The inside story at Bentley Motors

A couple of weeks ago I took two close contacts, one of which was fellow blogger Tim Garratt, for a private tour around the Bentley Motors factory in Crewe. I have been previously as my brother works there. When I left school I wanted to be a car designer or an architect. Clearly I went for the latter, but have loved cars for all of my life.

The Bentley factory is a very special place. Its was built in the 1930’s by Rolls Royce to manufacture the Merlin spitfire engine, they still have one on display in the factory. After the war, Rolls Royce and Bentley motors were made there. In 2002 VW Group had acquired Bentley (while BMW had purchased the Rolls Royce badge). This meant that VW had an amazing team of people who understood Bentley to the core; from the brand and design philosophy, to the exceptionally talented craftsmen and women. Today many of the staff working there have decades of experience, joined by a new generation of staff, who all share a genuine passion for Bentley and ensuring the very best quality in all they do. This is British manufacturing arguably at its best.


Today, Bentley produce their flagship Mulsanne, the brand new Flying Spur, and the hugely successful Continental GT and GT Cabriolet. These cars are actually defined and differentiated by the amount of man-hours and detail involved in their production. They are priced accordingly too.

What is really clever though is the fusion of modern manufacturing with traditional coach building techniques. As you walk around the factory it is clear to see VW Group’s investment and experience has radically updated and improved the efficiency of building cars. However robots do not dominate, in fact there’s hardly any. People still hand-build these cars, with care and skill. This is one of the unique things that reinforces Bentley’s brand and exclusivity. There are many examples of the lengths that Bentley go to source the very best materials, there was one which stood out for me. For a Mulsanne car they use 17 full bull hides for each model! These Bulls are sourced from specific locations where they are not exposed to either barbed wire or insect bites. Bentley’s attention to detail, from source of materials to finish product, is second to none.

As you would expect, these cars are very customisable, in every conceivable way. Customers are taken into a Specification Lounge (equivalent to a first class airport lounge) where they are shown materials and examples of all the things they can choose to make their car ultra-unique. They have even matched a body colour to a customers nail varnish by painting a sample onto the salesmans hand in Dubai! He then flew back and ensured it was built to match. More money than sense perhaps? On the other hand, they get some customers making purchases by telephone by simply saying; “get me a blue GT please”. These cars start at around £115k! You can also purchase a wide range of branded accessories, from clothing to Breitling watches and even Bentley branded carbon fibre skis (for a cool £6000!)

The other aspect of the tour I was particularly interested in was the design process. There’s a great quote on the wall at Bentley which I thought I’d share;

photoaEvery Bentley car in the world is designed and manufactured in Crewe. Their largest markets in recent years have been the Middle East and China. Clearly we didn’t go near the design studio, but we were informed about some of their methods. We saw a full scale clay model of a GT. Bentley adopt all sorts of processes to develop the cars design, including the NASA developed 3D printing which we are seeing in Architecture now. Their cars always start with hand-drawn conceptual sketches. Design should always begin with the pure connection of pen and paper, not constrained or influenced by any kind of technology. During the design evolution, Bentley have a ‘design garden’. This is an external space which is used to review and assess design development models in changing lighting natural conditions, either as the design team and/ or with the senior execs for key sign off stages.

What’s next for Bentley? Their uber luxury 4×4 is in development, set to exceed the Range Rover. They also hinted at a potential lightweight fast car – perhaps a competitor to McLaren road cars or of course Ferrari? They will no doubt be extremely careful to avoid becoming too mainstream and diluting their exclusivity, but they have a winning formula at the moment and it would be good to see Bentley evolve further with their luxury heritage.

So Bentley have successfully achieved a phenomenal transformation from being perceived to be a ‘poor mans Roller’, to now being a hugely successful independent brand in their own right – and its all made in Britain!

It was a fascinating experience and inspirational to see the dedication, passion and commitment of so many people in something they clearly love. Also to gain an insight into modern car design and manufacturing was interesting. I think I’ll be ordering a GT at some point in the future. Question is; what colour when the choice is limitless!

“Less is more” at the Yurt Farm

The famous German architect, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, adopted the phrase “Less is more” to describe minimalist design during the Modern Movement of the early 1900’s. Today the phrase is still widely used, in many different contexts. This phrase was particularly pertinent to my last week, spent with my family in Wales on holiday.

We spent the week camping (well ‘glamping’ actually – glamorous camping) in West Wales, in a remote field called the Yurt Farm. Our objective was pretty simple; to get away. Properly away. The place was around eight miles inland from Aberaeron and was definitely remote. There was limited mobile signal and certainly no sign of 3G or WiFi! Its also completely off-grid in terms of electricity and gas. Perfect. There’s only one way to approach this sort of holiday; embrace it.

Yurt Farm1aThe Yurt Farm is simple living, but actually very well considered and crafted in lots of different ways. Its been carefully created by a local farming couple called Laurie and Thea (with their three young children). You leave your car at the gate and walk around 250m to your Yurt. There are a collection of wheel barrows to transport your stuff. These were also useful for shifting logs and our 3 year-old daughter! There were five Yurts in total, and a small converted train carriage as well!

A Yurt is a tent structure which is portable, but very strong and actually rather spacious. It originates from Central Asia and is still used widely in Mongolia for dwellings. They are cleverly designed. You can watch a great little video of one the Yurts on the farm being built here. Inside they have a wooden floor, a small wood burning fire, a double bed and a bunk bed (both hand crafted from local wood). This is called glamping, but actually this is proper camping! Apart from having a proper bed to sleep on, you live in a very simple and sustainable way. Heat is provided from burning logs (we got through plenty of them!), light is provided from a large circular window in the centre of the roof (and tea light candles at night). Outside we also had a fridge. This was a small wooden container with a deep cover of earth on top (which has herbs in), it worked!

It’s all really very liberating and feels authentic and natural. Quite the antithesis of my very urban life of frenetic movement around a largely man-made environment.

Living is equally as simple as the sleeping provisions. There is a communal kitchen/ lounge which is a beautifully crafted timber structure (a sort of rural Barcelona Pavilion – architect reference!) This has a big old Belfast sink with cold water provided from a local source. The Ty Nant spring water company is located just a mile or so away so this water hasn’t been through seven humans already! Hot water is provided, via solar thermal panels situated in the field, for both the sink and also two fantastic showers at the end of the building. The window/ vents in the showers are made of Ty Nant bottles – very clever. There are electric points for charging phones etc. These are powered by a small wind turbine and a solar electric panel in the field. Four on-site chickens roam freely in the day and provide fresh eggs. The farm also provide fresh organic fruit, vegetables and meat. There is also a great covered Al Fresco dining area which has a homemade Pizza oven! Finally the toilets; these are small carefully crafted wooden structures which (to my daughters amazement) didn’t have any flush! You simply ‘cover up’ with sawdust as you leave. Sound dodgy? These were really pleasant and didn’t smell. At nighttime they have solar powered fairy lights!

Yurt Farm2aThis is vernacular architecture arguably at its best; following nature and being very sustainable in many ways.

This was certainly a holiday with a difference. It’s not for everyone, and I’m sure some people get drawn in to the ‘idea’ of doing this, but would perhaps struggle with the reality. My advice is; go for it, embrace it for what it is and you will love it. Its a superb experience and one I strongly recommend, especially for families. We’ve got some great memories of our adventure, far more than you might get from a more conventional holiday.

For me, it was refreshing and exhilarating. It was also good to be a Human ‘being’, not a Human ‘doing’! It was great to escape for a while from urbanity, work and technology!

The Yurt Farm is great – visit their site here for more information.

Next Generation Student Living

I’ve just got back from London after attending the LD Events Student Housing Conference at the Congress Centre. I’ve been to this annual property conference for the last four years. This year however was slightly different as I was asked a few months ago to deliver a talk on ‘Design and Innovation‘ in the sector. This was a great opportunity for me and Lewis and Hickey to demonstrate our extensive experience and understanding of this impressive and mature asset class.

We have delivered over 11,000 bedrooms to date and have around 5000 bedrooms in development. These are pretty big numbers for us and it puts us in a small group of other Architects who have delivered this much.

P1Last night we had a great dinner with close colleagues from Jones Lang LaSalle, Savills, Interhospitality, HG Capital Investments, Balfour Beatty, Regal Property, Kaplan Colleges, Bouygues/ ULiving and Campus Living Villages. It was a good blend of people and backgrounds, with some informed and stimulating discussion on current opportunities in the sector.

The mood at the conference was pretty upbeat overall. The sector has been a bit ‘down’ following a perfect storm of challenges in 2012 which resulted in a reduction in student numbers and occupancy. For the sector this was a worry as suddenly national operators were reporting 85-90% occupancy when 98%+ had been the norm for a number of years. In the wider context, these dips were minimal, especially when you consider 100% asset voids in retail, industrial and office at present. Student Living is still attracting growing and significant investor interest with strong yields to be enjoyed.

The other big news, and recurring discussion today, was about Opal’s recent demise. I blogged about Opal a few weeks back (click here to see it). It was really good to hear both Bob Crompton and Charles Marshall reinforcing that Opal is/ was a strong and well respected business, and that their assets have never been distressed. Their problem was around their funding model and there was a genuine disappointment that Opal have paid the ultimate price. The impact of Opal seems to be strengthening the sector, rather than compromising it as some people were concerned about. Their operator brand strength though has suffered because of all the media coverage. As a result; Universities, Parents and Students will probably avoid Opal accommodation this coming year. This is unnecessary, but people will have their view on this. It was also good to see so many (ex)Opal people at the conference, all still working in the sector in different ways.

In my talk I focused on Branding and “student experience”, the evolution of interior design ideas/ products and the progression of design quality in the architecture. Student Living design has changed significantly in recent years and I believe we are now firmly in a second generation of design/ product.

Following my talk, I was a little overwhelmed by how many people acknowledged and thanked me for my summary. I didn’t anticipate this and I was humbled by the kind words. A couple of people have asked me for a copy of the presentation so I thought I’d post a link to it on here.

CLICK HERE TO VIEW MY PRESENTATION (it’s 7mb and in PDF format).

It was good to see so many close contacts at the conference, the sector has a real property ‘community’ and I feel privileged to be part of it, both personally and of course for my business Lewis and Hickey Architects.

In conclusion; it was a great event to be part of, and of course even better to meet many established contacts and also make some new ones. If you are looking at Student Living development and need some advice, or want to explore some design ideas, please don’t hesitate to get in contact with us. Some of our recent projects can be seen here.

You can also contact me directly by email, I’d be delighted to talk to you.