Interview: Urban Splash co-founder Tom Bloxham talks to Your Move
Words by Natasha Young
Urban Splash was at the forefront of Liverpool City Centre’s regeneration when it developed Concert Square.
As it aims to bring its NWPAs-shortlisted ‘House’ concept to the city region, the firm is once again planning an innovative impact.
Your Move caught up with co-founder Tom Bloxham to find out more.
Urban Splash’s first development was Concert Square. How important was that scheme to the firm’s success moving forward?
Concert Square was quite pivotal in Liverpool in 1993, and at the time only a couple of hundred people lived in the city centre. I remember when we did it we were made out to be almost evil, forcing people to live back in the city centre, and you couldn’t buy a loaf of bread or pint of milk there at the time. It was very different.
We actually created Concert Square – we knocked down a shed to make public space. From day one the idea of reusing interesting old buildings, using great contemporary design and thinking about the space outside of buildings as well as the buildings themselves has always been important to us.
The scheme featured 18 apartments. City centre living is really prominent in Liverpool right now but what was the demand like then?
It was very good. Nobody had done this before and it was a bit of an unknown quantum but we were very pleased and surprised by the take-up.
Looking back, they were something like £60 per sq ft which was amazingly cheap and they still look like great apartments inside.
It’s been recognised as transformational for the Ropewalks district. Do you remember what potential you saw in that area and what attracted you to it?
Before Concert Square we set up the Liverpool Palace arcade. Probe Records was there along with a poster shop, the Bead Shop and all sorts of weird and wonderful eclectic retailers.
Then on the upper floors there was a series of interesting office users. The first were Andy Carroll and James Barton, who rented an office for £10 a week and started Cream there.
We were among the first to bring city centre living to Liverpool and Manchester so we’re always tried to do things in new ways.
We had The La’s, Oceanic and The Farm in there, and I remember once on ‘Top of The Pops’ there were three bands, all with offices there, on the same episode. There were fashion designers, graphic designers, architects and it was really the beginning of a melting pot of creative industries in Liverpool.
Then we opened Baa Bar adjacent to it for people to eat, drink and hang out, and that started the whole revival of contemporary city centre bar spaces. Many of these people are still tenants of ours today. We helped set FACT up by getting the space for them, and we set up the Tea Factory and the Vanilla Factory. Elsewhere in Liverpool we did things like the Collegiate school, Old Haymarket and Matchworks in Speke.
Do you still have links and future plans for those sites?
We still own over 600,000 sq ft of Liverpool city centre space, we’ve got over 160 businesses renting from us, we’ve developed hundreds of homes, created thousands of jobs and hopefully helped in a very real way with the city’s regeneration.
‘House’ is Urban Splash’s current residential focus. What drove the decision for a modular housebuilding concept?
In a way, there are other things more important than modular.
We saw in Manchester and Liverpool that when people were moving out of Urban Splash flats they were moving into Victorian, Edwardian or Georgian terraces, whether that was on Lark Lane in Liverpool or Didsbury or Hale in Manchester. We saw a whole percentage of the population weren’t buying new houses so we thought ‘why is that?’
I think the main purpose is design, and I’m not talking about a particular style just the space. People wanted big windows, high ceilings, a flexibility to take walls down and put them back up again. They wanted high doors, big space standards and large rooms, and most new build houses weren’t offering those things so we wanted to build a new build that would.
We also wanted to give people chance to personalise their home. Everyone loves ‘Grand Designs’, but to do that you’ve got to be a millionaire and take up years of your life.
Ten years ago you’d go into a car showroom and drive away in the car that suited you, but today you go online and create it with the colours, engine and upholstery you want. Why not do that with houses?
You’re reportedly planning a Merseyside ‘House’ development. What can you tell us about it?
I can’t tell you exactly where it is at the moment but we’re working on it. In fact, we’re working on a number of Merseyside opportunities so we’d very much like to see ‘House’ come to Liverpool and Merseyside.
I’d like it to happen as soon as possible but these things take time and it’s about identifying sites and partners and then working through planning to make it happen. Watch this space.
How long does it take to build those homes? Is it the securing of the sites that really lengthens the process?
They take a few weeks to be manufactured in the factory and although you can assemble two or three houses in a day, it then takes a few more weeks to tie everything in.
You can build them very quickly but getting Urban Splash’s ‘house’ developments offer custom, modular living to new home buyers. the sites clear is an important element, along with planning and whatever else needs doing.
Modular housing has been delivered in the Liverpool region but it isn’t rolled out as housebuilders’ main method yet. How much of a step change has it been for Urban Splash to create numerous projects this way?
We’ve worked with modular construction previously. Around 10 years ago we did ‘Moho’ in Manchester – a steel framed modular building.
We were among the first to bring city centre living to Liverpool and Manchester so we’ve always tried to do things in new ways. We’ve always been open to innovation.
It seems crazy to build houses in wet fields in the rain when most things we’re building in the world are built in factories in air-tight, dry and safer conditions where you get better quality.
Is it your hope that others in the industry will follow?
Many more players like Legal & General and Berkeley Homes are operating in the modular space.
Industrialisation and the Industrial Revolution wasn’t something that happened in 20 years in the 19th Century. It’s an ongoing process and more and more products used every day are being made in factories. Housing is one of the last to not be made in a factory.
It’s inevitable that more housing will be made in factories and out of that you’ll ultimately get better quality, better value and the ability to personalise.
You’re aiming to progress ‘House’ from hundreds to thousands of homes. How?
We’re on three sites at the moment and we’re looking at numerous others around the country. We want to be building thousands of homes as quickly as we can.
It’s only by getting the quantities going that you can really start bringing down costs and creating better value for money.