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Interview with the globally renowned architects behind the MK Gateway development

Two of the country’s top architects, working on the planned MK Gateway development, have discussed plans for the iconic Saxon Court building, and their desire to create something truly unique for communities within Milton Keynes.

Ivan Harbour and Andrew Partridge from Rogers Stark Harbour and Partners (RSH-P) have both been involved in some of the biggest and best buildings around the world – with Ivan part of the team behind the creation of the Lloyds Tower in London.

MK Gateway marks the first commercial development they have worked on outside of a major global capital.

In December, plans for the redevelopment of Saxon Court were approved Milton Keynes Council following a submission by mixed-use developers, Socius, and investors Patron Capital. The 2.35 acre site, which will be known as MK Gateway, will now see the sustainable retention, refurbishment, and extension of the original Saxon Court building into a future-focussed Knowledge hub, and the development of two new buildings; ‘The Shed’, a space for local businesses to make and create, and ‘The Village’, which will represent a UK-first in the future of urban living. The development will be complemented by the ‘The Green’, a new outdoor public square for art and cultural events, providing a welcoming space for people to relax, socialise and dine.

Here, key questions around the planned design of MK Gateway have been answered, and RSH-P’s Ivan and Andrew share some of the rationale behind the design, and how they have been influenced by Milton Keynes in this process:

It is unusual for the bosses of an architecture practice to be so hands on throughout a project, why were you so keen to work on this development?

AP: “Ivan and I both visited Milton Keynes at a formative point of our architectural journeys, albeit at different times. We visited the Milton Keynes Development Partnership and found a lot of what Milton Keynes was doing to be fascinating, in terms of its history.

What we have designed comes from a concept called City Club which came from Milton Keynes in the 70s. It was a mind-boggling leisure complex which was designed to take up a whole block of CMK.”

IH: “We are passionate about this building and its future and are fascinated with the history of Milton Keynes. The project has great bones to it, and we are trying to be more than just a building adding more apartments to a city.”

How will the planned homes respond to changing needs, especially post-COVID, and be fit for the future?

IH: “Milton Keynes is on a sharp growth trajectory and the infrastructure needs to cater to the growing number of professionals who will be living and working within the city. Socius and Patron Capital wanted to build homes for people that are both comfortable and create a sense of community within a larger building. The number of single person households is increasing and, after months of extreme social isolation due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the need to connect with others is a rising health matter. People want to feel connected to their neighbourhood and communities. All homes will be built within the residential development, which will be known as The Village. This name will evoke the sense of belonging for residents and each will have access to vertical gardens or spaces outside of their own dwelling. This will include floor to ceiling, horizontal windows, giving people a unique viewpoint of the city and a combined outdoor area, a unique concept of ‘neighbourhood living rooms’ inspired by properties in Singapore.”

AP: “Within The Village, we are keen to promote the concept of future living, bringing a uniqueness to the build. This will include nine, three-storey villages, each one having a slightly different look and feel. As Ivan mentions these will include vertical gardens, and these will equate to 4,500 square feet– equivalent to the size of nine squash courts – a first for the UK. As an idea it’s pretty radical, but we want to work very hard to tell a story about how these spaces could work.”

According to reports, Milton Keynes is set to be the UK’s fastest growing with a population growth of 60% over the next 30 years, how will Saxon Court support this growth through housing and jobs?

IH: Saxon Court is an iconic building and ingrained within the history of Milton Keynes. Underpinning the redevelopment of the site is the conviction that MK Gateway will support Milton Keynes’ growth ambitions, celebrate the city’s innovative spirit, and generate significant long-term benefits.

AP: A relatively small number of people currently live in Central Milton Keynes, but with larger plans for 5,000 new homes on the horizon, The Village goes some way to meeting this demand as this development will include 288 apartments for rent. Across the entire MK Gateway site over 2,000 jobs will be created and The Shed will offer dynamic, flexible workshop space for creative businesses, supporting their growth ambitions.

IH: Creating community spaces to improve the health and well-being of locals, both residents and non-residents, is also a long term focus and the entire development is set to deliver over £300m in social value over the next 20 years.

Back in early 2020 Milton Keynes Council announced plans for the city to become carbon neutral by 2030 and carbon negative by 2050 at a bid to tackle climate change. How does the MK Gateway development support this?

IH: RSH-P, Socius and Patron Capital have incorporated Bioregional’s One Planet Living® framework into the plans for the development and a range of sustainable objectives have been created following a comprehensive needs analysis of the local and city-wide sustainability requirements. MK Gateway is set to achieve new benchmarks for local sustainability, responding to the climate emergency and supporting local aspirations for a greener, healthier Milton Keynes.

There will be zero fossil fuel combustion on site with an all-electric energy solution and infrastructure to support sustainable mobility including a cycle hub, provisions for electric bikes and charging points for electric vehicles. The site will also link directly onto the Redways.

What will happen to the existing Saxon Court building?

IH: The original Saxon Court building will be retained, refurbished and extended. Along with being an iconic landmark of Milton Keynes, the need to be as sustainable as possible is at the forefront and by retaining the building, over 3,750 tonnes of Co2 will be saved. From a heritage perspective the original building won’t be significantly altered but repurposed with a new light-weight extension. It will be a space for independent food, drink, leisure, and retail businesses and collaborative open-plan workspaces. On the second floor there will be more traditional office spaces, supporting local businesses and start-ups.

Why are you building offices when more people are now working from home?

AP: Remote working was already increasing, the pandemic has just expediated this trend. However, people have been siloed away from each other for so long, and there will always be a need for collaborative workspace. Within the ground floor of the original Saxon Court building, flexible workspaces will be created, alongside independent retail outlets and cafes, blurring the lines between businesses and the local community. The staircases will be overlooking the floors to create an open knowledge economy - information is valuable and it needs to be shared and exchanged.

Will any of the new homes being planned be affordable?

IH: Along with offering a UK first for living, the Saxon Court development is also looking to introduce a new way of living to Milton Keynes with DMRs (Discounted Market Rent) available on 31% of its planned 288 apartments to rent. DMR allows build-to-rent developers offer affordable apartments to rent at a discounted market price rate. Through this concept, Socius will fulfil its obligation to create affordable homes in line with local policy, without having to build a separate block. All apartments will be developed to the same specification and quality throughout. The hope is that young professionals will take the opportunity to get on the property and career ladder while taking advantage of a sustainable living solution in the centre of the city.

This will be the tallest building in Milton Keynes. How will the development benefit the city and become something locals can be proud of?

IH: Plans for MK Gateway were submitted following extensive public consultation. Some of the comments which came from this consultation focused on the height, and the fact that more high-rise buildings were needed within Milton Keynes to make the city centre stand out. For some time, there has been a shift away from the original planning guidance that no building should be taller than the tallest tree. At 33 storeys, The Village responds to the growing demand for landmark buildings which will be distinctive additions to the Milton Keynes skyline and signal a new era of development for the city.

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