Transforming the face of Belfast

Merchant Square in Belfast city centre
Merchant Square in Belfast city centre

POST-pandemic, it was unclear what the future would hold for Belfast city centre and its commercial office sector, as working from home became commonplace and the centre suffered. But a year on, there is still a demand for grade A office space in the city centre and flexible workspaces for businesses.

What has changed, however, is that expectations of what grade A office accommodation have never been higher with a premium on adaptability and sustainability. This is especially true for the large blue-chip organisations which Belfast is looking to attract.

Demonstrated by Deloitte’s impending move to newly refurbished and extended The Ewart; PwC’s new Merchant Square office; and US insurance firm Aflac setting up in City Quays 3, if Belfast is to compete with other major cities for foreign direct investment, it needs to invest in the highest quality office accommodation.

As well as new office buildings such as Erskine House and the City Quays development, there has been a renewed focus on reusing and improving the existing building assets within the city centre. Many of these buildings were constructed in the 1960s and 1970s, and do not meet current requirements of modern office accommodation, be that the layout of their interior floor plates or their exterior aesthetics.

However, with flexible and robust concrete frames originally designed to withstand bomb damage, they provide a solid base for upgraded and regenerated, modern buildings.

Recently, we’ve been involved in a number of projects where clients are interested in the viability of ‘creative reuse’ rather than demolition and rebuild. Apart from commercial reasons, the environmental benefits of retaining existing concrete structures are significant, particularly with regard to reducing the carbon footprint of a building.

The Merchant Square office development in Belfast’s city centre is a prime example, originating as three individual buildings – Oyster House, Ferguson House and Royston House fronting Wellington Place and Upper Queen Street. This was an ambitious and complex project that involved amalgamating the three buildings, pulling them back to the concrete core, plus adding an extension, which effectively doubled its size.

The removal of the dilapidated façade, the recladding of the building, plus the addition of floor to ceiling glazing has transformed the exterior and provides natural light through all workspaces. The refurbished site now offers 230,000 sq ft of grade A office space, designed to comfortably accommodate 3,000 employees.

As the largest ever single-let office in Belfast with a fit out by PwC, Merchant Square stands as the first refurbished building in Northern Ireland to achieve a BREEAM Excellent rating.

In addition to more ‘repurposing’ of older buildings, the trend to provide business with ever greater flexible workspace will also continue. The conversion of Eagle Star House on Upper Queen Street from an outdated 1970’s office block to Urban HQ, a modern, commercial office space, is a good example.

Completed in 2020, this project involved a similar stripping of the structure back to its concrete frame and constructing the modern office accommodation around it to make it fit for purpose, finishing with a sleek façade with kerb appeal. Attracting a range of local and international businesses, the success of Urban HQ has led to the company planning to redevelop the location across the street to create a nine-storey grade A office building with a similar offering.

Following the long period of stagnation during the Troubles, over the past 20 years we have seen renewal, growth and investment in Belfast. This will continue but will be shaped by a new focus on sustainability, repurposing existing buildings and providing ever greater flexibility.

Belfast’s built environment has strong foundations. As long as each generation reinvents the city with a modern twist, we will meet the challenge of creating a beautiful, functional and sustainable place for people to live, work and thrive.

:: Ciaran Deazley is director at Like Architects