore intended that the users on campus do much more than just work. We have to take that into account when we design. People come here to seek peace and relaxation, but bootcamps are also held here. So you must be able to sit in the sun or in the shade, but also have room to run around in groups and do push-ups’.

Solutions for parking needs

To make that space, the designers had to find new solutions for the parking needs in the square. In the old design, the central space was an asphalt parking lot. There were benches to sit on and some borders with green areas.

Round shapes were supposed to give things a more playful character, but the original design certainly did not look very attractive, and there was certainly no room for people and green areas. ‘The original design was once attractive, but over the years has been affected by the ever-growing need for on-site parking.’

Therefore, in the new layout, the cars have been moved to a compact, new parking garage next to the entrance to the campus. It has two levels of parking. The rest of the parking spaces have been moved to existing and extensive parking decks and basements.

This frees up the entire central space for the new destination. In principle, there will be no more cars on the site. All traffic, with the exception of emergency services and perhaps a single supplier, is routed through a loop under the buildings past the parking lots.

The coating is composed of three different shades of gray to create a visual connection with the buildings’ gray facades. Different, clearly characteristic combinations have been made with these three colors, each of which represents a functionality. There are almost no thresholds or edges made. The idea is that motorists can see from the roadway how they can follow the natural flow of traffic. ‘But it’s obviously not going quite as planned’, notes Thumann. ‘I see that bollards have been set up here and there to prevent cars from entering the square.’

Connection elements

The gray of the pavement and facades is reflected in the wooden walls that separate the parking facilities from the open space. “These walls keep the cars out of sight, of course. But they also form one of the cohesive visual elements between the buildings, so an important design element that we’ve put a lot of emphasis on.’

The Secoya site in 2016: cars dominate the streets. Photo: Rijnboutt

Thumann: ‘We chose wood because it fits in well with the natural environment we wanted to create, but wood that has been grayed beforehand. This gives a nice gray color to the material, which fits in well with the overall picture. Untreated wood discolours under the influence of rain and sun, but never completely evenly. The effect of sun and rain is never exactly the same everywhere, so you get color differences. Now we see the same color everywhere, and I think it fits well into the whole.’

The partitions should not become scrap walls, Thumann believed. In addition, fire regulations had to be taken into account with regard to ventilation and lighting. They sought a semi-open construction that allows light and air to pass through, but keeps the parked cars out of sight. In the end, a split construction was chosen.

‘It was no mean feat. We spent a lot of time creating a design that gives a beautiful image and at the same time meets all other requirements.’ Finally, two panels were designed with slats that were placed next to each other in different combinations. ‘Two panels, each of which can also be mirrored, so four different ones in total. It already provides a lot of variety. And then, of course, the combinations where they alternate. I think it turned out well. The colour, the dynamics of the different variations, the incidence of light. It is true.’

Green areas are the other connecting element between the buildings. Trees, plants and grass can be seen everywhere. The composition of the plants can also still get Thumann’s approval. Its fine. “The trees in the square have grown considerably. We chose somewhat larger trees, definitely a meter or two. I estimate that two or three meters have gradually been added. They are also nicely filled, but they are here in the open country, a lovely place to grow’.

Flowering time

Different cultivars of Prunus have been selected to extend the flowering time. ‘They all have their own flowering period. For example, you alternate different flower colors, sometimes light pink, then white or dark pink. It gives a nice picture. In autumn, they get beautiful orange leaves. In winter, most trees are bare, except for a Prunus, which then blooms. It is a very special sight.’

The low vegetation on the site consists of a large number of different plants and grasses. Attempts have been made to extend the flowering period as long as possible. “The idea is that something is constantly happening in the planters. It must always be beautiful, but always with a different appearance’.

Fallen flowers remain

Falling flowers simply remain. “It’s not just for technical management reasons. It also gives a nice picture; everything then becomes a bit brownish, but also very beautiful’.

Further on towards one of the buildings, a grass hill has been built. Thumann feels that not everything has gone according to plan. ‘I need three giant sequoias (Sequoiadendron giganteum) here. There were five, but I can only see two’.

The hill has been built to mask an existing structure, a raised driveway for cars. It was once used to give vendors access to the entrance, which is on the first floor of two of the five buildings. “We thought it was a strange construction. But in this project we always had to work with what was already there. We could not remove existing structures everywhere. That is why we have built a staircase and a grass hill towards it. We didn’t want the landscape to end abruptly in a parking garage somewhere on the ground floor. The green hill that creeps up towards the facade incorporates the building into the landscape between the buildings.’

Gone Sequoiadendrons

The grassy knoll may explain the mystery of the three missing Sequoiadendrons. This is mainly made of polystyrene foam (eps) because underground infrastructure cannot support the weight of a large amount of soil. The EPS construction contains depressions that will serve as a place of growth for the Sequoiadendrons. “I can imagine that it was too hard for them, that the roots might have to reach too deep to reach the groundwater. The fact is that three trees are gone. It is a shame.’

A partition wall keeps parked cars out of sight. Photo: By+Grøn

A similar driveway has been preserved on the other side of the main square. This gives access to a parking deck on the first floor. Here, Thumann still sees opportunities to perfect his design. “The asphalt in particular hurts the eyes a little. We could remove that everywhere, but it is not possible here. We also wanted to do something with planters here, to make a pleasant walk from the entrance of the building to the central square. But here too, the existing construction limits the possibility of adding heavy interior elements.’

Next to the entrance to the building is a planter with Buxus and Pachysandra. ‘It’s better than nothing. But actually, these planters are only in place because they are left over from the redesign. They are a bit lost here now. We would have liked to have done something on this deck to extend all the beautiful green sight lines we have created for this building.’

A little further on, Thumann sees another dissonance. From one of the parking garages, the cars’ noses poke into the green. The picture actually emphasizes how well it has been possible elsewhere in the yard to banish the many parked cars from the picture. ‘But something has gone awry here. We actually wanted to camouflage these parking lots with bushes. Because the parking spaces are not completely within the existing building, it is not possible to make a slatted wall here. But with a group of willows it can easily be solved. It just didn’t happen. Of course, it is always possible. It’s not that expensive to place a few willow trees.’

The tour of Secoya, four years after its completion, satisfies Thumann. “It looks good and it’s used well. That’s what I’m there to do. There are always loose ends and sometimes you have to give up some of your original ideas because it becomes too expensive or too complicated for example. I won’t dwell on that for so long.’

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