Spy Central

A ring-shaped fortress consolidates the UK's army of code-breakers, encryptionists, and intelligence agents.

August 01, 2004 |

Eat your heart out, James Bond!

With a design that the fictional spy might have expected from Ian Fleming's ever-inventive character "Q," the new $617 million, ring-shaped headquarters in Cheltenham, England, marks a new era for the United Kingdom's leading code-breaking agency, the Government Communications Headquarters.

The GCHQ earned its stripes cracking the German U-boat code in World War II and later went on to keep a watchful eye on the Eastern bloc during the Cold War.

The million-sf, four-story spy center brings together more than 4,500 staff members formerly housed in 50 dark, outdated buildings in Cheltenham into an open office environment designed to spur interaction among employees, recruit and retain the UK's best and brightest, and protect one of the world's most powerful computers — all in an effort to better monitor and fight terrorists.

Constructing a giant concrete, steel, and glass ring is certainly a bold statement for an agency so secretive that Her Majesty's Government didn't even admit to its existence until 1983, some four decades after its creation. But GCHQ leaders, who originally wanted a more traditional approach, have come to adore "The Doughnut" and have even adopted its circular form as its official logo.

"The building is not just a roof over our heads," said David Pepper, GCHQ director. "It embodies the type of organization we aspire to be."

GCHQ's goal was to create an environment that encourages interdepartmental interaction, forcing its army of mathematicians, linguists, lawyers, researchers, and techies to cross paths on a daily basis, sparking impromptu conversations and serendipitous meetings. GCHQ leaders feel that such exchanges of ideas are critical to fighting terrorist networks, which can be much more complex, varied, and fast-changing than Cold War targets.


The million-sf, four-story GCHQ facility, nicknamed “The Doughnut,” is comprised of three separate structures linked by three entrance buildings. Several service buildings and parking encircle the main facility.

"It's a huge change for an organization whose traditional mentality was 'Shut the door behind you, and make sure no one follows you,'" says Chris Johnson, designer of the building and managing director of Gensler's London office. "They worked in an environment with their blinds down and doors locked. Not many people knew who their co-workers were, and there was no real sense of community or belonging."

The key challenge for Gensler was to design a facility that maintains strict security measures while allowing GCHQ staff members to roam freely and interact.

"The circle form came quite quickly," says Johnson. He calls the scheme the "next-generation street campus," where a number of buildings plug into a street that never ends. This approach eliminates the agency's traditional hierarchical leadership model — even senior members of the staff sit in the open-plan layout — and provides a continuous, centralized circulation corridor that permits access to workspaces, conference rooms, a 600-seat restaurant, a health club, a museum, and, in the doughnut's hole, a landscaped courtyard. With the open office plan, no one is more than five minutes away from any other colleague

This three-story, sky-lit "street" bisects the outer and inner rings, supplying daylight and openness to the office spaces. Twelve two-story bridges span the nine-meter-wide circulation corridor, allowing staff to move back and forth from the inner and outer ring workspaces. Groups of chairs are strategically placed along the 18-foot-wide bridges to spur interaction. "These bridges have been one of the greatest successes," says Johnson. "They're always filled."


A three-story, sky-lit circulation corridor bisects the outer and inner rings, supplying daylight and openness to the surrounding office spaces. Twelve two-story bridges span the corridor, allowing staff to move back and forth from the inner and outer ring workspaces.

Ring of protection

Johnson likens the design scheme to a "circle-the-wagons" or medieval castle approach. The perimeter of the 600-foot-diameter ring consists of a two-foot-thick, single-story concrete wall faced in local Cotswold stone, topped with three stories of blast-resistant glass curtain wall.

The glass curtain wall system is designed to meet the most stringent blast specifications established by the UK government. It consists of laminated glass bonded with silicone adhesive to a hardened aluminum frame.

Johnson says the building's circular shape contributes to its blast resistance. If a bomb were detonated near the exterior, the "shock wave would hit and ripple around the building," reducing its impact on any particular point of the structure.

A second glass wall suspended 1.5 meters from the blast curtain wall acts as a solar shield, capturing the sun's radiant heat and reducing the heat load on the building. The frameless glass wall consists of 1.5×4-meter glass panels spaced four inches apart. Each panel is set at a slightly different angle (roughly 0.93 degrees) to obscure views into the facility — a key requirement of GCHQ facilities — while enabling staff to see out. This "veil of secrecy" also makes the building appear smaller, says Johnson. "The whole ring recedes away from you."

Landscaping surrounding the structure creates a 25-meter standoff zone, followed by a ring of four service buildings, parking lots, and perimeter fencing.

Visitors are stopped and searched at one of the service buildings. Deliveries are dropped off at another service building, where they are x-rayed and then transferred to an electric train that runs underneath the circulation corridor in the main building.

Employees must also pass a series of "intense" security checkpoints at both the main gate and upon entering the main facility through one of three entrances. But once they're in, they're in. "They can walk around, chat with people," says Johnson. "It's a completely secure environment." He adds that the facility, with its restaurants and health club, is designed to keep people in the building during the workday, minimizing the number of security checks.

So what is GCHQ trying so hard to protect? Besides some of the UK's smartest people, the most powerful computer system outside the U.S. The billion-dollar system, which monitors countless phone calls and e-mails worldwide, is encased in a chamber that spans the entire area below the courtyard and extends underneath the inner-ring offices. Transfer of the computer equipment from the old campus was the most controversial aspect of the project, as costs ran up to $560 million, nearly eight times the original estimate.

There's also been backlash from government officials about the building's size; it's actually too small to accommodate the agency's staff. The facility is currently running at 105% occupancy and is due to rise to 111% in 2005–06. GCHQ officials are confident, however, that they will be able to manage the over-occupancy with desk sharing, part-time shifts, and telecommuting.

"Each staff member is assigned a desk on a day-by-day basis," says Johnson. Straight-bench desk systems provide a high level of flexibility, allowing the departments to reconfigure the size of intelligence teams "literally overnight," he says.

Raised-floor systems throughout the office spaces allow for fast switching of IT infrastructure and provide a two-foot plenum for the building's nonducted displacement-air system. Common in Europe but only just catching on in the U.S., the energy-efficient system supplies air a "few degrees cooler than what's needed" through swirl diffusers located within the raised-floor system, says Johnson. "The air is heated by persons and equipment within the offices and, by convection, rises towards the ceiling, where it passes through perforated ceiling tiles into the ceiling void," he says. Water radiator pipes, called chilled beams, spaced six feet apart in the ceiling keep the exhaust air cool while it's being extracted in the central corridor.

Where public meets private

The headquarters is the largest project to be developed under the UK's private finance initiative (PFI), in which private consortiums design, build, operate, and maintain public facilities. The public authority leases the space for a specified period (typically 30 years), after which the rights are turned back over to the government.

In this case, a consortium of three firms — contractor Carillion, facility manager Group 4 Falck, and IT/communications consultant British Telecom — won the eight-team competition for the nearly $2.2 billion contract, which includes cost of construction, operation, security, and maintenance of the facility over 30 years.

Other Building Team members, besides architectural firm Gensler, include structural engineer TPS Consult, M/E/P engineer Crown House Engineering, fire/life-safety engineer International Fire Consultants, and curtain wall contractor Schmidlin.

While success stories stemming from GCHQ's new facility will never be revealed to the public (remember, this is a bunch of spies), Johnson says early feedback from the agency's top brass indicates that at least one of its goals has been accomplished.

"Director Pepper says the biggest success is to see people talking to each other for the first time in a way that's natural, not forced," he says.

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