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Post Expansion: Making a Mark for Unit

Melanie Dayasena-Lowe takes a close look around the new home of post production company Unit and finds out how White Mark steered the project from tender and design through to completion.

Melanie Dayasena-Lowe takes a close look around the new home of post production company Unit and finds out how White Mark steered the project from tender and design through to completion.

Post production company Unit has outgrown its former facility and moved to brand new premises in Soho’s Great Marlborough Street. As its portfolio grows, Unit decided to move from its old Carlisle Street building to almost double its capacity at the new 9,400 square foot building.

Unit started with one building in Soho of 2,500 square feet concentrating mainly on Final Cut Pro editing. Clients soon began asking if they could do audio, VFX, grading and other disciplines of post. When the building next door became available, the company knocked through to expand to 5,500 square feet. At this point Unit decided to install some audio suites.

Due to a capacity issue in the old building, Unit decided to make a further move. Adam Luckwell, Unit’s CEO (pictured by Matthew Shard), explains how Unit needed to evolve with its changing client portfolio: “When Unit started it was dealing with quartile one and quartile two clients, i.e. clients with smaller budgets like music promos and basic corporates. As time went on our client profile rapidly changed and we were dealing almost exclusively with the higher end of the market, VFX-heavy television commercials for Sky HD, Bentley and Nestle, high-end digital work for Skype, Hotmail and Heineken. If we were going to work with those kinds of clients we would need a building and equipment that was commensurate with that work. At that point I started looking and found this building.”

The new building in Great Marlborough Street started off as blank floor plates and nine months later Unit had moved into its new home.

Highly recommended

Acoustic and studio design consultancy White Mark was appointed to project manage, design and build the new facility. It is the first time Unit has worked with White Mark and the collaboration came about from direct referrals.

“One of the first people I spoke to was White Mark because there aren’t that many people in that industry. These guys do building for all the people I don’t like to compete against, these are the people you want to build your audio suites because they’ve done a good job on someone else’s,” explains Luckwell.

White Mark gets recommendations from wiring companies and builders as the firm puts together teams of good people and “because we facilitate a smooth path”, says David Bell, managing director of White Mark.

The project team consisted of contractors and experts on wiring/systems integration, an electrician, air conditioning, structural, building regulations, builders, CDM/Health & Safety co-ordinator and an interior designer.

White Mark has worked on many jobs before on a project management basis. “More and more we are commissioned to provide an integrated design and project supervision role on large, multi-discipline media projects and not just acoustic consultancy for studios. This development for Unit required the detailed architectural and acoustic design of technical spaces for both sound and visual post production, together with their careful integration into a highly developed interior design scheme and optimised use of the daylight available throughout the building. The result is an airy and technically excellent series of facilities that work well together as projects pass through the facility and offer comfortable and easy workspaces within which to work for long periods of time, when this is necessary,” Bell remarks.

Alan Cundell, White Mark’s technical systems manager, adds: “We do the project management quite a lot and I think it is something that we can bring to projects that perhaps other designers can’t. We can do the whole package. Even before the project management, White Mark was involved in the tender process.”

An eye for design

The design was decided upfront before building commenced, which made the whole process easier, explains Cundell. “There is a real pressure, particularly in Soho, for people to start building the day they sign the lease – kind of designing as you go along. We had a really clear brief and probably went through ten different layouts before anything was started. Other than changes that were forced upon us by structural issues and, apart from swapping one lobby from one floor to another, I don’t think there were any other design changes. So we could do it as a fully designed project, which really helped.”

White Mark spends time with its clients to run through every piece of the puzzle to make sure they get exactly what they need and want from a project. Bell explains: “I think the skill we bring is that we spend a lot of time explaining the appropriate level of stuff.” He is referring to “all aspects of the project where cost versus benefit is a balance that needs experience to judge correctly. These items include isolation vs expense, sight lines vs acoustics, aesthetics vs practicality, end date of project vs cost and quality, and planning time vs waiting until the correct decisions have been agreed by all in a satisfactory way”.

Bell adds: “We try and tailor what we do to the physical properties of the building, the needs of the client to make money and to make things that are going to last 20 years.”

Overcoming a challenge

Even though the project ran smoothly for the most part, the team faced a structural challenge mid-project. “Although the building was of quite a high standard there were massive issues with the structural loading capability. We have three audio suites here and I wanted the same floorplan on each floor.

“That meant stacking audio suites on top of each other. The building wouldn’t support the weight of the audio walls so White Mark had to come up with a way of making that happen. We’re mid project, the budgets have already been agreed and the money has already been raised. All of a sudden you get something you weren’t expecting. For me it’s panic stations. Can you imagine if you didn’t have that expertise onboard to make changes midway through a project without the cost going through the ceiling?” says Luckwell.

A joint effort by Andrew Waring Associates (structural engineers) and White Mark led to a successful solution. “Our combined experience and knowledge of what is important and how to achieve it produced the ‘monocoque’ shell design that allowed the loads to be spanned between beams and columns within the building and the last ounce of isolation to be wrung from the construction,” explains Cundell.

Even without taking possible challenges into account, the project had no unplanned downtime so timing and planning was of the essence, explains Luckwell. “We planned to close the old building Wednesday to Friday, test Saturday and Sunday and open Monday for the soft launch. Producers had booked out eight of the suites with live clients and were still editing in the old building on Friday. In the end we had Saturday and Sunday to play with. We did the whole move. It all worked – no data went missing, it all just happened.”

Technical know-how

On the technical front, Unit’s new premises houses 60% new kit and 40% old kit moved over from the former building. Unit comes off an Xsan on the offline side (creative cutting) – normally done on a lower-powered machine. “We’re an Apple-centric post house. All the Apples run off a central storage unit, now 140TB – fast enough to support 12 suites drawing HD media simultaneously. A normal project uses between 3-5TB. We’re just finishing work on BBC’s Wonders of the Universe, which uses 48TB. It’s enough to fill a normal size SAN,” remarks Luckwell.

As part of the move, Unit has launched three specialist sub-brands: The Cut, The Finish and The Mix. These provide its clients with integrated, end-to-end offline editing, finishing and audio services all housed in the new facility and under the Unit brand.

The Finish boasts a new 28 bay VFX studio offering Nuke, Maya, After Effects and Cinema 4D, reversioning on Final Cut Pro, three Flame/Smoke finishing suites and further future additional investment in Filmlight’s Baselight for grading. The Cut has 12 new high-end Final Cut Pro edit suites, while The Mix gets three new White Mark-designed Pro Tools-equipped audio suites.

Unit at a glance
• 9,400 square foot (about 875 square metres) building
• Infrastructure designed by Wire Broadcast
• 28-bay VFX studio offering Nuke, Maya & After Effects
• Three Flame/Smoke finishing suites
• Filmlight’s Baselight HD for grading
• 12 Final Cut Pro edit suites
• Three White Mark-designed Pro Tools suites
• Apple Xsan central storage unit (140TB)
AKA Design custom-made desks