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Developing an interest

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building study

Pollard Thomas Edwards has picked up the award for Best Development of a Brownfield Site in this year's National Homebuilder Awards for Angel Waterside, a mixed-use canalside scheme in Islington where it acted as both architect and developer.So what can it teach other architects who fantasise about doing it for themselves?


Pollard Thomas Edwards' (PTE) foray into development started in 1981 - two years after the RIBA relaxed the Professional Code of Conduct to allow architects to form separate developing companies.

It has since created a series of singleproject companies owned by PTE directors and, on occasion, external partners*.

These are always legally separate from PTE architects and, while the former employs the latter, the terms are always defined by contract and are subject to standard fees. The potential for conflict of interest makes it essential that all parties are clear about their particular role.

At Angel Waterside, the inevitable opportunities for client/architect tensions were further complicated by the fact that PTE staff took some of the project's commercial space, hence putting PTE in the absurd position of looking for the lowest possible price and the maximum possible yield on the same piece of real estate. The fact that PTE entered into a partnership with Groveworld as joint development partner put additional pressure on PTE to be disciplined about sticking to market rates, and to demand the same level of commitment and service from PTE architects as would be expected by any professional client.

*There are tax and liability advantages in isolating each development as a standalone company, but credit and guarantee advantages to having a continuing holding company with a reasonable asset base - PTE is establishing a structure to allow it to take advantage of these benefits.


On the one hand, the ability to see potential - and therefore profit - in unlikely places is the key advantage architects have over conventional developers. PTE has tended to favour difficult sites with complex planning, technical and legal issues, where others might shy away from the risk. And with the breezy optimism at which architects excel, it cheerfully classes physical chaos as 'richness of context'.

While it now seems glaringly obvious that the Angel Waterside site, with its three-way views along the canal, presented a prime opportunity for highclass residential development, the potential of the area had long been overlooked. The site sits in City Road Basin, a 1.6ha area at the head of the Regents' Canal, which was somehow ignored in the reinvention of Britain's industrial infrastructure as picturesque amenity.

Desultory attempts to develop the area were - both physically and qualitatively - best described as patchy.

The area's renaissance did not really kick off until 1994, when PTE demonstrated a leap of faith by converting Diespeker Wharf, a Grade II-listed late Victorian gatehouse, into its own offices.

From the outset, the project was conceived in terms of a wider strategy for the area which sought to combine the historic fabric with sensitive contemporary development: canal cottages which occupied the site were restored, and semiderelict outhouses were cleared to make way for a waterside garden. This visionary thinking was undoubtedly a factor in PTE's success in the 1998 competition, organised by British Waterways, to develop what is now known as Angel Waterside, on the site of a former timber merchant's warehouse immediately adjacent to Diespeker Wharf - a classic case of optimism and imagination paying off.

The flipside is that, having invested so much dreaming time, it can be extremely difficult to walk away. Since it is virtually impossible to obtain finance for any project prior to obtaining planning permission, PTE tends to seed fund its ventures from cash assets built up over the years.

At Angel Waterside - a complex development of 57 apartments plus courtyard, parking and commercial space - pre-construction costs amounted to close to £1 million, all of which were shouldered by co-developer Groveworld and PTE.

Although bank finance can generally be obtained once the future of the project is assured, it is rarely sufficient to cover the whole cost of the project. This is the moment to decide as to whether or not to sell the site - never an easy choice.


The development at Angel Waterside was driven by the desire to create the appropriate architectural solution for this highly idiosyncratic site. The combination of diverse listed neighbours, mature landscape and water frontage prompted a proposal of three distinct blocks: a low terracotta-rendered terrace on Graham Street;

a brick-faced 'palazzo' style building topped by double-storey penthouses which enjoy southerly views over the Basin and adjacent park; and 'Crystal Wharf ', a glass 'jewel' on the waterfront, rising from two storeys to a seven-storey 'prow', its sloping roofscape of planted terraces clearly visible to passers-by.

These three buildings, together with Diespeker Wharf and an existing twostorey lock-keeper's cottage, form a setting of diverse age, scale, material and form, organised around a central landscaped courtyard. Parking is in the basement, while most of the 1,500m 2of office space is at canal level, with a fully glazed facade providing close-up water views. A small two-level office, with glazing onto the street and a covered link to Diespeker Wharf, is currently occupied by PTE staff.

The result is a successful piece of urban design which knits together the disparate surroundings, and provides a stimulating environment in which to live and work. A more single-mindedly commercial developer might have been tempted to overlook such subtleties in favour of the single-statement building.

The obligatory 'wow' factor is provided by Crystal Wharf. It has become the flagship for the development's sales operation, and is the one aspect of the scheme which alerts suspicions that PTE may have 'gone native', falling into the classic developer's trap of opting for the oneliner statement building designed with the marketing brochure in mind. But in fairness, a little scrutiny suggests a sophisticated design process. High-performance glazing with low heat-transmission glass means that the fully glazed living-room facades on the canal side are compatible with a highly insulated building envelope and so not as wilful as they appear. The sawtooth facets which seem to fit in rather too neatly with the name Crystal Wharf are, in fact, much more than simply an off-the-peg design quirk; they scoop in the southerly sun on what is an easterly facade, capture views up and down the basin and, on the courtyard side, maintain privacy between neighbouring facades. The planted roof terraces are part of a wider urban strategy; planting will eventually cascade down the roof, connecting with planting already established to create a continuous 150m-long multilevel waterside landscape.


At Angel Waterside, the decision to team up with Groveworld was a reflection of the fact that the project was simply too big to handle on its own. The fact that the project is conceived in terms of an ultimate wider vision for the area has made it particularly important to forge close links with the landowner, British Waterways, local planners, residents and the owners of surrounding patches of land. PTE has already embarked on the next stage of the City Basin regeneration with a mixed-use mixed-tenure development at City Wharf due to start on site this year, but is well aware of the degree of collaboration which will be necessary if individual development projects are to be integrated into a coherent masterplan.

The success of plans for a linear park around the Basin, with the canalside walkway at Angel Waterside becoming a public right of way linking the park to City Road lock and the towpath beyond, will depend as much on harnessing and coordinating enthusiasm and effort as on raising the necessary funds.


While it is easy to feel like amateurs in a developers' world, it is always worth bearing in mind that the entire development sector is buoyed up by key architectural skills: the ability to increase the value of sites by optimising the quality and quantity of accommodation, and the ability to steer proposals through the intricacies of the planning system.

In theory, the increased control which comes from doubling up as client should give architects/developers a free rein to take full advantage of these strengths. Certainly the close understanding and communication between architect and client have contributed to the success of architecture. It is difficult to speculate how a more conventional scheme would have compared in commercial terms. But with total construction costs of £9 million, a sales value of £21 million and more than 85 per cent of the accommodation now sold, it is fair to say the sums have added up.

But while it is important to keep sight of the commercial worth of your own skills, it is essential not to confuse architectural and market knowledge. On the day of my visit to Angel Waterside with PTE's Stephen Chance, we were confronted by a woman, dressed like an extra from Dynasty, who had been charged with the task of 'dressing' the penthouse in a bid to make it easier to sell.

Chance did not bat an eyelid when the 'dresser' patiently explained that the introduction of an outsize shower curtain meandering through the open-plan space (and obscuring panoramic views) would provide privacy and cosiness to counteract the intimidating impact of so much space and glass. Clearly, he has learned that there is a point at which you have to let go.

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