Crispin Kelly: Baylight Properties Founder on Developing Commercial Real Estate in London

Crispin Kelly

Crispin Kelly is a man on a mission…

To prove that superb architecture is a vital part of commercial real estate development.

Since launching Baylight Properties 30 years ago, he’s focused on multifamily and office developments in central London.

But an enthusiasm for suburban living has also seen him develop housing in low density areas of England.

Outside of his commercial work, Crispin champions the importance of architecture through his charity, the Baylight Foundation.

He also chairs the trustee boards at Open City and the London School of Architecture.

But while Crispin often talks publically about architecture, he rarely discusses the commercial aspects of his operation.

In today’s episode, he does just that.

Listen now (or read the transcript below) and you’ll discover…

  • Why he prefers to buy and hold (rather than sell) his completed properties.
  • Where he finds properties to buy.
  • How he closes deals.
  • How he funds his developments.
  • Where he sources finance.
  • How he manages his properties.
  • What profit margin he targets.
  • And MUCH more.

Liked this interview with Crispin? Don’t miss upcoming talks with the world’s best developers – subscribe to my free email newsletter.

Interview transcript:

[Tim Benjamin] Hi, there. You’re listening to the Floorplate podcast.

I’m Tim Benjamin, a commercial property developer based in London.

Floorplate is where the commercial real estate developers who are getting it right, share with you what they’re doing.

And how they’re making money along the way.

You’ll also hear from the switched-on tenants, advisors and thought leaders were bringing fresh ideas to commercial property.

Joining me on today’s show is London developer, Crispin Kelly.

Crispin is the founder of Baylight Properties.

Having started in the early 1980s, he’s developed offices, houses and apartments across central London, as well as in suburban neighbourhoods outside the Greater London area.

While these developments come in a wide range of shapes and sizes, one thing that ties them together is an emphasis on outstanding architecture.

In fact, the Architectural Review says “Crispin Kelly is almost certainly the housing developer with the best architectural taste in Britain”.

In today’s conversation, Crispin reveals the story of how he got started.

And the steps he’s taken to grow Baylight into one of the UK’s most admired property development businesses.

I started our conversation by asking Crispin to explain what first attracted him to property development.

[Crispin Kelly] I originally studied history at university.

And when I left university, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do.

I wrote fiction for a few years but didn’t really enjoy that.

And I didn’t like being on my own.

But during that process I bought a flat which I renovated myself.

And I really enjoyed that.

Especially working with my hands.

It was such a stark contrast to sitting at my desk writing.

I didn’t officially decide to give up writing.

But I thought I’d do another property renovation.

And that’s what started me off.

[Tim] What was it about working with your hands that you found so enjoyable?

[Crispin] I think it was seeing changes happen.

And seeing things happen that were useful.

So for example, I built a kitchen out of old wardrobe fronts.

These belonged to Edwardian wardrobes that were being thrown out.

It seemed very cool to be making those kind of changes that were going to be useful.

And look great.

So it was the experience of changing space.

And making things that would be used.

That’s what set me off on this path.

[Tim] Was there a family history of doing building works or construction or architectural design?

Or were you the first?

[Crispin] I was the first. There was no history in my family of that.

[Tim] And what did they think of you getting into architecture and buildings?

[Crispin] They were very relaxed about it.

I’m one of eight children.

And my parents always felt we should follow whatever we wanted to do on the basis that if nothing happened, we could change to do something else.

So, yeah, I think they were happy to run with it.

[Tim] So you studied architecture in London. What happened when you graduated?

[Crispin] The first property I purchased was a short leasehold house that I bought with money that my godfather had left me.

It wasn’t a lot of money.

It was 12 thousand pounds.

But this was in 1980 when you could buy a short leasehold house with that sort of money.

The lease had seven years left to run.

But I discovered that if you lived in it for three years, you could use the Leasehold Reform Acts to ‘enfranchise’ which was a process that allowed you to buy the freehold.

‘Enfranchising’ required you to pay a premium to the freeholder in order to buy the freehold.

But I thought it was a great way of making money.

And so I started looking for other short leasehold houses that were enfranchisable.

And over the next year or two, I did a few more.

Obviously I wasn’t living in them myself – but I found them for other people

As a result of these early projects, I just sort of slid into property development.

Usually by doing up flats and houses.

It wasn’t for another four years or so that I decided that I’d like to take the design side of this further by qualifying as an architect.

So I went to architecture school aged 29.

That was a great age to become a student again as I felt I knew what was going on in the world by the time I went to architecture school.

[Tim] Why did you decide to go to architecture school, given that you already had quite a lot of property development experience under your belt?

[Crispin] I didn’t just want to be focused on making money.

I wanted to preserve my soul.

And I found the world of architecture and design was attractive.

It was more about art.

On one of my projects, I had worked with an architect who’d been at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London (AA).

And he was a very cool guy.

And he had a very cool office.

And he liked strong coffee.

And I decided that I wanted to be in this world, too.

So I took the plunge.

And it was a good decision.

[Tim] And how many years were you studying architecture?

[Crispin] I did both Part One and Part Two at the AA.

I took a year out between the first three years and the second two years.

So I did all that.

[Tim] So you graduate – what happens next?

[Crispin] By the time I started at the AA, I’d also started developing my business more by doing some commercial projects.

This involved buying things like small industrial buildings and converting them into offices.

At the time, the Use Classes Order was being reformed by Margaret Thatcher.

And it was being opened so that offices and design studios were becoming more flexible.

People were starting to use computers.

And so an advertising agency designing logos could work in one of these spaces.

So it was a new kind of use class that we were designing developments for.

These offices were typically fashioned from airy, odd shaped rooms with high ceilings.

And I continued to do that while I was a student at the AA.

By the time I left the AA, I was getting involved in some quite big projects with people who’d been teaching at the AA.

For example, Alan Stanton of Stanton Williams had taught there.

And we worked together on a big project in Chelsea.

And so that was on the go as I was graduating from the AA.

So I was always running my business at the same time as being a student.

[Tim] At this time, you picked up a lot of skills thanks to your formal study of architecture. But how did you develop your commercial skills?

[Crispin] I think it was the school of hard knocks.

I started at a very good time in 1982, just as a very severe recession was ending.

So the market was slowly growing.

But I’d always been super cautious because the scars of that were all around me.

And I think the basic lesson that I learned from my dad was to always have some income – as soon as you can – to support the business through hard times.

So the model was really always to keep something of a development and rent it.

In other words, sell as little as possible.

And keep as much as possible.

And rent what you keep.

And then refinance on a long-term basis.

And that’s been pretty unchanged throughout my business life.

[Tim] When you mention your father, how influential was he in terms of forming your own understanding of commercial concepts?

[Crispin] He was a banker.

And he had a great affinity for how finance and property went together.

He’d done a bit of buying property himself with his bonuses.

So he was able to share that with me.

But the days when he was doing it, the financing was slightly different.

A lot of funding was coming from insurance companies like Eagle Star.

So very long term funding.

Like 25 years at a fixed rate.

But the concept of fixed outgoings – and income to cover them – was something that I learned from him.

[Tim] And that remains the bedrock of your business model today?

[Crispin] I think so.

Although it’s very boring, it’s kind of reassuring.

Although you never quite know how solid income is – as we are seeing today with the COVID pandemic – there is something about property as a producer of income which is, in general, quite reliable.

[Tim] I want to get on to the establishment of Baylight.

Was there a point where you move from simply being you doing the odd project here and there to formal establishment of the business?

Or were you trading as Baylight from the get-go?

[Crispin] I did my first flat in my own name, which was my home.

And then after that, I established Baylight.

It was a company that was bought off the shelf.

It was set up by the accountant I was using who was a brilliant guy called Jeffrey Lent, who sort of held my hand through a lot of the ups and downs that we went through.

But yeah, it was an off-the-shelf company.

Operating via a company structure always appeared to me to be the way to do things because of the terror of personal guarantee.

It works as a vehicle to stop the banks taking everything you have.

So I was always keen to work in a company.

[Tim] Thinking about Baylight today, what is the geographic focus of the business?

[Crispin] I think to say there was a focus would be an exaggeration.

But because I have been based in London for most of my life, most of our projects are in London.

But they have not all been in London.

We have done projects around Wiltshire, Berkshire and Essex.

And they’ve usually been housing projects.

We also have a significant project just north of Chesterfield in Derbyshire.

So the locations we’ve developed in have been reactions to opportunities rather than a plan focused on specific geographic areas.

What they all have in common is that they have been few enough for me to be able to be involved with them.

The strongest thread connecting each of my projects is that I’ve felt I wanted to go to each place to do the projects, rather than do lots of projects in London.

Or lots of projects in a particular place.

[Tim] Is there a process you go through when you’re thinking about where to undertake projects?

Is there a particular reason why you’re drawn to an area for a particular project?

What drives that thinking?

[Crispin] We’ve made a few mistakes in places that we’ve decided to do a project.

For example, we did a project in Swindon, which I think was fundamentally a mistake.

We didn’t really understand Swindon as a town.

And we got stuck there for probably 10 years with the project.

I suppose I had an affinity to West London, which is where I was brought up.

And it’s an area I know very well.

So one feels comfortable there.

It’s a bit embarrassing to say, but it’s been very much about opportunities that have come across my desk and I’ve said, yeah, that looks interesting.

So it’s been a sort of hybrid of things in the area that I know well plus opportunities I thought looked interesting that have driven me further from those areas.

[Tim] Thinking about the word ‘interesting’, what for you, represents interesting?

What sort of things are you looking for?

[Crispin] We’re always keen to make money.

So I think it would be untrue to say that something that looks incredibly attractive, would not be interesting to us in quite a wide range of geographies.

But I think if we were being sort of more analytical, we would always say that we wanted to add something to it through our interest in design.

And the last few years, we’ve been particularly interested in what makes a good home.

So if we were offered a warehousing scheme, that would have to meet the first criteria – and very clearly – before we would get involved.

And if we were offered an experiment in modular construction, we might be interested because it may be a project where we could add value.

It’s not a very scientific process.

But I think those are the main things.

[Tim] I just want to come back to that concept of making money.

As you say, that’s pretty key with most of the projects you undertake.

Are there any particular metrics or hurdles that have to be met in order for you to press the go button?

[Crispin] I think all developers are the same:

They do an appraisal.

And, in some way, they’ve got to shape it so that they’re going to make 20%.

But I think it’s such a guess.

There are so many variables that often your heart is sort of saying, ‘well, I think the sales could be a bit better’ or ‘the costing could be a bit lower’.

That’s if you’re really keen to do it.

We try to do projects where the margin is much bigger than that.

So, if we’re trying to justify the deal, I don’t think we should be doing it.

We want to see a real big margin that’s going to protect us when things go wrong.

[Tim] Can you talk to the significance of the architectural idea in terms of what you do as a business?

[Crispin] Maybe saying it’s an architectural idea is not exactly what has guided us for most of our time.

I think it’s working with architects who we respect and think are good that has been the main driver.

And they have been people I’ve mainly met through my involvement with the Architecture Association after I left – as well as while I was there.

And then continuing through visiting other schools, being a critic and writing about architecture.

So just being in the culture of architectural education.

We’ve liked to use architects who have not been particularly mainstream.

Usually who have been emerging practices.

And who care.

For most of our time, that’s been the first thing.

I think more recently, probably in the last 10 years, we’ve become increasingly interested in the house or flat as a home.

And I suppose there’s been a wider cultural input into that.

And it’s not necessarily architects who know most about that.

I think it’s probably true to say that we’ve been exploring ourselves more those issues with our own research.

And a wider area of reading and talking about the home.

[Tim] That’s interesting because when one looks at the properties you’ve developed, there’s a broad range of different kinds of properties.

Do you want to give me a flavour of the sorts of things you’ve worked on since you formed the business?

[Crispin] We started with a flat – my own home.

And I’ve continued to be very interested in homes.

We did a project in the late 90s called the Piper Building in Fulham.

And that was North Thames Gas’ headquarters.

It was built as a multi-storey warehouse.

And when we bought it, a housing association had agreed to buy it, but was going to knock it down.

The building was over 200,000 square feet.

And I thought it was terrible waste to knock it down and build a row of houses or whatever it was that they were going to do.

So we looked with Lifschutz Davidson at refurbishing the existing building.

And the great thing about it was that each floor was four metres high.

That meant it was a 10-storey building with five floors.

So, we were able to do mezzanines in the flats, which were on the first floor and above.

It was a time when Manhattan lofts have just started.

And the whole kind of loft living thing was beginning.

We had a building that was a 1960s monstrosity.

But it had double height.

It was a rather amazing thing.

And on the outside of what North Thames Gas had as their exhibition hall, there were a series of murals by John Piper which were supposed to express the spirit of energy in a sort of modernist vocabulary.

So I thought that was a great project.

And following what we were saying earlier about retaining ownership of as much of your property as possible, we kept about 100,000 square feet of ground floor space and let it.

Meanwhile, we sold most of the flats.

That was 20 years ago.

More recently, we’ve taken back some of the commercial space and converted it into 20 flats.

Meanwhile, we continue to look at opportunities in the general area there.

And we’re going to propose other developments there.

[Tim] What attracts you to residential over other forms of development like office space?

[Crispin] Well, we did do quite a lot of office developments.

And we did have quite a lot of funding.

For example, we did the headquarters of M&C Saatchi on Golden Square.

We did the headquarters of Leo Burnett in Sloane Avenue.

Those were buildings of between 40,000 and 80,000 square feet.

So they were quite big office buildings.

Our rule there was we were doing it with a good architect.

And we were working with the tenant to deliver what they wanted.

And then we sold the investment to an institutional landlord.

Although it was very interesting producing things like exposed ceilings and visible air columns – things which were novel at the time – I just felt it didn’t have a lot of humanity in it compared to thinking about how people were living.

So I became less interested in it.

And we did some smaller buildings which were more like shared workspaces which have obviously become very big now.

I just felt it was blending too much the different experiences of life.

The whole thing of groovy officers was making offices more like hotels or homes.

And I felt that was a sad thing.

I’m quite keen to see the different places stay different.

If you go to a WeWork, it’s all about sofas and pool tables.

But those kind of workspaces seem to me to be a sad development as they amalgamate all experiences into one place.

[Tim] Why do you say sad?

[Crispin] Because I think that the experiences are more interesting when they’re distinct.

They’re richer when they’re distinct.

I kind of feel that when you go into one of those co-working spaces, it becomes very bland.

You can’t really concentrate on anything.

You don’t get a strong impression of anything.

It’s sort of all whizzed up.

Although my son, who works in such a space, would think I was very old fashioned.

[Tim] I want to get back to your point about architects.

You said that you typically work with under-the-radar architects.

What’s the thinking behind that?

[Crispin] It’s very straightforward, Tim.

The architects who are famous: you don’t have any contact with them when you’re presenting a small project – which is what I’ve been doing all my working life.

In contrast, it’s the architects who are hungry and passionate about my project that I want to work with.

I’m not interested in just having a quick sketch from The Genius – and then working with some lieutenant for the rest of the time.

So I’ve really enjoyed working with the architects that I’ve chosen.

Not with a system.

I’ve developed strong relationships with lots of different architects which I’ve really enjoyed.

[Tim] And why do you work with multiple architects?

Because obviously, at one level, it would be easier to work with one architect on all these different projects.

[Crispin] That’s a very good question.

I think I’m probably a very superficial person.

I like change.

But having said that, I often do another one or more projects with architects that I’ve used before.

So we do have a continuing relationship.

But it’s not an exclusive relationship.

I’ve just enjoyed a diversity of vision and different experiences.

So, yeah, I think I’m quite happy and shameless about always being interested in working with different architects.

It’s probably true to say there is a stable of architects who often share friendships and priorities.

They may have taught in the same school.

Or they know each other.

Or they have worked in practice together before.

So there’s often a connection between them.

Or they will have been recommended by somebody who I’ve worked with before.

I like that kind of extended family of people who are all trying to do something good.

And know each other through that passion.

[Tim] Given those relationships between the different architectural practitioners, could one say that you have something of a house style?

Or is that something you’ve deliberately avoided?

How does that work?

[Crispin] I don’t think we have a house style.

And I genuinely like different sorts of buildings.

For example, you might have an architect who is a modernist like Pierre d’Avoine, or Tony Fretton.

But I would be equally keen to work with someone who is interested in ornament.

So I don’t think there’s a house style.

Maybe I’m deluding myself – but I don’t think so.

[Tim] I’m interested to understand the process you go through to find and acquire sites.

How does that typically work?

[Crispin] I think it’s a world that’s really changed.

And become much harder for developers.

When I started, I used to buy a lot of property at auction.

The Barnard Marcus auction was a great place to go.

I used to spent hours there and – you know – seeing friends.

It was good fun – Robin Cripp on the rostrum.

Then I used to go around knocking on doors.

And I had one or two people in the office who did the same.

So we would generate our own leads.

We would talk to people who maybe owned small factories in Hammersmith, or Battersea and say are you interested in selling.

And then we would do them up as small workshops.

And then as we got more involved in that world, agents would bring us projects where they had clients who wanted to sell.

We had a reputation for doing what we would say, in terms of buying, so that we would be high on the list of people agents would recommend to their clients.

In other words, we were known as reliable buyers.

I think life has got so much harder.

If you went around knocking on doors now, they’d ask you to speak to their planning consultants.

Everyone is very savvy now about property by comparison.

Now we do things like option lands – then do like five years of work on planning protected by an option arrangement.

It’s much more difficult.

Today, we’re most likely to find out about new properties via someone coming to us and saying ‘what about this?’ rather than via us looking at a website or calling people.

[Tim] Do you think the greater level of difficulty you’ve described is a London thing – or is it a UK-wide thing?

[Crispin] I don’t know.

I would suspect London is the hottest and the most difficult.

But there are always lots of opportunities in London – it’s such a huge market.

Particularly if you’re doing something that other people haven’t really been focusing on doing.

Or you’ve got a change of use.

Or you’ve already got a tenant.

There are so many different possible structures for making money out of property.

I’m not at all of the view there is anything you can’t make money out of.

I just think 30 years ago, it was much more open.

I think the internet has made it much easier for people to compare things.

[Tim] On the subject of money, I’m interested to learn more about your process for financing developments.

Is there a way you go about doing it in terms of what kind of funding you take, when you take it, etc?

[Crispin] For the last few years, we have been developing property that we already own.

Sometimes that’s property like a car park on the edge of a site where we’re free to get planning and build.

So we effectively have the site for free.

If we don’t already own the site, we typically buy it with our own resources.

And then work up the planning.

Our experience is that it often takes five years to do that.

That’s because we’re very fickle – we’re always changing our minds and examining different scheme ideas.

Next, when we come to construction, we would normally borrow that money.

That would normally be 40 or 50% of the development value.

So that’s normally our model if we’re going to sell the product.

In that scenario, we will repay the construction loan during the sales.

We would expect the gearing not to be more than 40 or 50% on any project.

[Tim] And in terms of those construction loans, what kind of lenders would you typically go to?

[Crispin] We found Close Brothers very good for small housing developments.

We banked a long time with Lloyds.

And we’ve banked with Handelsbanken.

More recently, we’ve done investment banking with HSBC.

We’ve had long relationships with our banks, which I would say in the last five years have been very disrupted.

There’s been less an interest in the customer and more concern about the bank’s rules.

So if your needs don’t fit into the bank’s template that can be a problem.

For example, when we’re refinancing existing debt, I don’t like repaying what we’ve borrowed during the course of the loan.

That’s because I think amortisation is pointless in the sense that I’ve decided I want to borrow X.

And it’s not that I want to borrow X and repay it during the term.

I want to borrow it until the end of the term.

So I’ve liked the circa five-year term loans.

But some banks no longer offer interest-only loans.

It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been a customer – it’s just not possible anymore.

[Tim] How typically do those five year interest-only construction loans work?

[Crispin] Well, those are not normally construction loans, those are usually refinancing.

In other words, where we’ve got commercial or residential income, and we’re refinancing those after the construction.

So it might be that we’ve got a construction loan for a couple of years.

And then we refinanced that with a five year interest-only commercial loan.

[Tim] Thinking about the construction loans, for somebody who’s not aware of how they work, what’s the typical template?

[Crispin] I would say the bank is looking at lending to the customer who knows what they’re doing – who’s done it before.

That’s probably the most important thing for the bank.

And then they want to lend enough money for you to do the development.

And they want to know that you’re not going to ask them for more.

It’s not unheard of – even by us – to go back for more.

And then they want to understand how they’re going to get their money back.

They want to know that the management is decent.

And they want to know that it’s realistic.

And they want to be covering themselves about how they’re going to get out of it.

[Tim] Once the loan has been approved, what role does the bank play in overseeing the development?

[Crispin] In the old days, they didn’t have any role.

You just wrote to them on an architect’s certificate and they would send you the money.

But now, they all have a monitoring surveyor who you pay for – and who acts for the bank.

That monitoring surveyor comes to your site once a month or so.

They might come to the site meetings which I think is a good strategy because you hear all the dirty washing there.

And, yeah, you need to be getting on with them because they are approving the monthly payments to you.

I think it’s quite a good control.

The only beef I have is that you have to pay for the monitoring.

[Tim] And what happens if the bank thinks the project is moving at a slower pace than they would like?

[Crispin] I suppose they want to know that they’re not going to have to give you any more money.

I think that’s probably their primary concern.

It’s probably not so much the lateness that they’re worried about, it’s the cost overruns.

And they really don’t want you to be coming back to them for more money.

They want clarity that you’re going to be paying any cost overrun yourself.

So they might, for example, say to you, well, there’s £1 million pounds left on the facility, but the projected spend is now £1.3 million.

So we want you – the developer – to put in your £300K now – before we the bank put in another payment.

By doing so, they’re locking you in and making sure that you’re covering the extra amount.

[Tim] Thinking about the way the business is structured today, we’ve talked already about the fact that you bring in external architects, for example.

But I’m keen to understand what skills you have in-house?

[Crispin] I’m qualified as an architect.

We have another guy in the office who’s a qualified architect.

We have two surveyors, one of whom is a green surveyor.

So we do have those skills in house.

And for small projects, we often do our own design.

We also collaborate with an architect called Robin Lee, who shares our office.

So we’ve done projects with him – with varying degrees of collaboration.

On a bigger project, we’d always work with an external architect.

But we consider that we are active editors – we’re not shy about speaking up when we don’t think something is right.

Or it’s not bold enough.

Or whatever our view is.

For me, that’s the fun side of the business: going to those meetings and discussing what the possibilities are.

[Tim] When it comes to executing on a project – construction for example – do you have in-house construction skills?

Or is that something you outsource?

[Crispin] The way we typically manage a project is that one of my colleagues runs a project.

And I’ll be looking over his shoulder.

Sometimes we also appoint a project manager who’s typically a hybrid between a project manager and a cost consultant.

That person will be checking the rate at which we’re spending – if we’re not doing it through a bank, for example.

I don’t think we’re experts – it’s really hard to do a project on budget.

[Tim] Once a project is completed, what’s your process for renting or selling it?

[Crispin] Imagine a situation in which we’re building four houses for sale in Fulham.

In that scenario, we will typically have an existing relationship with a local estate agent.

And we will have talked them through the houses that we’re proposing.

We’ll often start that conversation during the planning stage.

That allows us to understand what the sales values are likely to be for the proposed houses.

In that conversation, the estate agent will tell us what kind of homes have usually sold well in that market.

And we’ll be saying we want to try something a bit different.

We will probably disagree with them about some stuff.

But eventually, when the houses are finished, that agent will be the person we will be using.

We’ve developed relationships over many years with different agents, who we trust.

Normally, our projects are quite different from the other things that are in the market in a given area.

As a result, we normally sell reasonably well – whatever the economic conditions.

There is always a hope that you get a premium for good design.

I’m not entirely convinced by that.

I don’t think it’s a big premium.

Certainly not in the mid-market where we’re normally operating.

But I find it more satisfying to develop well-designed projects.

[Tim] How do you find an agent who ‘gets’ your work?

[Crispin] Although agents are a much-maligned species, I think a lot of them can spot a great space.

It’s as simple as that.

There are agents like David Rosen at Pilcher Hirshman, who we’ve worked with for many years.

He’s really into design and modernity and so on, which I think is unusual.

But I think many agents, like the Savills office in Fulham, will be enthusiasts.

There is definitely a market for people who’re interested in a well made home.

And a home that has interesting features.

In other words, I don’t think it’s difficult to find an agent who’s enthusiastic about what we do.

We have a good relationship with agents – it works well.

[Tim] And with the properties that you retain, how do you go about managing them on a day-to-day basis?

[Crispin] As you probably know, the services you want from an agent can vary from finding you a tenant, sending out the invoices for the rent and collecting the rent.

If you want, agents can also manage the day-to-day: like fixing broken dishwashers in a residential setting.

We tend to get agents to find tenants and manage the rent.

Meanwhile, we tend to retain property maintenance in-house because it gives us a sense of how things are going with the development.

And it allows us to learn lessons about what not to do in future developments.

For example, what products or finishes are not a good idea.

Like tiling or flooring in a bathroom.

Along the way, we’ve learnt that some things are not a good idea.

In contrast to residential, commercial property is easier to manage.

So once we’ve let it, we tend to manage commercial property in-house.

In other words, once we’ve let it, we’ll manage it and send out the rental invoices ourselves.

[Tim] So you’ve got an in-house property manager?

[Crispin] We do, yeah.

[Tim] I want to move on to a discussion around some of the properties that you’ve developed.

I’d like to start with one of your developments in suburbia.

You have strong views on the virtues of suburbia, something which hasn’t always been in fashion in some circles – particularly in London.

Can you spell out what your thoughts are on suburbia – and the benefits that it potentially brings?

[Crispin] Yeah – most of London has been suburbia at some point.

London has grown from a very small core of the City.

Places that are now full of people who want to densify London are living in Islington which was originally suburbia.

The typology of a house with a garden is something that I find completely beguiling.

And immensely enriching.

So I’ve been a big proponent of houses with gardens.

And I suppose I’ve reacted, in part, to people who think that’s not what the city should be like.

In other words, people who think the city should be dense – that it should be filled with towers of flats.

I feel the independent spirit of someone living in their house with a garden – with neighbours on either side – is a great model.

And it’s a model that’s been admired throughout the 20th century by people who don’t live in England.

There have been lots of people who’ve written about housing in Britain.

Like Muthesius, who wrote ‘The English House’.

He was a massive fan – thought it was Britain’s main contribution to world culture.

So you do have an issue, if you’re an advocate of suburbia.

In other words, of the dormitory – this supposedly dead place where people live behind the curtains and so on.

I’m quite relaxed about that.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a dormitory.

If people want to have a quiet life, and not be living in an edgy, graffitied environment, that’s okay with me.

I think you probably want to live in the middle of a city when you’re young and when you’re old.

But maybe if you’ve got children and you want to have a decent school – and so on – suburbs are a good solution to that.

Likewise if you want to have a garden.

And have a Barbie.

And know your neighbours and stuff.

For me, praising suburbia is not about condemning other ways of living.

It’s just about praising that way of living.

So I’ve been very interested in it.

And one of the things that happens when you build houses is that you create an environment that’s shared in some way.

I’ve done research – visiting places that have been new typologies of spaces that you share in groups.

What I’ve discovered is that we’ve got a fantastic resource of models.

For example, at The Ryde in Hatfield, they built 29 houses and then one extra house which they share.

Or the Span experiments, like at Corner Green, where they share a small green space, which they face onto.

And they have very strict rules about how all the houses are maintained.

It’s the balance between privacy and community which I think is very interesting – both in suburbia and in developing flats in London.

So that’s always been at the heart of what interests us.

[Tim] Why do you think that’s interesting?

[Crispin] I think it’s part of what makes life kind of fun and supportable and enriching.

If you go to Port Sunlight, you see a vision of a philanthropic patriarch.

But you also see benches outside people’s houses, which are just incredibly gentle and human.

I think these are small things we can include to make life enjoyable

[Tim] At a purely commercial level, do those sorts of things actually generate additional margin?

[Crispin] I think the best answer to that depends on what your financial model is.

Like everybody, we’re interested in renting property.

I think if you’ve got a long-term interest in that property, they do add value.

That’s because if they’re successful places, people will want to rent them.

And if you can create an environment that’s slightly different from what other people are doing, I think that will reward you.

It might not reward you in higher rent.

But it might reward you in less vacancy.

[Tim] Going back to our conversation around suburbia, I’m keen to have a conversation around Sheeling Close, which is located in Aldershot in Surrey, outside of London.

Can you give me a snapshot of what Aldershot is like for people who don’t know the area?

[Crispin] Aldershot is famous for being a military town.

And because soldiers are paid very little and tend to be transient, it’s not the sort of place where you think ‘this is a great community’.

It’s got a big Gurkha community which is very different.

It’s a very tight community with their own jewellery shops and food shops and so on.

Aldershot is very close to London.

But it has always had quite low property prices.

So I thought it was an interesting place to develop.

It’s a bit like what we were discussing earlier: I didn’t know anything about it at first.

But I did want to develop a modern cul-de-sac.

And that’s what this piece of property offered as an opportunity.

Our conceit was that these were villas in a park.

We built a series of paired houses, arranged in a picturesque series of curves.

And we built one sitting room on its own for everybody to share and own together.

That was the idea: we’ll have a place that is shared, and they are going to be houses and they are going to be picturesque.

[Tim] And so did you have an idea and you were looking for a site?

Or was it the other way around: you found a site and then developed an idea?

[Crispin] We were looking for sites for small housing developments.

This was an idea we developed with Sergison Bates, the architects, as a way of doing suburban housing.

The concept paid tribute to the idea of people having their own front door, their own garden – but living in a small community at the same time.

And having a space they could share – and would have to look after together.

[Tim] How did you ensure that your idea jelled with the needs of house buyers in that area?

[Crispin] I think it’s an extremely good question.

Talking to you reminds me that we should find out how it’s getting on.

It may have been more ambitious than was warranted.

But I don’t know.

I think Eric Lyons, the Span developer, used to sit on the management board of completed developments.

That was to make sure people were doing what he thought was the right thing to do.

I’m not sure I would be up for that.

It’s difficult and delicate.

[Tim] In terms of getting the price point right for the local market, how did that work?

[Crispin] They were good value houses – they were in the ballpark of the local comparisons.

But about 5% to 10% more.

And they were very popular – we sold them very quickly.

It goes back to what I was saying before: I think you can get a premium of maybe 5% to 7% – but you also sell them much quicker.

[Tim] Going back to the issue of profit margin, do you see a significant difference between developments in urban environments and those in suburban environment?

[Crispin] I think it’s much more difficult to make money in suburbia.

There’s much less money around.

[Tim] What about the lower costs?

[Crispin] I’m not sure the costs are that much lower.

The skill of building houses at volume is something that we don’t have.

Volume house builders have that for a reason.

They don’t change their model.

They know exactly how much things are going to cost.

And they’re incredibly good at doing it.

And usually incredibly efficient at delivery.

Whereas we are bumbling amateurs wanting to do something bespoke in a market that’s not a bespoke market.

It’s much easier for us to make money in that £800 to £1200 per square foot market rather than a £400 to £500 pounds per square foot market.

[Tim] I want to turn to a very different development that you’re working on at the moment: this is the Wandsworth tower.

Just as background, can you tell me a little about the area of Wandsworth that it’s located in?

[Crispin] It’s next to the Wandsworth shopping centre.

It’s a building we’ve owned for a long time.

We converted some of the office space there to flats about four or five years ago.

And then Pocket Living arrived next door to us and got consent for – I think it’s a 25 storey tower – which completely amazed us because we’d struggled to get a six storey building about 15 years ago.

We had a real gateway location, and their building was really tucked away in a corner.

Anyway, when we saw what they managed to do, we thought ‘we’ve got a bit of land – where we could build a tower?’.

So that was really what generated that.

And it’s been an amazing journey designing this building.

We’ve never done a building that tall before.

And we did it again with Sergison Bates who did the suburban housing in Aldershot.

And they’ve produced a very beautiful pencil tower.

It’s got between one and two flats per floor.

The building has a very small floorplate of 1200 square feet.

So although I’m a fan of suburbia, I’m also aware that there is a huge demand to use the land in London as densely as possible.

But hopefully with a good building.

[Tim] I was going ask you what led to the decision to build a residential tower instead of office, for example?

[Crispin] It wouldn’t have been viable with an office building, you know, the rents wouldn’t have been high enough.

There’s still a question about viability when you’re doing 35% affordable housing.

It’s a tough nut to crack.

We’re only like a third of the way through that project.

[Tim] As you said, the floorplates are quite small in this building.

Can you just walk me through how you’re planning to allocate the floors?

I know that some floors may have single apartments, other floors may have up to two apartments.

How do you determine how many of each fit-out to actually install in the finished product?

[Crispin] I suppose as a developer, you’re always looking to lay off risk.

So, you know, you can do some big ones and more smaller ones.

That’s your general guide.

That’s what we would normally do where we’ve got a lot of product.

Where we’re just doing a few, like maybe four houses, we would probably go the other way and say these are going to be very fine.

And we’re not going to try and find a quicker market at a lower price: we’re going to go for a slower market, at a higher price.

[Tim] And how do you gauge what the market is looking for?

Whether to err on the side of the studios – or whether to push more of the 2-3 bedroom fit-outs?

[Crispin] I think it’s sort of common sense about what the local demand is in the area.

But we would also be very influenced by what the agents were telling us about what they thought they could sell.

What we know we don’t want to do is do what the volume house builders are doing in London.

So that’s our measure of what we’re not going to do.

But that’s more to do with specification and design than to do with

I think their mix is probably pretty much similar.

[Tim] And so these particular apartments, will you be selling those off the plan?

Will you be completing them and then putting them up for sale?

How will that work?

[Crispin] We haven’t decided yet.

So those apartments have got a floor-to-ceiling height of about three metres.

So they should be pretty amazing.

And they will have incredible views.

Obviously the flats that occupy a whole floor will have a three metre ceiling heights and a 360 degree view.

And they’ll be quite cheap.

So they’ll be really special.

[Tim] And in terms of the costs of building up that high, how dramatically do the construction costs increase as you go up toward 20 stories?

[Crispin] We’re not experts because this is the first tower that we’ve built.

But I think that once you get above 20-25 floors, the costs go up very quickly because of the sort of structure and lifts and services and stuff.

And I think our budget is about £350 a foot for a 20-story building.

As a comparison, if we were building a house in Fulham we’d be thinking of spending £250 a foot maybe.

So it’s quite a lot more expensive.

[Tim] I’m conscious that we’re getting toward the end of our time here, but I’m very keen to have a brief conversation with you about Walmer Yard in London’s Notting Hill.

But before talking about Walmer Yard itself, for those who don’t know much about Notting Hill, can you give us a snapshot of the area?

[Crispin] I suppose it’s been made famous by the film.

But previous to that, it was, in the 19th Century, an area of very smart houses for the upper middle class.

Very large white stucco houses which then went into terminal decline at the end of the 19th Century.

And were often converted into bed sets and multiple occupation – but then saw a big revival in the 1960s.

And they’ve been going from strength-to-strength ever since.

There are really interesting typologies.

For example, garden squares with houses around them.

It’s an area I’ve known well all my life because I’ve had relations living there.

Walmer Yard itself is sort of off-prime.

The next street up is prime – but it makes a big difference if you’re not prime.

It’s a building we bought in the mid 1980s.

And did a little office scheme there.

And my tutor at the AA, Peter Salter, was someone who I always wanted to get back at in some way if I could for all the pain he put me through.

And so I asked him to design this project.

We started our collaboration in 2003.

And so we’ve been working on it together for 16 years.

[Tim] It’s an unusual and very interesting project. What was your overarching ambition for it?

[Crispin] Because the values were relatively high in Notting Hill, it was unlike other projects I’ve done.

And because we already owned the site – and had owned it for 20 years – it was sort of like free.

I felt it was a chance to see what architecture could do in a fairly unrestrained way.

And giving head to Peter’s poetry.

He is a very unusual architect who hasn’t really built anything.

He’s always been a teacher – but a teacher that I was a student of for two years.

And his philosophy has been very much about how shapes and materials affect us.

For example, he’s very interested in filtering light.

Modern architecture is all about as capturing as much light as you can.

But Peter is much more about limiting the light so that you relish the little light that you do have.

So quite subtle ideas about things like that.

And about thresholds.

About transitions from one place to another.

About the importance of how you experience materials when you’re close to them.

You know – about what you touch.

So it’s a bit of a masterclass about what architecture can do.

We’ve been on site for 10 years.

But I think, as they say, it’s worth it.

[Tim] It consists of four houses.

Can you explain to me how those four houses operate today?

Because you’ve not gone out and sold them.

Nor have you’ve gone out and found long-term tenants.

[Crispin] I suppose the property business has been very kind to me.

And I felt that it was an opportunity to give something back.

And so my charity, the Baylight Foundation, which has been going for a long time giving bursaries to architects and architecture students, sort of changed course.

It now operates the four houses in the Baylight Foundation.

And the Foundation is devoted to deepening the public experience of understanding architecture.

So it’s really about what architecture can do.

And the idea of the home.

So we now have a keeper, Laura Mark, who runs a cultural programme there.

And, yeah, it’s been fantastically rewarding and interesting.

We’re investigating how we experience space.

And lots of issues that previously have been of interest, but we’ve not really had time to analyse.

So yeah, we’re very excited.

[Tim] Looking forward, what do you see on the horizon for Baylight as a property development business?

[Crispin] We’ve got quite a few projects that we’re working on, two of which are towers.

So maybe it’s going to be a continuation of the unplanned, unscheduled, unknown sort of butterfly operations that we’ve been doing for the last thirty years.

I would be very happy with that.

We’re starting to build a tourist attraction in Derbyshire.

So there’s always something unexpected which keeps it interesting.

But I would hope that housing will always be at the heart of what we do.

And in many ways housing seems to be where architecture can give back the most.

So that’s really a strong thing that I would expect us to be involved with.

[Tim] Crispin it’s been a fascinating conversation – I’m sure we could speak for many more hours but I know your time is valuable.

Just a final question: if people want to learn more about you or want to learn more about Baylight, where can they find you online?

[Crispin] Look up Baylight.

And Walmer Yard.

[Tim] Crispin, that simply leaves me to say thank you very much for joining me on the Floorplate podcast.

[Crispin] Thank-you Tim for your interesting questions.



Get Europe's best new multifamily developments sent direct to your inbox.

Our free weekly newsletter is your briefing on the projects getting it right.

Latest podcasts

Get Europe's best new multifamily developments sent direct to your inbox.

Our free weekly newsletter is your briefing on the projects getting it right.