There were once 3,500 workers in five giant buildings over 44 floors in the HSBC complex on Silver Street Head.
But it was no landmark, unlike the biggest, Sheffield City Council’s Moorfoot.
Halfway down the city centre’s north slope, it interrupts no skyline and is as unremarkable as something so massive - 230,000 sq ft - can be.
WHAT WAS THE COMPLEX PREVIOUSLY USED FOR?
And that’s just the way the bank wanted it, for this was a secure site. Built in a defensive circle, It had millions in gold bullion and pallets of £100 notes behind 2ft thick doors in the basement. It also did important IT work for HSBC across Europe.
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And as such, it hid a few secrets, including a Cold War-esque six-storey underground car park with 410 spaces – one of the biggest in the city.
But it wasn’t pretty – one former worker described it as a ‘concrete jungle’. The heavy, spiked gates at its sole access point, off Sims Street, didn’t help.
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The Pennine Centre, also known as Griffin House, was built between 1973 and 1975. The tallest block is 165ft and 13 storeys. Its heyday was probably the early 2000s.
But by the 2010s things changed and the bank started sacking workers.
WHERE DID HSBC GO?
As numbers dwindled, it was lured away, in 2019, to a new site for a few hundred in the first block of the council’s flagship £470m Heart of the City project.
That left a supertanker of a building adrift without crew.
Thankfully that didn’t last long when it was snapped up by Portsmouth-based RBH for £17m.
The company then had to decide what to do with it. Demolish the lot and start again, or convert it into flats? Both were considered, before bosses accepted the advice of local commercial agents and settled on the simplest - and greenest - option: refurbishment.
Although the multi-year, multi-million pound revamp to create new offices is anything but simple.
HOW BIG IS THE REFURBISHMENT?
Now called Pennine 5, it is having 2,500 new windows and enough new paint to cover 990 bedrooms, it is estimated, and about the same in carpets.
It is claimed to be the biggest refurbishment project in the city. Despite having one name, it has five postcodes and street addresses.
But the big difference, says Jeremy Hughes, director of RBH, is the change in attitude - from private and secretive, to open and welcoming.
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He said: “It has always been a high security facility. They were covert and we want to be overt and open it up to people.”
Underpinning this is a new £1.25m public plaza with cafes and bars on a steel ‘deck’ to make it all level.
The company is also spending considerable sums on accessibility, it says, including an £80,000 ramp off Hawley Street. It will help create possibly the best facilities in the city, Mr Hughes states.
A roof garden, unthinkable in the HSBC days, will add to the allure, it is hoped.
IS THERE DEMAND FOR THIS MUCH OFFICE SPACE IN SHEFFIELD?
But what about demand?
New offices are being built at nearby West Bar Square, funded with £150m from Legal & General.
A new block called Endeavour is under construction on Sheaf Street, near Midland Station, by Scarborough Group. And there is available space all across the city with more on the way in the Heart of the City scheme. The pandemic has also changed working patterns for the majority of office workers.
Mr Hughes is sanguine. Pennine 5 is cheaper to rent then the forthcoming Grade ‘A’ offerings, he says.
He added: “Not everyone wants a new, shiny box.”
And RBH has signed three decent tenants in short order.
WHO ARE THE NEW TENANTS?
The Department for Work and Pensions, Sheffield College and training company First Intuition have between them occupied a fifth of the total space - each currently enjoying a building to themselves. And the refurbishment still has the best part of a year to run.
The DWP department is new to the city and it’s a new site for the college, Mr Hughes points out, so Pennine 5 is helping Sheffield grow, not poaching tenants from rivals. A deal with a household name is ‘well progressed’, he adds.
“I think within 18 months we should have the lion’s share of it let. Although with 44 floors we will always have turnover of tenants.”
Some 70 workers are on site with RBH and builders Troy. While some space is finished and gleaming, some is still being ripped out, with a steady stream of labourers carrying plasterboard down and out to a skip.
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It’s a far cry form when Darren Leverington worked there as an engineering manager.
Now technical facilities manager at RBH, he said: “In the early 2000s it was full with 3,500 people and very busy. It’s undergoing massive change from what it was before. It was like Chernobyl. It is going to be vibrant, the public plaza is going to be key.”
Mr Hughes said the project was going well but, like many others, had suffered a spike in building costs including steel, reinforcement bar and copper wiring.
The company, he casually mentions, has also bought space in number 2 Tenter Street, across the road, to use as an incubator for firms to grow into Pennine 5.
WHY IS RBH SO KEEN ON SHEFFIELD?
This company is clearly invested in Sheffield - but why?
He explains: “I was brought up in Birmingham and worked in Bristol for 25 years. Sheffield has a lot going on, it’s a lively place with some decent pragmatic people and a strong business environment.”
He had been beguiled by the the city’s factories and steel mills, he added.
“It’s got some good old fashioned, nitty gritty industrial space in big old brown and red brick buildings. It’s good to see,” he said.