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Transformation in The Times, Saturday 7 April 2012

It was great to read Marcus Binney’s piece about Urban Splash in The Times this week.

He was very complimentary about us after reading our book Transformation, of which we sent him a preview copy.

You can read the article below:

When it comes to rescuing the great industrial landmarks of the past, Urban Splash is in a class of its own. It has tackled Fort Dunlop in Birmingham, familiar to every motorist on the M6, the Victorian Manningham Mills standing proudly on the skyline at Bradford, and the great limestone and granite warehouses of the Royal William Victualing Yard which has views up Plymouth Sound.

These vast buildings were standing empty and decaying before Tom Bloxham and his partner Jonathan Falkingham transformed them into hundreds of smart apartments with modern kitchens and bathrooms.

In a new book Transformation: Urban Splash they are candid about their (near) failures as well as successes. Bloxham explains: “I came to Manchester aged 19 to study politics. To earn some cash I started selling posters in the Student Union. But when I wanted a shop I found no one was interested in people like me. So I rented a unit in an indoor market. Then I took a couple of floors in Oldham Street and ended up earning more money by sub-letting space than by selling posters.”

He began with a watering hole, the Baa Bar in Liverpool’s derelict Roperies and went on to transform seedy streets of old warehouses with Liverpool’s first pavement cafes.

Falkingham adds: “Loft apartments had been given great exposure through Hollywood blockbusters like Bladerunner alongside ads such as the Halifax’s ‘Easy like Sunday morning’.”

Together they set about selling a lifestyle based on “the raw architecture of exposed Victorian brick walls, ornate stone window surrounds, heavily detailed cast-iron windows, complemented with minimal well-designed interiors”.

Next it was Manchester. Bloxham says: “When we started, mills and warehouses were being demolished to provide surface car parking on the simplistic premise that this was the only viable thing to do. These great buildings were simply not valued economically or in heritage terms.” They took on the Smithfield Building, formerly the Affleck & Brown department store known as the “Harrods of the North”, and transformed it into 81 loft apartments and 21 retail units.

The key to their success was to work with the Government regional development agencies which had funds for regeneration and enabled them to tackle very large buildings.

The Royal William Yard had been entrusted to a development corporation which could not grasp that people would queue up to live in apartments in grand Regency warehouses with sea views. Valuable time was wasted in fighting English Heritage over the colour of the slates to be used for reroofing, and trying to create a discount retail outlet even though the yard was as far from the motorway as you can be in Plymouth.

Bloxham was called in as a last resort. He says: “My first thought was that these were anything but problem buildings. I could certainly have shown them some real ones in Manchester.” The first set of apartments to go on sale all sold off plan in a weekend. Photographed across a sparkling blue sea, the Royal William Yard looked as ravishing as Venice.

Manningham Mills in Bradford looked a lost cause after the Bradford riots of 2001 ravaged nearby streets. But Urban Splash was not deterred and set about creating 300 apartments. When the mills were completed in the 1860s the directors had sat down for dinner in the top of the campanile-style chimney.

Now the architect David Morley has created futuristic aluminium-clad penthouses on the roof. “The idea is to take advantage of views over the city to the hills beyond and to transform the building into a beacon visible from afar,” Morley says. But though many apartments are now occupied the pods have been caught by the recession and await a fit-out.

Bloxham reflects: “We’ve had to suffer setbacks, been unable to save some of the buildings we wanted to save, and probably came within a whisper of going bust after the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the banking crisis that followed.”

It’s all a matter of timing. With the Royal William Yard, Urban Splash hit a rising market. By contrast, says Bloxham, Oliver Hill’s famous Midland Hotel in Morecambe “was a bad financial move for us, we finished it just as the recession kicked in”. But it’s open and operating and “seaside chic is back in vogue,” Bloxham says.

Another bold venture was to take on 350 derelict “Coronation Street” houses in Salford, now transformed into Chimney Pot Park by shedkm architects. Bloxham explains: “The back alleys were a real problem. So we inverted the layout, putting living rooms on the first floor open to the roof timbers, and creating garden decks over the back alleys with parking beneath.”

In the present market apartments are becoming harder to sell. “People are more mobile, and change their jobs more often,” Bloxham says. “Stamp duty is rising and so they are more likely to rent. The UK lettings market is very unsophisticated, dominated by individuals running buy-to-lets part-time. It was the same with student letting but just as that has attracted professionalism we want to lead on lets.”

He believes that the next opportunity will be in improving “unloved and unpopular housing estates” such as the notorious Modernist estate at Park Hill in Sheffield.

They have led the way with towers of ex-council flats, three in Manchester and two in Leeds. “They were unloved and stigmatised but structurally sound, on the edge of the city with great views. First-time buyers had been priced out of the city centre and we were able to bring back affordability,” Falkingham says. Bloxham adds: “I learnt early on in life the only way I’d make a success of myself was to surround myself with people cleverer and wiser than me.”

Nonetheless, the boldness is his, matched by an ability to imagine the finished product and to sell the dream to others.

Read the full article on The Times’ website (requires subscription)

Transformation is available in bookshops now and you can order your copy directly from RIBA.

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