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Mario Bernard: ‘Character inspires me’

Mario Bernard of up-and-coming developer Bernard Construction talks about his roots, branching out and the importance of Ronnie and Reggie Kray

What is your background?
I arrived in London from Mauritius in 1966 aged seven, speaking no English. London life was very different. My parents and six siblings lived in two rooms in a three-storey terrace house with a family on each floor. Our weekly treat was going to the Clapham public baths. This is where my inspiration started – I wanted to own my own house.

My life was no different to any other working class teenager. At 13 I would start cleaning offices at 5.30am, finish at 7.30am and rush home to change for school. Once school had finished we’d rush to another cleaning job. This carried on till my late teens. I was not academic. Nonetheless I graduated from South Thames College as an electrician. This enabled me to buy my first house at 20 with some family members. We converted the property into three flats; work was done on the weekends and evenings. A couple of years later I was able to buy a house myself and convert it into three flats. Despite this I took a break from developing and ventured into the retail business. However I soon realised this was not for me. Thus Bernard Construction Limited (BCL) was formed.

What do you do?
The company focuses on buying, converting and selling. I specialise in Victorian school conversions. Finding this gap in the market led to our big break. I’ve completed five ‘school-to-loft’ conversions.

What kind of schemes are you currently working on?
We’ve branched out into new-build apartments and have four projects on the go. It’s exhilarating as it’s a totally different domain. The last few years have been good, partly due to a major project in East London, which platformed off the back of the London 2012 Olympics. Before that, though, I had a major project in Clapham, South London that was badly hit by the recession. Despite the highs and lows, I am excited about the future.

What do you want from an architect?
Fresh concepts about how to maximise units in an allocated space. In our development in Tulse Hill, Groves Natcheva has created a residential building with the robustness for our urban [railway-side] site. Black and white glazed bricks, together with large crittall windows overlooking the train station square, form an envelope; externally, this takes the pattern and massing of the terraced houses in the area.

Bernard Construction's £1.1 million development, designed by Groves Natcheva Architects in the Brockley Conservation area of Lewisham, South London.

Bernard Construction’s £1.1 million development, designed by Groves Natcheva Architects in the Brockley Conservation area of Lewisham

Externally, the building is intended to be a landmark; I want the people living there to be proud to say: ‘This is my building.’ Internally, the layouts are free from a literal relationship with the exterior. Views in different directions catch the sun at different times, while internal courtyard gardens and large open-plan rooms with high ceilings make for exciting, playful, generous and enjoyable living spaces, which I hope will create happy homes.

When do you see the end of the recession?

The housing market always yo-yos. Luckily I’ve always developed in inner London, where demand beats supply.

Which of your projects is your favourite and why?

I enjoy school conversions – it is our forté after all. If a building has character, this inspires me. Working in East London [with Michael Sierens Associates] was exciting – the whole area was alive. The building was an old police station and the Krays had been kept in the cells – a great selling point.

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