In the 13 years Weston Williamson has been in business, we have paid over £250,000 in rent. We hope to be around for another 25 years, and the thought of paying out at least another £500,000 is not pleasant. For 10 years our landlord was in the Bahamas and every quarter we wrote a cheque and posted it to Antigua. We thought 'something's not right here'.
We started looking for a property to buy in the mid-1990s, partly because the market was a bit flat and partly because we had started a self-administered pension fund and thought we should use it to do something we understood. Looking back, buying more Manchester United shares would have been a winner but it is nicer to be in control of our own affairs, and not reliant on Giggsy's hamstring or replica shirt sales.
We looked at the possibility of converting old warehouses to design studios. It didn't really appeal. We wanted to build something distinctive. We had won a few competitions for buildings which had never been built, and there was a sense that 'if we commission ourselves, at least it will get built.' And there comes a time when you have to put your money where your mouth is. We are committed to urban projects, and passionate about modern architecture, especially when appropriate to a historic context. If we as architects can't make it work, who can?
We put the deal together in 1996. We had got to know the area around London Bridge because of our work on the Jubilee Line. We had many meetings with the planners and were impressed - Southwark is genuinely interested in modern design. So when we found the Old Sarsons Vinegar works site we put together a scheme with a housing developer with the agreement that we would buy the site if we got permission to build something that we would be proud of. Its position in a conservation area next to the Old Sarsons Vinegar Brewery brings out the best of the old and the new.
We studied historic records dating back to 1833, the street pattern changing with the intervention of the railway tracks and the introduction of Tower Bridge Road. The ground floor of the property has been commercial throughout this time. It is a small but fantastic site with a great street presence.
At present we only need one floor, but hope this will change as we grow. We went back to Southwark and got planning permission for a single-storey scheme. We have permission for a ground floor cafe/ restaurant, two office floors, and a penthouse.
Southwark is keen to ensure the area is vibrant and lively, and encourages mixed use, but is also keen to see the building in use. As housing and other uses are provided elsewhere within the Old Sarsons Vinegar Works, we have permission to use all of the building as office space. The mix of uses on the site will give us flexibility to cope with the vagaries of the property market and ensure there is activity at all times of the day.
We are working with Southwark to landscape the area in front of the building and hope to open a juice/ coffee bar with external seating. But the best part will be the roof. My son and I stayed in Le Corbusier's Unite d'Habitation when we went to the World Cup last year and that, like many Corb buildings, has a fantastic roof. It's just so nice to be up high and outside in the city. It's not Marseille but we have fantastic views.
Price and Myers schemed the structure. Anthony Hunt Associates designed and detailed the piling and Ian Caldwell, the concrete contractor's engineer, detailed the superstructure. Furness Green helped establish the environmental approach and Tracey Design Partnership designed, organised and checked the environmental strategy. Abros helped with the development funding analysis and its excellent software (which is a bit more sophisticated than ours) helped convince Lloyds Bank that the whole thing was a good idea.
We tendered the whole scheme to main contractors but the prices were high, so we decided to project manage ourselves. I am a qualified project manager and the process is going well. We had never borrowed money as a practice before and did not really want to, but after we completed the piling and ground slab we decided to borrow the rest and finish it.
The concrete contractor has finished the structure, and an Italian cladding company is on site. We had to wait until Littlehampton Welding finished work on the ba London Eye before it could do our staircase, but it is now finished. Interior services and finishes are on site at the moment. Using separate subcontracts is saving 35 per cent of the original lowest tender price, and is also great fun.
It is interesting being the client and spending your own money rather than someone else's. The process will help us appreciate our clients' concerns. Thanks to Southwark's initiatives and the gla building, the area is in demand. Things could change of course. In 1996, when we told riba Journal about the scheme, someone at Foster's office wrote that he thought we were mad. But Michael Manser, and a few other architects who have done their own developments, have been supportive. Time will tell, but in the meantime it feels good not sending those cheques to Antigua.
The building will be open to the public for Architecture Week which starts on 17 June