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Architects as developers: eight schemes

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Practices including Carl Turner Architects, Liddicoat & Goldhill and Pollard Thomas Edwards explain why they decided to turn developer on these schemes

MATTHEW LLOYD ARCHITECTS • POLLARD THOMAS EDWARDS • CARL TURNER ARCHITECTS • FOSTER LOMAS • OLLIER SMURTHWAITE • WIMSHURST PELLERITI • JOHN SMART ARCHITECTS • LIDDICOAT & GOLDHILL

Matthew Lloyd Architects

Matthew Lloyd Architects

Matthew Lloyd Architects

Matthew Lloyd Architects’ office scheme under construction in Shoreditch

Why did you decide to act as developers on this scheme?
The current climate, of inflating rental and property values, is having all sorts of rapidly changing effects on our professional lives as architects. One aspect is that everyone everywhere who owns a piece of ‘real estate’ is looking for where they can expand and maximise: along, back, down, or as in our case, up.

Crucially we already own our workspace: while the generation of property-intrigued architects before us bought, converted and occupied large (freehold) Victorian brick warehouses in Camden Town and elsewhere in the 70’s, our equivalent was, more modestly, 120m² (leasehold) in a 1980’s metal shed in Shoreditch. We had a lightbulb moment about a year ago when Matthew Lloyd was chatting to our neighbour, who has rented us our overflow space for five years. Our lease was running out, and our neighbour had understandably cottoned onto the fact that the space he was letting to us had a higher value. We started looking around but were reluctant to leave our workspace community in Perseverance Works, surrounded as we are by creative businesses, with whom we often collaborate. They looked upwards and had an idea to extend vertically, and our neighbour is now our co-developer.

How does acting as client as well as designer alter the way you approach projects?
In design terms we always strive to get the best out of every site and every planning position, and this was no different, involving the usual dialogue and a little compromise. What made our approach to this project different has been the ability to work to an extent on the basis of instinct and trust, we could take decisions on our own project in a way that of course you cannot with someone else’s project and money. We negotiated a price with an excellent builder who we know and trust (and who is doing a great job), and we have made an informal but very successful collaboration with our neighbours without so much as a pre-nup.

Every architect should do this

What have you learned from the project?
Every architect should do this: it is the best CPD ever! Of course the difference when you are the client and the architect and next door to the site (we moved down one unit for the duration) is an acute awareness of process and sequencing: we see very operation and every invoice, so we are also getting a new insight into the value of things. The other one is a deeply ingrained sense of responsibility: every buzzsaw, clanging of steel and clink of scaffold going up makes you wince, in the same way that a toddler screaming or a dog barking is weirdly amplified when its your own. Everyone in our practice has been amazing, they have decanted twice and put up with a lot of hassle and disturbance. Construction work just is unavoidably noisy, but if there had been some magic way to disturb our neighbours and our employees less we would like to have done that.

How do you see the future for the architect/developer?
It has to be all about opportunism nowadays: if you own a site or space, exploring options and developing could well be worth your while. We all know that the next generation will experience a significantly different salary-to-property-value ratio than we did - we who bought our first flats in the nineties. The places we are bringing our kids up, in Hackney, Islington, Clapham are increasingly the playground of bankers, and our kids will probably move well out of or away from London to experience family life in a brick terraced house. No architect’s salary can match a mortgage in inner London any more, and who knows where it will go next. So development especially in London, and apologies for the London-centric perspective here but it’s what I know, is going to demand very creative and clever thinking, a bit of alchemy even, just the kind of thing an architect can instinctively turn her or his hand to.

What is the percentage of your work for which you work as the developer and architect?
This is our first, so a tiny percentage.

Patricia Woodward, partner, Matthew Lloyd Architects

Pollard Thomas Edwards

Pollard Thomas Edwards

Pollard Thomas Edwards

Wallis Road, Hackney by Pollard Thomas Edwards

Why did you decide to act as developers on this scheme?
Located next to Hackney Wick station, our development will be a catalyst for the creation of a new mixed-use local centre to include shops, studios and apartments set around a network of new streets with bridge connections to the Queen Elizabeth Park. The site currently contains a number of run-down and dilapidated industrial buildings and artists’ studios, including some locally listed buildings. PTE’s proposals retain the prominent corner building and integrates it with a new mixed-use development of around 3,000m² of commercial space, including affordable units for local artists. Above there will be around 140 one, two and three-bedroom flats and duplexes. 

We decided to act as developers on this scheme for the same reasons as for all our developments:

  • Involvement in the whole process, from site acquisition to disposal of completed homes and workspace, is highly stimulating and requires the holistic mix of skills which should come naturally to architects
  • The skills, knowledge and approach which we learn from our own development also inform our service to third party clients
  • The control which we are able to exercise gives us more freedom to innovate and to achieve quality: for the past decade all of our own developments have won design awards
  • Our development companies pay decent fees to the architectural practice – no fee bidding! – and development profits can be significantly greater than those from architectural practice

As for this particular project, we have been fascinated by the area of Hackney Wick and Fish Island since before the Olympics. It is clearly an area of great opportunity, but also of tension between old manufacturing uses, recent colonisation by the creative industries and future mixed-use redevelopment, including residential. This kind of complexity – and the sensitive response it demands – fits our core skills and interests.

We can put forward and test options very rapidly 

How does acting as client as well as designer alter the way you approach projects?
The dual role allows for a very fluid and responsive relationship between the design, commercial and political aspects of the project. We can put forward and test options very rapidly and arrive at the optimum solution. The pre-application process in this complicated and evolving context took several years, and might have tested a conventional architect and client relationship.

What have you learned from the project?
Complex developments take a long time, a lot of patience and deep pockets – ideally you want to be able to fund the process up to planning from your own resources, and not be under pressure from lenders. Wallis Road is no different from our previous projects in this respect: at Arundel Square it took ten years to line up all the permissions!

How do you see the future for the architect/developer?
The price of entry to the London property market is so high today, and it is very difficult to secure sites through open bidding processes – it may be better to look outside the capital. However, through local knowledge and lateral thinking, architects can spot opportunities which others miss: as we did when we developed London’s first new school with apartments above.

What is the percentage of your work for which you work as the developer and architect?
In 2015 our own development projects accounted for around 10 per cent of our fee income. We are comfortable at that level.

Carl Turner Architects

Carl Turner Architects

Carl Turner Architects

Pop Brixton by Carl Turner Architects

Why did you decide to act as developers on this scheme?
Pop Brixton is the largest in terms of scale we have done as architect/developer. It was a competition to design, deliver and run the project for five years, so we have assembled a team and set up a new organisation to do this. We also acted as the main contractor to deliver the project which we built in phases. We also had to raise the £1.5 million to build it, which was the catalyst for me selling Slip House.

For the above reasons no ‘sane’ developer would take such a big risk on a short term project. This is a new type of development, run as a social enterprise to test a new model of short term ‘meanwhile’ project. I knew the area well, wanted to make a difference for local people (instead of the typical development model which I feel excludes many local communities) and for us as an architectural practice, it was a rare chance to move up in scale and work on public projects. Acting as developer in effect removed the PQQ block that small practices typically suffer when they try to move up to these type of projects. The inevitable chicken and egg scenario of lack of experience.

Acting as developer in effect removed the PQQ block that small practices typically suffer

How does acting as client as well as designer alter the way you approach projects?
Acting as client certainly focuses the mind in terms of delivery and cost. All the problems are now your problems. But ultimately it gives you complete control. This is the closest we have come to a college project scenario, where one is able to write the brief, build the dream, and speculate. It has been a large experiment for the practice and a great learning curve. Being your own client I believe allows you to really push the boundaries. I think all of my strongest work has been for myself as architect/client, for example our Slip House project.

What have you learned from the project?
We took massive risks, and started the project without all of the funding in place, to build confidence with investors. As a result the project struggled with cash flow from the outset, which inevitably meant we spent more than we would if we had the funding in place. I probably wouldn’t do that again, but on the other hand many projects die by over analysis.

How do you see the future for the architect/developer?
There is huge scope for architects to become more involved with the delivery process. We started as builders, delivering our own small projects for private clients, then built for other architects when we were quiet during tough times, so developing our own projects was a logical next step. I think it’s a great model to supplement the everyday work of an architectural practice. I also enjoy working with clients and larger teams on collaborative projects in parallel with development work. Architects need to step up, and in my view demonstrate through their own projects how development can work hand in hand with local communities. They are ideally placed to win the trust of councils and communities and show that projects can be developed as partnerships, don’t have to depend on land ownership and can still be viable. Our project in Brixton, couldn’t have been delivered by either the council or a typical developer. We have been seeing 15,000 people per week visit the site over the summer, and the first year will have around one million visitors. We believe we have created at least 250 jobs, with more to follow.

What is the percentage of your work for which you work as the developer and architect?
Pop Brixton has been a major breakthrough for the practice and I think we are now roughly 50:50 architects/developers. We are currently working on a smaller version of Pop in Wood Green for Haringey Council, converting the empty floors of a Peckham car park into arts spaces - both five year meanwhile projects, looking at a huge site in Silvertown with partners, and evaluating several other sites.

This work and experience has also resulted in a step change in our architectural work. We are working with Southwark Council in Peckham to evolve Peckham Square around the library, including new landscaping, housing, a gallery and co-work space, and we are working with Mountview Drama Academy to design a new 10,000m² drama and dance facility for them also in Peckham. Our work at Pop Brixton was fundamental in demonstrating to those clients that we are not only good designers, but we know how to build, and we understand money and risk and can view the world from the client’s perspective. Not something we feel enough architects can (nor want to) comprehend.

Andrew Beharrell, senior partner, Pollard Thomas Edwards

Foster Lomas

Foster Lomas

Foster Lomas

Foster Lomas’ first scheme as an architect/developer, Hindmans Yard in south east London

Why did you decide to act as developers on this scheme?
Becoming restless of working for developers we decided to take the jump and offer our own brand of architecture to the public. It was a perfect storm with one client offering a site opportunity, another client becoming a bank we grabbed it and deal was wrapped up in 48 hours of seeing site. You have to be quick! 

It is very liberating being the client

How does acting as client as well as designer alter the way you approach projects?
It is tough. Trying to deliver what you preach and taking all the risk really focuses the mind. Saying that it is very liberating being the client. You can just put your mind to the work without the usual client/architect pandering. 

What have you learned from the project?
We decided upon a management construction route and became the management contractor to speed up build and reduce costs, it was so time consuming and uncharted waters for us. Next time we would find an experienced build partner so we can focus more time on design. 

How do you see the future for the architect/developer?
Very bright. We can be nimble in this market and are ahead with what can be achieved, not entrenched with standardised mass housing typologies. Architect/developers can open up this market - once the public sees the alternative there will be a big change.

The numbers

Land cost £1.62 million
Finance cost £500,000
Gross development value £3.7 million 
Project costs £1.15 million
Gross profit £430,000

Will Foster, founder, Foster Lomas

Ollier Smurthwaite

Ollier Smurthwaite

Ollier Smurthwaite

The Bourne, Cheshire by Ollier Smurthwaite

Why did you decide to act as developers on this scheme?
We’d been frustrated in the past by clients who would value engineer schemes thinking they were making them more profitable. Our belief, which has been realised on all our development projects, is that spending say 10 per cent more on the build can add 20 per cent to the sales figure. This makes schemes more profitable and improves the quality of the architecture at the same time.

How does acting as client as well as designer alter the way you approach projects?
It didn’t change the way we approached the project. On all projects we make sure they work commercially before progressing the project whether its for us or other clients. Once we’ve established that it is commercially viable then we invest time in the architecture. Employing this approach on all projects has helped us grow the practice. If you can help your clients make more money they can buy more sites and you grow with them.

What have you learned from the project?
Try and avoid appointing a contractor that goes bust before you finish it! That happened to us. So we took on the site manager and a number of trades. Now we are client, architect and contractor.

How do you see the future for the architect/developer?
For us, bright. We recently bought an office which we are refurbishing. We’ve sold some of it, got tenants lined up for another part and we’ll occupy some space ourselves. We’re also converting the rear part of the building to residential. We’ve also just acquired a warehouse which we’ll be converting to 60 apartments.

Matt Ollier, founder, Ollier Smurthwaite

Wimshurst Pelleriti

Wimshurst Pelleriti

Wimshurst Pelleriti

77a Landor Road, London by Wilmshurt Pelleriti

Why did you decide to act as developers on this scheme?
We had owned one of the blocks for a number of years and when the opportunity came to purchase the building next door we took it. Our intention was always to develop our own schemes alongside the architecture practice. Architects are in a great position to do their own developments if: they can access finance; find the time to manage the projects alongside client work and ultimately if they are prepared to take on the additional risk.

How does acting as client as well as designer alter the way you approach projects?
We try not to sacrifice design integrity for profit – but clearly there are always points at which difficult decisions need to be made. Ultimately it is very good for designers to understand the true cost of the decisions they make on behalf of clients and there is no better lesson than doing your own development.

What have you learned from the project?
It is not always valuable to try and run several sub-contractors yourself. We had a great relationship with the main contractor but managed a series of trades ourselves to cut costs. In one sense this was achieved - we were largely able to meet our budgeted costs. But it created friction on site when things went wrong there was no clear line of reporting. We may have finished quicker if we had simply run everything through the main contractor and we would certainly have spent much less time managing site politics. 

Difficult sites are where architect/developers have the edge

How do you see the future for the architect/developer?
London provides great opportunities for development but with the government seemingly seeking to strangle the Buy-to-Let market we intend to look for opportunities that seek to address the housing crisis in the capital – at the affordable end of the spectrum. We are interested in difficult sites where we can bring our design skills to bear – where more traditional developers or house-builders might be dissuaded. These are perhaps the sites where architect/developers have the edge – they can see past problems that others may not be able to and use their design skills to solve the problems.

The numbers

Land cost £1.8 million
Construction £550,000
Fees £30,000
Finance undisclosed
Sold for £3.35 million

Tom Wimshurt, founder, Wimshurst Pelleriti

John Smart Architects

John Smart Architects

John Smart Architects

Proposal for a residential scheme named DK3 by John Smart Architects

Why did you decide to act as developers on this scheme?
The possibilities of ethical architecture lay through patronage. As a converted architect/developer, I am not sure if I can fully distinguish between client and architect - it becomes more than having two heads on and is a way of making that offers far greater autonomy and authorship - the finances simply become an integrated component of that process but not sidelined to it.

How does acting as client as well as designer alter the way you approach projects?
Mainstream practice can often be thwarted by the economic restrains of the market and so having one’s own micro economy allows far greater rewards which in turn offers far greater commitment and responsibility to the project in higher quality.

Knowing when not to overbuild is key

What have you learned from the project?
Architecture can be endless in pursuit and so knowing when not to overbuild is key as that can rapidly lead to bankruptcy.

How do you see the future for the architect/developer?
Our business model of architect/developer has evolved from small scale piecemeal development now to large scale towers and regeneration projects. Ultimately, working at a civic scale can offer wider possibilities for alternative solutions to housing, making it less about economic solutions and more about an ethical pursuit of quality.

This in turn offers more imaginative solutions to the generic house builder which in my view, de-risks the project as there is an obvious demand for affordable quality.

John Smart, founder, John Smart Architects

Liddicoat & Goldhill

Modelo 1 jpg

Liddicoat and Goldhill

Liddicoat & Goldhill’s the Maker’s House is currently under construction in Hackney

Why did you decide to act as developers on this scheme?
We self-built our first home, the Shadow House soon after we graduated from the RCA, in the depths of the credit crunch. Fee levels were punishingly low and the outlook was bleak for architects. 

We had just enough money to buy a small flat, but instead we took a risk and bought a tiny site blighted with a bad planning record. The most exciting aspect of the project was the challenge of creating characterful new housing on a tricky urban site. 

The project showed us how London’s domestic sector was very resilient to the downturn - and how we could apply a different business model to our practice. 

The decision to become developers was about granting ourselves freedom as designers. 

Our studio’s work had really taken off, and we had started a family, so we moved out of our first house and bought a second, much larger plot for a new-build development. 

We bought the site in Hackney in 2012 and since spent two years improving the planning permission and are now building out the 220m² scheme. The house, named the Maker’s House is being delivered by our development company and we are also acting as main contractor. It is due for completion this Spring. 

We are also in the process of buying land in rural Kent, where we hope to develop a one-off country house. This house will be an opportunity to research sustainable rural living and intelligent facade design. 

Since starting our construction and development company we have also established a fresh partnership with a builder and a financier in order to deliver small scale residential developments in central London. As well as investing in the projects we, are exchanging our expertise and design input for equity in the development company. 

It adds a completeness and consistency that is hard to achieve on other projects

How does acting as client as well as designer alter the way you approach projects?
It gives us terrific freedom. Our studio uses an ‘agile’ design process, which allows constant iteration of the design to control costs, solve problems, respond to unexpected events and incorporate fresh ideas. This is incompatible with the linear procurement routes laid down by the RIBA. 

We take on such a broad role in our development projects - acting as client, developer, architect, builder, interior designer, project manager. We are even fabricating elements of the building, and pieces of furniture in our workshop. This adds a completeness and consistency that is hard to achieve on other projects. 

What have you learned from the project?
The project showed us the delight of making - and living in - a self-build. It also showed us the attainability of new-build bespoke living for people with normal budgets, provided you can find land. 

Next time we would like to collaborate with other designer/makers, or with friends. Co-housing really intrigues us, and in future we plan to create larger, mixed-use and community-led schemes. 

How do you see the future for the architect/developer?
We feel the future is bright, but the industry will need to adapt or die. Acting as developer is one way of reclaiming territory for the architect, and a great way of improving the prospects for the quality of our built environment. 

However there are significant challenges. The availability of land to all but the largest developers is a huge problem. The tax system also favours larger-scale operators and Planners can be blind-sided by major projects. Architects and small-scale developers need to act together to help influence policy.

What is the percentage of your work for which you work as the developer and architect?
Nearly half of our work is as developer/architect, and we hope to increase this proportion in future.

Sophie Goldhill, founder, Liddicoat & Goldhill

  • 1 Comment

Readers' comments (1)

  • It’s valuable, important even, for Architects to be Developers at least once during their career as this shines a light on certain aspects of the process that might otherwise be invisible. Exposure to the numerous risks associated with staking either your own or other people’s money on speculative development enables us to gain an understanding of the risks, learn about them and factor them in to our approach to architecture. My experience of doing my own small development has helped foster empathy with my clients. It’s also given me enormous respect for those developers who set the design bar high, and a disdain for those who don’t.

    It’s because Architects are brilliant collaborators that they are well placed to be Developers – our job requires exemplary teamwork and leadership - both fundamental to getting developments done.

    It’s a good discipline to imagine it’s your money being spent when designing. If the financial effects of a ‘baggy’ design take food off the table then one would definitely tighten things up to be as good as they could be. That’s not to say as cheap as possible, more that each pen stroke or mouse click matters.

    Architect-designed houses can often attract a premium, as demonstrated by The Modern House website. They also, however can be a bit “Marmite”, appealing to a small proportion of those people looking for a home. The challenge for Architects as Developers is to create buildings we can be proud of while at the same time keeping the business plan on track.

    Profligacy married with an esoteric or high-handed approach to what you think your market wants will end badly. I am a firm believer, however, that a firm grip on the money, a knack for seeing opportunities and an empathy with your prospective occupiers are all well within most architects’ capabilities. The risks are higher than earning a fee but so are the rewards.

    Development isn’t for everyone, my own attempt ended well but there were several nerve-jangling moments along the way.

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