Crispin Kelly trained as an architect and claims to have become a property developer 'pretty much by chance'. But he has proved to be a natural in the role, displaying a knack for balancing community values and business nous
Becoming a property developer has to be an architect's most common fantasy.Why bust a gut adding value to somebody else's property when you could reap the profit yourself? But for most, it remains an impossible dream. So how did Crispin Kelly, qualified architect and founder of developer Baylight Properties, make it work?
The answer, as Kelly tells it, is 'pretty much by chance'. There was no grand plan, except perhaps to become a writer - a passing ambition which led to a smattering of articles in the nationals and some unpublished novels, which still languish in a drawer.
The foray into property started when he was forced to renegotiate a lease extension on his flat and found that the rise in value more than justified the effort. He carried on buying flats with short leases, making enough money to branch out into refurbishing redundant industrial space.
Even then, Kelly was by no means certain about his future career. He decided to train as an architect, using the odd property venture to subsidise life as a mature student at the Architectural Association. But the architectural career never quite took off. On graduating from the AA he decided that the market looked pretty grim and 'realised I had to run pretty fast if I wasn't going to crash'. Continuing the property ventures seemed the obvious thing to do.
An accident really. Except that it's pretty damn obvious that this career was meant to be. Kelly is peculiarly good at it.He regularly appears on lists of the best clients to work for, and has shown an aptitude for matching the right architect to the right job - most famously Stanton Williams with YRM for 60 Sloane Avenue and Lifschutz Davidson for the regeneration of the Piper Building (AJ 24.9.98).
'Some developers work a lot with one architect and that's a very fine thing, ' says Kelly, but adds that he 'likes a number of different flavours every day'. He enjoys the thrill of spotting new talent and providing the elusive 'big break'. Sergison Bates is a case in point. Having previously designed nothing larger than affordable housing units, it is now Kelly's architect for a £4 million loft development in Wandsworth.
This commitment to nurturing talent sits easily with his on-going relationship with the AA. He took over from Nicholas Grimshaw as president of the AA Council in 2001 and his company charity, the Baylight Foundation, pledged £500,000 for UK students who could not afford the fees. He is aware that there will be a gap in his life when his tenure ends later in the year. Determined not to 'hang around as a sort of spectre', he talks of a strategy of 'elegant distancing' - a phrase which neatly sums up Kelly's modus operandi. Despite his architectural training, he is careful to give architects their space.
'Our work doesn't carry my hand as a designer, ' he says, 'otherwise it would be an appalling job for the architect.' But he concedes that he 'edits', adding: 'Architects like to have the conversation.'
He is happy to defer to other people's expertise within his own company, and is keen to stress the contribution of colleagues Jim Green, a chartered surveyor, and Nick Martin, a scriptwriter. Kelly says Martin has injected the company with 'a high-energy burst', and adds 'he sees our work as a story about people and the relationships they make, much more than about buildings'.
This approach lends itself to projects such as Brockwell Lido, where Baylight has been shortlisted to implement a regeneration strategy. Working with Caruso St John, it is looking at a development plan which will generate enough rental income to justify preserving the pool as a community resource.
This symbiosis between the unabashed pursuit of profit and social regeneration is central to Kelly's work. He says he is very interested in the mistakes that have been made in regeneration, and argues that government-led initiatives have suffered from the political obligation to make sure that only those in greatest need stand to benefit from significant injections of cash.
All it means, says Kelly, is that '20 years on, you have to regenerate again'.
For Kelly, the only way to nurture longterm growth is to establish a framework which benefits a cross-section of the community and allows enterprise to flourish.
This viewpoint is typical of a new generation of developers who straddle the divide between private-sector capitalism and community-centred idealism, and who, at their most pioneering, have exploded the myth that the pursuit of profit is necessarily at odds with imaginative design.
It is a role Kelly plays with a zeal which is distinctly relaxed.His instinct is his strongest qualification and he is bewildered by those who sign up to courses in the trade. 'You learn how to do a development appraisal, but if you have to do a development appraisal, the deal isn't worth doing, ' he says.
Kelly may think he stumbled into his job by chance, but it is more likely that his is not so much a career as a calling - the job would have eventually found him. He is clear that 'being a developer is not a job, it is a state of mind'. The bad news for all those would-be architects-turned-developers is that you either have it, or you don't.