The Willis Building


Heritage Category:
Listed Building
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:
Date of most recent amendment:
Statutory Address:
The Willis Building, Friars Street, Ipswich, Suffolk


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Statutory Address:
The Willis Building, Friars Street, Ipswich, Suffolk

The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Ipswich (District Authority)
Non Civil Parish
National Grid Reference:


Office building, designed by Foster Associates for Willis, Faber and Dumas 1970-75.

Reasons for Designation

The Willis Building of 1970-75, Ipswich, is listed at Grade I for the following principal reasons:

* Architectural Interest: exceptional as the first large, multi-level building by one of Britain's most significant modern architects hailed internationally shortly after completion and recognised by architectural awards; * Architectural Innovation: attested by the curvilinear glass curtain walling that reflects the surrounding buildings, the flexible and humane open office plan, and the first use of escalators in an office building; * Structural engineering: the application of a cantilevered flat plate, and perimeter columns to suspend the glass curtain wall, and environmentally-aware engineering, contributes to the exceptional interest of the building; * Materials: used at both the exterior and interior are thoughtfully selected and deployed to enhance the overall design; * Intactness: although there have been some minor alterations, generally by Foster Associates, the architectural interest of the building has not been compromised. The building remains largely intact, including the decorative scheme; * Fitness for purpose: the building continues to satisfy the original brief which asked for a distinguished building that would provide an office environment sympathetic to human values.


In a bid to rationalise its operations and decentralise its administration departments, global insurance broker Willis, Faber and Dumas (known as Willis in 2012), commissioned Norman Foster to design and build a headquarters in Ipswich on an amorphous site previously occupied by tenements and traversed by roads on the edge of the historic town. In addition to providing work space for 1350 people, the brief asked for a distinguished building that would be 'neither over-ambitious nor pedestrian', and for 'an office environment sympathetic to human values'. The building was Foster's first large-scale commission. His design was informed by intelligence-gathering from the workforce, resulting in a totally open-plan and dynamic form within a low-rise and deep-plan building in keeping with the surrounding streets and built out to the very edge of the plot. Foster received international acclaim when the building was completed in June 1975, and was awarded the RIBA Trustees Medal for his design in 1990.The building was listed at Grade I in 1991.

Norman Foster received his architectural training at Manchester and Yale Universities. He was a member of Team 4 along with Wendy Foster and Richard and Su Rogers, establishing Foster and Associates in 1967. Creekvean (1964-7, listed at Grade II*) was their first completed work, but his prolific output includes the Sainsbury Centre at the University of East Anglia (1977, listed at Grade ll*), the London Millennium Bridge (1996-2000), London City Hall (2003) and internationally, the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank (1979-1986) and the Millau Viaduct (2004) in France. He was awarded the RIBA Gold Medal in 1983, knighted in 1990 and received the Pritzer Architecture Prize in 1999.

In 1992-3, Ipswich Borough Council, the owners of the building, and English Heritage agreed guidelines to provide clarification as to what proposals for the building may or may not require Listed Building Consent and/or Planning Permission. The guidance, in essence an early management agreement for a listed building, has been amended when changes in legislation and policy have arisen.

The agreement itemises alterations to the building which have taken place since it was built, including the replacement of roof mounted condenser units prior to the listing at Grade I. After designation, four schemes of alteration outside of the scope of the guidelines, were granted Planning Permission and Listed Building Consent. Additional roof-top plant was permitted in 1992 and in 1994 Foster Associates altered the reception layout, internal alterations to partitioning on the ground floor, new flooring over the pool area and alterations to the roof-top plant. Alterations to remove unsympathetic later changes to the atrium lighting were also proposed and completed in 1998. The flooring over of the swimming pool and other alterations to the pool area were undertaken in a reversible manner at the same time. Partitioning types and colours and carpeting colours followed those originally specified for the building. A flush glass strip aligned above the edge of the pool demarcated the extent of the pool and allowed the pool tilework to be viewed from above. Red warning signs attached to the adjacent columns indicating pool depth were retained as an additional reminder of the former function of this space.

In 1997 a conference and presentation suite was given Listed Building Consent in the area originally allocated for Directors dining on the third (restaurant) floor. This was undertaken in the yellow partitioning system used throughout the building. It reinstated the line of the partitioning to the landing at the top of the escalator that had existed in 1975. The new partitioning was designed to be the same height as that for the kitchens, allowing the space-frame roof structure to the top floor to continue to be seen uninterrupted above it. In 1999, Listed Building Consent was given for the renewal of the serviced floors to the main office areas. The visually distinctive parallel runs of partial access floor panels were also referred to in the List description. In some areas the supporting pedestals had failed, cable management had become more intensive and more difficult to manage and the carpeting was also becoming badly worn. Foster Associates proposed to convert to a full access floor and replace the carpet to match the original colour. The works were progressed in a phased programme of replacement which took place over the period 2000-2002. Repairs to the roof followed in the early C21 and the roof-top travelling crane was replaced in 2003. A recent rolling programme of replacing the internal mechanism of the escalators has been completed. New plant, atrium lighting and the introduction of a coffee bar to the restaurant area also took place between 2005-2010.


Office building, designed 1970-71 by Foster Associates with structural engineer Anthony Hunt, and built 1973-5.

MATERIALS Reinforced concrete frame with bronzed glass cladding and a turf covering to a flat roof, the latter with a hedge slightly set back from the perimeter.

PLAN Irregular plan with curved external wall, which follows the perimeter of the site.

EXTERIOR Four storeys, the steel-framed, recessed, fourth-storey glazed rectangular pavilion being set back from the perimeter leading to the grassed roof garden delineated at the perimeter by hedging and a service track for the maintenance crane. The structure comprises columns set at 14m centres with free-forming perimeter columns at 7m centres, and cantilevered flat plate and waffle concrete floor structures. The building is fully glazed in toughened, bronze-tinted glass, specially commissioned from Pilkington, and fully suspended from the edge of the perimeter cantilever at main roof level, above the second floor, in the form of a continuous skin. The 2m wide glazing panels are without mullions, secured at junctions between panes and at intermediate floor levels, by a pair of rectangular patch fittings. The entrance to the loading bay leads from Princess Street. The only pedestrian entrance is through revolving doors set close together, of bronzed glass in simple circular black frames, to Friars Street.

INTERIOR Designed as a whole by the architects. An 'atrium' rises through the centre of the building containing three pairs of escalators set in line, lit by a tubular metal-framed roof above. The escalators effectively divide the flexible, open-plan office space on the first and second floors into two zones. Fixed service facilities on the ground and third floors include the former swimming pool (see History above), computer and plant rooms to the ground floor and a restaurant, conferencing and presentation suite to the third floor. Four service cores contain the stairs and toilet facilities at each floor; the lifts are separately housed.

The architects designed an integrated service system, with raised floors containing continuous access panels for power and communications cabling and suspended ceilings enclosing polished aluminium channels that contain air-conditioning, ventilators, smoke detectors, and glare-free lighting by luminares fitted with parabolic reflectors. The waffle slab to the ceiling at the ground floor level is painted white. The colour scheme, floor coverings, finishes and furniture were carefully chosen by Foster Associates. The floor covering to the ground floor is of green studded rubber, and green carpet to the upper floors. Modular steel partitions enclosing service areas are in yellow.


The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

Legacy System number:
Legacy System:


Books and journals
Norman Foster: Architect: Selected Works 1962-84, (1984)
Bramante, G, Willis Faber and Dumas Building: Foster Associates, (1993)
Davies, C, High Tech Architecture, (1988)
'Architectural Review' in , (September 1975)
'New Society' in New Society, (6th October 1977)
'Royal Institute of British Architects Journal' in , (September 1990)
'American Institute of Architects Journal' in American Institute of Architects Journal, (April 1981)
Willis Building Guidance, Ipswich Borough Council,


This building is listed under the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 as amended for its special architectural or historic interest.

End of official listing

Images of England

Images of England was a photographic record of every listed building in England, created as a snap shot of listed buildings at the turn of the millennium. These photographs of the exterior of listed buildings were taken by volunteers between 1999 and 2008. The project was supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Date: 16 Apr 2002
Reference: IOE01/06663/03
Rights: Copyright IoE Mr John Roper. Source Historic England Archive
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