Property developer London and Newcastle is about to enter a bigger league, but the outfit needs to find more architects who share its vision and its ambitions
Three guys have just signed a deal with a big bank that will give them a big cheque: £50 million to spend on a series of schemes across London, and maybe further afield.
They are property developers who have carved out a 'niche' - one of their favourite words - in eye-catching, contemporary residential schemes, using practices such as Chassay + Last and Tasou Associates. But now they are growing five times as big. And they are on the look-out for a particular breed of architect to help.
London and Newcastle is a small firm headed by Robert Soning (son of property 'name' Harvey Soning), David Barnett and Simon Berg, three thirty-something, nattily dressed agents-turned-developers, who have a passion for bringing good buildings to the market and, of course, making money out of them.
Soning and Barnett, the two London ends of the company's brewery-like title, left school with one O level each, but that has not proved much of a hindrance - both, along with Berg, are already paper millionaires. Berg, from Durham, was the relative achiever, picking up four A levels and gongs such as 'negotiator of the year' for his work at agency Aston Chase. The others see him as the defender in this defence, midfield and striker formation.
Together they specialise in high-quality residential schemes ('we are very, very fussy'), predominantly in north London's Islington area, though their new war chest may see them branching out. They start to list, in the way estate agents do, parts of Hackney, Dalston, Stoke Newington, the West End, west London and even further afield to the Home Counties. All would be ideal locations for them to invest the cash, in about five projects of £8 million to £12 million each.Which is where the new architects come in.
'For us it's a case of finding an architect who has the same vision, ' says Soning.
'They've got to be really niche, one-off. We want someone who would probably be ambitious and creative but willing to take on board what their clients want to create.'
Quite so; these are clients who know what fits the marketplace - they won't stand for any funny business. That becomes clear when Soning lists what he feels are the average architect's faults.
Often, he says, architects have an ego that is obstructive to the job in hand. Many, he believes, are poor communicators on site, and have difficulty leading the team, creating 'divides and confrontations'. Some do not know their planning law as they should, and cannot heed budgets. But their big bugbear is that a lot of architects are 'blinkered' by their own styles.
'Sometimes they come up with really good ideas, which we take advantage of; sometimes they are not up to scratch, ' says Soning. 'But we know what we want and we know how to drive it. There's a thin line between giving architects free range, if you like, and keeping a grip on them. We don't want to suffocate them too much but we find most architects have their own style and sometimes it is a bit of a challenge.'
This is not true of the firms they have worked with thus far, including TP Bennett, Collett Farmer Architects and Hawkins\ Brown. Mostly, though, their work has been with Chassay + Last: 'We have a real understanding with them, ' says Soning. 'They're the equivalent in the architectural world of where we are in the property world - they're niche, have a good reputation, and pay attention to detail.'
The trio's first break together came in St John's Wood. 'It was a trust, selling a house that was in two maisonettes, ' recalls Barnett.
'We did a basic refurbishment on the two maisonettes and studio house and were able to sell it for a very good profit inside six months.'
The profit went on setting up in business, in 1994. The next six months involved trading single flats, refurbishing small projects, then larger schemes including an office near Gunnersbury Park tube station. Soning was selling it but the office market was then, as it is now, 'dead'. 'But it was at the beginning of the trend for turning offices into residential, ' says Soning. They won planning quickly, and another tidy profit, and they were on their way.
Today, London and Newcastle is 'a very middle-tier West End developer', says Soning. Berg half corrects him. 'The reality is that we're a small organisation and our turnover has dropped because the market is very tight and it's been very difficult for us to look at schemes. But we made a decision not to get caught up in doing deals for the sake of doing deals.'
They admire other, larger firms such as Urban Splash and Manhattan Loft Corporation for blazing the trail, but are interested in seeing what they do next, with the loft market 'oversold' and their more questionable belief that Liverpool and Manchester have been 'done'.
The new money will allow Newcastle and London to 'start over', but the trio hope to retain the attention to detail, despite moving to a bigger scale.As Soning explains: 'I would say that, number one, quality is very important for us - creating something we know is still going to look good when we drive past it in 20 years' time. Obviously we're here to make money but we do take great pride and joy in what we do.'
Often their fastidiousness means architects have to perform. 'We've had sessions with architects where they have put 50 different types of door handles in front of us and none of them have been right, ' adds Soning. 'We tell them to go away and come back with some more. We drive them mad sometimes, but we know what we want.'
Mostly what pleases them is similar to what drives the architect, which Berg describes as 'watching something change form, the process the high of doing the deal to begin with, getting planning and watching the whole construction side of it, seeing that come out of the ground'.
Soning agrees: 'To a certain extent we're unqualified architects.' Who want more qualified ones for the next phase.