Tag Archives: Urban Splash

The Property Revolution; Buildings, Spaces + People.

The fundamental purpose of most buildings is to accommodate people. But are buildings really focused on people or value?

Look back ten years and the world of UK property was, by and large, pretty mundane in terms of buildings being delivered I think. A very commercial, corporate and profit driven approach was applied to a lot of new buildings in the residential and office sectors particularly. Houses and apartments were fairly uninspiring places both internally and externally. Offices were largely run of the mill with grey carpets, suspended ceilings and open plan spaces, to accommodate rows and rows of identical desks. In the wider city context, buildings sat next to each other, but the spaces between them were sterile and lacked genuine use and interaction by people; they were just the spaces to move around.

The following five years witnessed one of the deepest recessions in history and a major compression in development activity, especially outside of London. The ‘other side’ of the recession has seen new thinking and new demand, with fundamental need for new and different supply.

Today, thankfully the built environment in the UK is changing. I actually think we’re seeing somewhat of a revolution in the built environment. Design is back and People are the focus.

Last night I attended an event in Manchester and heard Tim Heatley from Capital and Centric deliver a compelling talk about designing “awesome” buildings, focused on people and how they use spaces inside and out, rather than bland boxes which offer some degree of diversity, but don’t create a culture, vibe or an energy. A lot of what his company are doing is based on reinventing existing buildings and giving places life, character and identity.

05_canal-st-raisedKAMPUS in Manchester by Capital & Centric + Mecanno.

Society has changed hugely in the last ten years, especially with our need for connectivity in all we do. The way we work, learn, socialise and interact has evolved and the environment we use is starting to reflect this now.

The rapid rise of PRS (private rented sector) Living promotes a new world of housing. One which, thankfully, isn’t wholly focussed on build it cheap and sell it fast. This institutionally funded approach to delivering rental living provides a lifestyle and quality which must last. This in turn provides a better quality of environment within which people can live, work, socialise etc. Interestingly a sector I’m close to, student living, is well ahead of the curve in this approach. There are many built examples of how this works and the PRS offer is very similar.

On a different level I’ve heard Tom Bloxham of Urban Splash talk a lot in recent months about a brand led approach to property. His vision is a focus on space, choice and diversity, not just the number of beds in a home. He rightly argues that homes should not be valued and sold on the number of bedrooms, but the actual floor space a house has. His latest HoUSe offer blends contemporary design-led homes, which are innovative in their construction, and offer a new car style ‘options’ approach to making your home suit your needs and aspirations. Customer choice and flexibility is the central focus.

Urban Splash_HoUSeThe Urban Splash HoUSe concept.

The office world, or “workplace” as it’s now referred to, sees a strong resistance by many companies from the bland, grey corporate environment. Leaders like Google and Facebook have offices which are uber cool, creative and collaborative environments, underpinned by a primary focus on people interacting, sharing ideas and working together, rather than sitting at a desk and working in relative isolation or using corporate meeting rooms to interact. “Collaboration” is what it’s all about and the industry leaders in this new approach are influencing the full spectrum of business now.

Google Workplace3Google Campus Dublin.

The use of buildings and spaces are now about creating character and identity, by making them diverse and flexible in their offer and giving people a strong reason to be there.

So what’s the big deal? The seismic shift in how the property industry is approaching new buildings is that the focus is firmly on creating ‘buildings for people’ and places with ‘character and identity’, this isn’t just talk now, it’s real. It’s an obvious thing to say, but actually I think ten years ago that focus was really lost. Buildings were more about money than people.

Now there is a distinct connection between people and the environment creating long-term sustainable buildings which in turn creates value.

The ‘bubble’ of MIPIM

My blogs been quiet for a while. I’ve been really busy with various new projects, both in our Residential and Student Living sectors. Our Student Living port-folio is growing rapidly now with live projects in London and Oxford at present. Other schemes in Coventry, Sheffield, Brighton and Nottingham are in the pipeline and well developed. I’ve also been developing a new strategy in terms of our ‘New Business’ work (Marketing and Business Development). It’s been a pretty positive journey over the last twelve months.

Last week I was over in Cannes for the annual MIPIM conference. This was my fourth consecutive year and I was joined by Board Director Jason Ainsworth, who hadn’t been before.

It’s been interesting seeing the atmosphere change at MIPIM over recent years. This year was electric; there is no doubt that the property market is booming in the UK and confidence is high at present. Of the 22,000 delegates this year, over 5000 were from the UK.

Palais Des Festivals Cannes

We attended a wide range of events and meetings across the week. From these we have a lot of new contacts and opportunities to pursue. We met some great new people, and saw many known contacts too which was equally useful in terms of catching up. Business is all about people and relationships. MIPIM is the perfect platform to meet people and develop relationships that last.

People who haven’t been to MIPIM are still quick to mock it with comments like; “did you enjoy your week in the sun…while we were all working“. I guess you’ll never really understand it unless you experience it.

MIPIM is a whole week of constant networking. That involves eating nice food and drinking coffee, wine and champagne in the sun. The location and environment creates a unique, relaxed atmosphere where people talk more openly than they would do in the relative formality of day-to-day business.

Where else could you meet with Central Government representatives, chief executives of local authorities and Housing Associations, CEO’s/ Chairs of major Development and Construction companies, leading sector property agents, the full spectrum of property related consultants and many more people in between. MIPIM is totally unique.

NLA London ModelThe new NLA London model was unveiled in the London Pavilion.

But MIPIM is intense and tiring. It takes a certain sort of person to be able to do it and you need to be thinking all the time about how you and your company can relate to the people and opportunities you are discussing. You also have to remember a lot and make sure you record what’s been discussed to follow up on. You need to be on top of your game; inside knowledge and contacts are what you need to have.

It also involves being on your feet all week! I have a Jawbone activity tracker. Last week I walked 55 miles and had an average of 5 hours sleep each night. That’s no holiday!

In terms of investment, is it worth it? In my view; Yes. If you host a table of 10 at a property dinner in the UK, you’d pay £1500-2000, for around 3-4 hours of networking. MIPIM is a full week of this and significantly cheaper to be at by comparison. I was invited to a breakfast, lunch and dinner everyday + other events and meetings in between.

The end of last week was a real highlight for me as we were invited to a private BBQ at Tom Bloxham’s Maison Bulle (Bubble House) in the mountains.

A few years ago I met Tom Bloxham from Urban Splash at MIPIM. I knew any business relationship with Tom would take a while to develop and I’d need to do something significant to attract any attention from him. In the second half of 2014 I had various meetings with Tom and introduced him to some of our developer and investor clients who I thought could work with Urban Splash. This has been a really positive process, with a unique and very real opportunity currently emerging from this dialogue. It’s been good to get to know Tom and gain an insight into the incredible Urban Splash story (which Tom tells very well!).

Back to the house; Antii Lovag was the creator the the Bubble House concept; it’s a series of interconnecting concrete dome structures, with circular punctures creating doors and windows. Other than the floor, there are very few flat surfaces in the house. The house also fuses with the rugged rocky landscape. Large rocks puncture the house internally and externally, so the ultra modern smooth domes wrap around the surface of the mountain and contrast with the rough texture of the rocks, both are the same colour. Water is present throughout too; internally the main dome has a water feature/ pool with bridges over it. Externally a large infinity swimming pool and an even larger cold water lake surround the house.

One of Lovag’s more commonly known houses was built for the French Fashion designer Pierre Cardin (see image below), but Toms house is where is all began and indeed where Lovag lived (in a small domed annex house in the grounds) until he passed away last year.

Maison Bulle Teoule-sur-Mer

Toms house in France is shrouded in secrecy. Very few photos are in the public domain and Tom rightly wants to keep it that way (so no photos here I’m afraid). The house was incomplete when Tom bought it. Over the years he has completed the house, working with Lovag, but also making his own mark from his Urban Splash experiences. The building seems to stay true to the spirit of the original designs, but has a contemporary twist in places. It also has an Urban Splash feel. It’s a hugely successful synergy.

The house was an incredible experience. I’ve never seen anything like it and it inspired me as an Architect. It’s is proof that anything is possible (or “Tout est Possible” as Lovag would say).

So back to Blighty. It was cold and slightly foggy as I headed back into London today. There are lots of follow-up’s to do now from last week – and that is the really important bit in terms of getting real value from MIPIM.

The MIPIM bubble has burst for another year, but the work from it will continue for sometime…

Buildings of Birmingham. Breaking down the Concrete.

Firstly welcome to my new-look blog site. I decided it was time for a fresh image.

Last week I was invited to speak at an FBE/ FFT Breakfast event in Birmingham. My talk was on ‘The Art of Business Development’; I was asked to do it following a blog I posted back in February (click here to see it). I enjoyed the event last week and had some great feedback after it, which I really wasn’t expecting. Whilst there, I was asked if I had blogged about Birmingham. It occurred to me that the only Birmingham based blog I have done to date was on the new Library (click here to see it). So here are my thoughts on the modern Buildings of Birmingham…

I have to confess I have always struggled to like Birmingham. I can’t really put my finger on what it is, but the City doesn’t appeal to me as much as others (London, Nottingham, Manchester etc). Birmingham was heavily bombed in the second world war, meaning a lot of new development occurred in the 50’ and 60’s; a period defined by concrete structures, with roads dominating and forming very hard divides/ edges.

A few years ago I went to a drinks party at Marco Pierre White’s at the top of the Cube. The panoramic views of the city from the top are quite good. However, what this experience really demonstrated was how fragmented the city is; nice pockets, closely bounded by really run-down parts. This is a general theme of Birmingham in my view and perhaps this is why I don’t like it as much. The urban grain of the city doesn’t seem to flow.

On a more positive note, Birmingham does seem to have created a bit of a niche for creating bold, contemporary buildings, these help define its character. Most of these buildings challenge the norm of modern architecture. The story starts in the new millennium and here’s six contemporary buildings which are starting to change Birmingham’s concrete image.

In 2000, The Mailbox was opened; the site was formerly occupied by the Royal Mail Birmingham sorting office. The open-air luxury brand shopping mall has hotels and offices above, as well as the BBC Midlands HQ; a genuine mixed-use development. However whenever I’ve been over the years, the red-fronted mall lacks life and feels more like a ‘route through’, than a ‘destination’.

Birmingham Mailbox

2003 saw the Bullring redevelopment, which included the new £60m Selfridges building; a morphic like, largely windowless building, decorated with domed silver discs. It was certainly bold in its time, and seems to have aged reasonably well. Also the Grade II listed Rotunda building was reinvented by Urban Splash, converting it from offices to Residential.

Selfridges Bullring

In the same year No. 10 Holloway Circus became the City’s latest (and tallest) building. Designed and built by the same teams as Manchester’s Beetham tower, it takes on a similar aesthetic of predominately glass, with vertical ‘tiger stripes’. However this building is very one-sided and seems to get a little lost in the skyline; it certainly doesn’t provide a focal point like Manchester’s version.

No 10 Holloway Circus

The Cube was built more recently, opening in 2010. The 25-storey building is a substantial block, albeit a portion of it is hollow in the centre. The metallic ‘Tetris’ looking cladding doesn’t appeal to me, but again it’s certainly a noticeable building.

The Cube Birmingham

The Library building, by contrast to the others in my view, is a huge success. A truly great example of contemporary architecture; both in its look and use. I think we will see more of these multi-layer buildings emerge in the future.


The latest building(s) to emerge in the City is the New Street Station redevelopment (or Gateway Plus), incorporating the old Pallasades Shopping centre, with a new-build John Lewis department store as well. It seems to take cues from the other Birmingham buildings I’ve mentioned here, with curves, glass and stainless steel cladding forming the look. It’s still in construction, but I’m not convinced yet from what I’ve seen to date.

Birmingham New Street Station

Manchester remains my ‘second City’ of the UK and a real favourite in terms of architecture and a city. It has also reinvented itself incredibly well from its heavy industrial revolution period.

I do applaud Birmingham for recognising the importance of architecture in defining the City. Perhaps the post-war legacy issues of Birmingham are so substantial that it will take many years to re-connect the urban fabric into a cohesive experience. Continuing to break down the depressing 50’s and 60’s concrete will redefine Birmingham’s image.

High quality individual buildings are really important for Cities, but so too are the bits between them.


RIBA Stirling Awards 2013. The Shortlist

I have recently watched the BBC News documentary on the RIBA Stirling prize shortlist for 2013. Its worth a watch – and can be found on BBC iPlayer.

“The UK’s most important architecture award is not merely a beauty pageant; the judges look for original, imaginative and well executed designs, which excellently meet the needs of their users. The shortlisted and winning buildings reveal the pinnacle of current architectural talent – buildings that on all fronts and in every detail inspire those who use and meet them.” RIBA Stirling Awards Website

This years shortlist consists of the following;

1. Astley Castle. A modern intervention to form a holiday home within a medieval castle/ scheduled ancient monument. The dilapidated ruin, of which the UK has many, faced an uncertain future, but the innovative idea of creating a ‘new chapter’ for this structure is an interesting concept. However a building which presumably was open to the public has now taken on a more private use – is this the right thing to do with a building of such historic importance?

2. Bishop King Edward Chapel
. The brief was to create a contemplative and prayerful environment. The chosen design was conceived as elliptical boat-like structure within the Oxfordshire countryside. The architecture is simple, modern, bright and light. An uplifting interior has been formed which certainly provides the ‘wow’ factor according to its users. I think this is a sensitive and positive interpretation on creating a modern place of worship, which is always a difficult thing to achieve I believe.

Bishops king edward chapel
3. Giants Causeway Visitors Centre.
Certainly a building which blends into its environment. It only really has two part-elevations as the structure is submersed into the ground. However the visible external elements are clad in Basalt rock (to match its context). Internally it is very efficient in its energy usage via various sustainable systems employed. The interior is rather organic in its planning, “there is no set route through the building”; its open to user interpretation. Clearly a very public building, and a well recieved one it would seem at that.

Giant’s Causeway Visitor Centre
4. Newhall Be
. A new concept in greenfield high density living. Or is it? These black timber-clad boxes promote big windows and open plan internal/ external spaces for the modern needs of housing. However, this scheme is just one part of an extensive ‘new thinking’ residential development in Harlow, Essex. Around ten years ago I visited the recently built Proctor Matthews development called Abode. This was one of the first phases on this site at Newhall. In my opinion the Abode scheme is far more successful than Newhall Be as a modern interpretation of ‘the housing estate’.

newhall be
5. Park Hill
. A huge project on the top of a hill in central Sheffield. An iconic concept of ‘new living and streets in the skies’, when first built in the late 1950’s, It’s design was inspired by Le Corbsier, but it suffered social decline and dilapidation over the years. Urban Splash have delivered a very positive conversion of the scheme to create high density living which enjoys two-storey dwellings, with large open-plan living and big window views out. Commercial uses have also been introduced at ground floor. I have seen this project emerge over recent years and have the utmost respect for Tom and Jonny in their work. You have to admire this project, if only for its sheer scale!

Park Hill
6. University of Limerick Medical School. The second Irish project in the mix. This is good design, delivered to a budget. Exposed materials internally create spaces which are flexible, but perhaps appear too basic? A new academic building is the main event, whilst three residential blocks (student living) surround it. I think this image sells it best, but otherwise it doesn’t seem to stand out?

Uni Limerick Medical SchoolSo my vote? Park Hill by Urban Splash.

The winner will be announced on Thursday this week at a ceremony which wont be televised for some reason? The judges this year are;

Sheila O’Donnell – architect, O’Donnell + Tuomey
Paul Williams – architect, Stanton Williams and winner of the 2012 RIBA Stirling Prize
Stephen Hodder – architect and RIBA President
Dame Vivien Duffield – philanthropist and Chair of the Clore Duffield Foundation
Tom Dykchoff – journalist and broadcaster

Common Themes from this years shortlist are;

  • Modesty, Harmony, Make do and mend.
  • Exposed materials internally dominate (concrete/ stone/ brick/ blockwork etc.)
  • Natural Light features highly in all buildings through large windows/ openings.

Do these six buildings represent the ‘cream of 2013’, I’m not so sure personally. I think there are others which should perhaps be in there.

In the BBC programme, David Sillito concludes his documentary by asking the following questions of the buildings;

Does it work?
Does it lift the spirit or corrode the soul?

I think these points are valid. In a world where “austere” has become somewhat of the norm over recent years, the challenges facing architects are ever-increasing. ‘Signature designs’ are perhaps becoming a minority. A much stronger focus on form/ function and user experience are without doubt the most important factors in achieving the best quality contemporary architecture.

So whats ahead? I think we are seeing an emergence of what I’d call ‘layered’ buildings. These are buildings which have a highly insulated functional envelope, but are then over-clad in a further layer of decorative external facade, this offers aesthetic and functional benefits. An example would be Mecanoo’s new Birmingham Library.