From The Oval Office

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Office developers are learning new words and new ways to work, as they try to fit into a changing market. David Thame talks to Oval Real Estate Co-founder, James Craig, about car parks, office blocks and reactivation. 

Property developers are not what they used to be, if what they used to be was leathery-skinned deal-makers plonking down office blocks without a thought for local feeling. 

These days, most developers would die of shame if they thought they were ignoring local context. The words ‘sense of place’ and ‘respect for history’ trip off their tongues with the ease that ‘net initial yield’ and ‘full-repairing and insuring lease’ did for their predecessors. 

Among those leading this transformation of the office property world and, in the process, turning it into a sophisticated upcycling and re-activation tool, is Oval Real Estate Co-founder James Craig. 

Oval is typical of the new breed, and a name to watch. Formed in 2013 by James and Nick Prior, with backing from institutional investors, Mayfair-based Oval mix old-fashioned asset management with the creation of bespoke property portfolios to suit their clients’ needs (the latest is 27 Job Centres, which will provide the new owner with a nice but niche medium-term income). But they also do funky office development – and it is fascinating. 

‘We’ve been looking at schemes around the UK with the aim of repurposing buildings,’ James explains. ‘A good example is multi-storey car parks. 

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‘The second building I ever built in Birmingham was a car park on the Hagley Road, and about 18 months ago I was at a meeting in an office on the Hagley Road and looked out of the window and saw the car park being pulled down. So I went away and asked the architects, ‘Is it possible to build multi-storey car parks in such a way that we can repurpose them? Can we take the slabs out, remove the ramps, maybe create event space on the roof?’ 

James has the justly-famous Peckham Levels in mind. The inspiring 197,000 sq ft south London venue, comprising seven levels of multi-storey car parking, has been redeveloped by Make Shift, the socially conscious property development business. Carl Turner Architects crafted part of the 197,000 sq ft building into stunning workspace. 

According to James, the lessons he’s learning about multi-storey re-use could and should be learned more widely. Rather than build to demolish, why not build to re-use? 

‘Radical interventions can bring older buildings back to life, but new development today needs to give the possibility of life beyond the building’s first purpose. So, for instance, in Birmingham we own a building called The Bond. During its life it has been four things: a bonded warehouse, an ice house, the factory where HP Sauce was made, and now it is offices. Four different uses in what has always been a great building, and that kind of constant repurposing is a great thing,’ James says. 

James is trialling many of his ideas in the city where, since 2017, Oval has been accumulating a 15-acre portfolio of land and buildings in the rapidly gentrifying Digbeth area. This is a neighbourhood with substantial long-term potential, sitting as it does on the doorstep of the Birmingham Curzon Street HS2 train station. 

‘We see no reason to invest in London, and lots of reasons to invest in Birmingham. Office occupancy in Birmingham is among the best I’ve known in my career, and when office buildings in Birmingham have struggled it is because they delivered the wrong product,’ James insists. 

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‘What people want is changing, and it is happening so fast as a function of technology, changing working patterns and gender in the workplace. There are so many parts to this and the property industry’s job is to make sure we don’t price people out of Birmingham workspace. That is a responsibility of development – to make sure Birmingham’s affordability continues, so that Birmingham can attract a wide spread of people,” James considers. 

Rapid change always causes tensions, and it can easily end up destroying neighbourhoods. Gentrification is notoriously guilty of erasing the very local peculiarities that drew people to the area in the first place. 

According to James, sensible developers need not pose a risk. ‘We all know how change can bring value for some people, and stress for others, and we know there is a lot of responsibility. We see Digbeth as an antidote to the city centre – it is absolutely the antithesis of everything you find on Broad Street and at Brindleyplace. It is a very different part of the city. As landlord to 500 tenants in Digbeth, ranging from international design agencies through to someone who makes sculptures out of old taxis, we’re very conscious of that eclectic tenant mix, and it brings a grain to what we do and will inform how we work in Digbeth over the next 10-15 years.’ 

James is refurbishing the Digbeth portfolio step by step. The latest project is the office conversion of the 13,000 sq ft Portland House, Floodgate Street. It comes as work nears completion at the Wilds, an 11,000 sq ft warehouse now ready as workspace or collaborative floorspace, which is due this summer, and the 8,000 sq ft Floodgate Factories, currently being ‘reactivated’ as studios. 

James insists that going with the grain is the only way to make sense of the neighbourhood and the buildings. The sense that Oval is a custodian, rather than a mere landlord, is very powerful and reminiscent of the landed estates that control so much of central London. This brings the stability needed if changing a building’s purpose is to be sustainable. 

‘Gentrification should not be at the expense of locals, and we shouldn’t get too expensive so it threatens tenants who have been there for a long time,’ James concludes. ‘I feel those responsibilities very acutely in Digbeth. Some of our business tenants have been there for 25 years, since the days when most people wouldn’t go to Digbeth for love nor money.’ 

Cherish the past, but look to the future? With more office developers like Oval entering the market, this could soon be the motto of the UK workspace scene.

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