Robin Butler, the Urban & Civic’s managing director, on the developer’s architectural ambitions and regional focus
What are the main projects you are working on?
We have four major land projects of real scale: Alconbury Weald and Waterbeach in Cambridgeshire, Rugby Radio site and Newark. These schemes have existing consents ranging from 3,000 to over 6,000 residential units. They all share common characteristics of scale (280 to 560ha), access to London, strong local labour markets, and connectivity to existing national infrastructure.
We tend to take the schemes through planning, and create infrastructure – which means building schools, roads, sewers and green infrastructure – and then we sell the parcels to housebuilders. We impose strict but practical design codes on the housing, ensuring it is built to preserve long-term quality and land value.
We impose strict but practical design codes on the housing
Away from our large-scale strategic land developments, we are undertaking a variety of urban projects. We have two major schemes in central Manchester at Princess Street and at Deansgate. We are constructing a 357-bed hotel at Stansted airport which immediately adjoins the terminal, and just finishing a major leisure complex in Darlington.
Waterbeach Watchtower, Cambridgeshire, by Mole Architects
What are the opportunities outside of London?
Finding real development value within London has been problematic since the market emerged from the post-banking crisis downturn. This sense of ’defensive buying’ has certainly started to spill into the areas with strong connectivity to London, and opportunities to invest well in these areas are becoming increasingly difficult but can be found, as with the hotel at Stansted.
As one moves away from London’s centrifugal pull, availability increases, but selectivity is paramount. Manchester and Birmingham provide market support and there is currently a higher level of opportunity/risk balance than in London.
At what stage of a scheme do you generally bring in architects?
That would depend on complexity and scale. The greater the level of either or both, the earlier the involvement.
Urban & Civic
Which architects are you working with?
- AHMM (Alconbury Weald Primary School, The Incubator & The Club)
- Mole Architects (Waterbeach Watchtower)
- Aukett Swanke (mid-tech Buildings at Alconbury Weald & Waterbeach)
- Bond Bryan Architects (in conjunction with Huntingdon Regional College)
- William Saunders (John Adams)
- Waterland Associates (concepts for Alconbury Weald Watchtower)
- Fletcher Priest Architects (masterplan for Waterbeach)
- John Thompson Partners (masterplan for Alconbury and Rugby)
- van Heyningen and Haward (school at Rugby)
- Juice Architects (Doleman Farm redevelopment at Rugby)
- Barton Willmore (masterplan for Newark)
- Housebuilder architects, including Hopkins Homes, David Smith for Morris Homes and HTA for Redrow Homes
How did those relationships come about?
Urban & Civic’s chairman Nigel Hugill and I have been involved in large-scale complex developments more than 30 years, including our roles leading development at Chelsfield and Lend Lease. We worked with many architects over that period, some of whom were famous and some who have subsequently become so. When you work as closely with architects such as Ian Ritchie at White City over 10 years, you form a relationship with the wider team, which endures beyond the life of the scheme itself. These forge the foundations for future projects.
Urban & Civic
What do you look for in an architect?
Primarily bringing a skill set to the project that we don’t have. This is coupled with originality, boldness and a sense of balance and humour to survive the inevitable ups and downs of a major scheme.
How can architects and developers work together better?
Generally we seem to form a pretty good working relationship with our architects from the beginning – or we part company at that point. The latter is rare. The ability to debate the strengths of a suggested design is fundamental to project progression. Nobody has the monopoly on good ideas.