Why Dyson chose St James Power Station instead of CBD office for new global HQ in Singapore


Photo credit: Mapletree

SINGAPORE – Singapore has plenty of gleaming skyscrapers with swanky offices but a colonial-era power station is electrical appliance giant Dyson’s top pick for its new global head office because founder James Dyson wanted “an inspiring place”.

St James Power Station, which has a history harking back to 1927 as Singapore’s first coal-fired power plant, fits in with the building philosophy of Dyson, said its global estates director Jasper Hasell.

While Dyson is known for its ultra modern machines, it also appreciates design and heritage, he said.

And the power station ticks those boxes, given that it was gazetted in 2009 as a national monument and boasts distinctive architectural features such as a red-brick facade with full-length windows and a prominent chimney. The skeleton of its main structure is formed by massive steel works that support wide roof trusses.

“When James Dyson was there recently, he was looking at the rivets and structure; he was fascinated,” Mr Hasell told The Straits Times.

“He wanted to find an inspiring place for our new office.”

This comes as Dyson made Singapore its corporate headquarters earlier this year.

Mr Hasell, who is responsible for all of Dyson’s real estate worldwide, said the team had viewed several office towers in Singapore’s Central Business District (CBD) but did not like the idea of staff being “split over many different floors”.

St James Power Station, on the other hand, has voluminous space with high ceilings and a gross floor area of about 110,000 sq ft across three blocks.

This layout will enable staff to meet and interact with one other easily, which is more conducive for research and development, said Mr Hasell, who is envisioning elements such as large connecting staircases and spacious atriums.

The final viewings took place in June-July and Dyson made the decision in August.

“We moved fast… as we know how unique the building is in Singapore and that it would provide the inspirational workplace we are looking for,” he added.

St James Power Station has undergone several facelifts in the past. It was one of Singapore’s biggest nightlife hubs from 2006 until September last year, when the lease expired. The site was then returned to landlord Mapletree.

As a national monument, its owners cannot alter the facade, build any extensions or hack any walls of the building.

Dyson chief executive Jim Rowan said that care will be taken in refurbishing the building, which is along Sentosa Gateway across the road from Vivocity mall.

“We’ve got a fantastic team of architects working on it right now, trying to make the best use of that space, while also keeping true to the architectural design elements of the building,” he told ST.

Such an approach would be similar to what Dyson had done for its Hullavington campus in Britain, a World War II airfield that the company bought in 2017 and restored. It was meant for its now-aborted electric car project.

When ST visited Hullavington earlier this month, it still looked like a page out of a history book – with its vintage plane hangars in shades of military green and grey dotted around a large field. The interior, however, has been turned into modern open-plan offices.

The mezzanine floor inside one of the hangars, for instance, is lined with rows of minimalist desks illuminated by Dyson lights overhead. An atrium cafe takes centre stage on the ground floor, with chairs in the same bright fuchsia that is seen on Dyson’s hair dryers.

Mr Hasell described the restoration as “very challenging and expensive as well”. The first phase saw two hangars, out of eight, restored at a cost of £84 million (S$148 million).

“We could have just flattened it and put up new structures, rather than repair things that have been left to decay and are falling apart.”

He added that the company is looking at transposing some green building features from Hullavington to St James Power Station, such as the use of cross-laminated timber and energy-efficient lighting.

It is gunning for the Green Mark Platinum Standard, the highest energy efficiency rating in Singapore.

Singapore-listed landlord Mapletree, which is leasing out the heritage icon to Dyson, has started on the base build renovations. Dyson will then handle the fit-outs for the building.

Mr Hasell said the company plans to occupy St James Power Station by early 2021. “But we understand that (the refurbishment) is not going to be simple. Old buildings can throw surprises at you,” he added.

The Straits Times,  29 Nov 2019

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