Once in a while you are lucky enough to meet someone who you think is the embodiment of what all the books and journals tell you would be the perfect developer. Chris Brown is that person. Not only does he genuinely understand what good design is but he also implements it. He also instinctively knows that true regeneration is about social, physical and economic aspects and not just the by-product of an architect’s pretty picture.
Chris is chief executive of Igloo Regeneration and director of Isis Waterside Regeneration, a joint venture between Igloo, British Waterways and Muse that regenerates brownfield waterside sites around the UK and of Blueprint, Igloo’s public/private partnership with the Homes and Communities Agency and the East Midlands Development Agency undertaking sustainable mixed use regeneration in the East Midlands. He is also an ex-director of Home Group, the UK’s largest housing association. He has been a member of the government’s Urban Sounding Board, director of British Urban Regeneration Association, chair of the Royal Institute of Chareted Surveyors Regeneration panel, a Commission for Architecture and Built Environment Regional Design Ambassador and a member of the Princes Foundation projects panel, the Regen-Now centre of excellence steering group, the A6 Single Regeneration Budget Board and advisor to ‘The Castleford Project’, Channel 4′s TV series on regeneration.
We’re therefore delighted that Chris has accepted to be the first in our series of interviewees focussing on what matters to those who are in the driving seat of development.
These words have recently been hijacked by evil and greedy property developers to wrap their poor quality schemes in a cloak of respectability. I came into regeneration in the Michael Heseltine era in the 1980s and we all knew that urban regeneration was the process of turning around economically declining neighbourhoods to benefit their communities. It was a privilege recently to chair a discussion with Lord Heseltine and there was a clear agreement that City Challenge, the socially, physically and economically integrated area based urban renewal programme from the 1990s represented the high point of urban regeneration practice in the UK. I was in Toledo for the recent informal meeting of the EU’s urban ministers and it seems that the UK is no longer the leading practitioner of urban renewal despite us being the first to start. The Toledo declaration is worth a read and some of the supporting documents are really interesting. In much of Central and Eastern Europe urban regeneration means what we would call historic building refurbishment.
2. Except for the developments that you have personally been involved in who else do you think is doing work that you feel is the closest to your own ethos?
I have always admired Urban Splash. I shared an office with Urban Splash director Nick Johnson for about four years in the last recession as we were both playing our parts in the incredible renaissance of Manchester through the 90s. I think that shared experience can be seen in our subsequent work. I also have high hopes for the Earls Court scheme that Capital and Counties are doing now that it is being led by Richard Powell. Doing great mixed use regeneration that works well for the community as well as for the investors is incredibly difficult as is shown by the poor quality of most schemes so when people achieve it they deserve enormous admiration.
3. If you had the choice to redevelop/regenerate one area/place/location in the world where would it be and why? What would you put there instead?
Igloo concentrates on the former manufacturing areas on the edges of the UK’s top 20 city centres. These areas are attractive to the creative industries and, despite the recent property boom, enormous amounts remain to do. I love these places and our schemes in places like Digbeth in Birmingham, Ancoats in Manchester, Holbeck in Leeds and Bermondsey in London are just a start and I hope we will continue our work until these areas are transformed and these cities have maximized their competitive advantage and their quality of life. But the place that I would most like to tackle is the media centre element of the Olympic Park in Hackney. This has enormous potential to deliver great regeneration benefits for the people of Hackney Wick and east London. I don’t think the Olympic process makes it easy to do Legacy properly which would involve designing the Legacy first and then fitting the Games into it. For me Margaret Ford and Andrew Altman are the most important people in the Olympic development process at the moment because it will be £8 Billion wasted unless we get the legacy right and its delivery started as soon as the Games finish.
4. There’s been a lot of talk about the re-definition of zero-carbon recently. What do you think it should be?
I can’t get too excited about centrally dictated definitions of zero carbon for new build. This rules based system is necessary to regulate the industry who won’t do this on their own accord but we are already building Code 5 commercially and Code 6 is just a case of getting a sensible approach to minimizing the last dregs of greenhouse gas production. For us though, the bigger challenges are how can we reduce the greenhouse gas production of existing buildings, how can we reduce the embodied energy used in new buildings, how can we reduce greenhouse gases produced from transport by building in the right places and how can we do all this in commercially viable ways that maximize people’s health, happiness and well being. A new zero carbon building on an isolated green field site on a motorway junction is not something to be proud of however zero carbon is defined.
5. What would be your advice to any architects who want to switch sides and follow in your footsteps?
Architects don’t generally make good property developers or investors but developers and investors rarely have the good design understanding that is necessary in a good building and placemaking client. An architect would need to work in a commercial role in development for a few years to learn how it works. The key skills are understanding markets and what delivers value and also understanding the financing of development. These skills don’t seem to always naturally sit with creative design types!
6. Who do you think we should question next? Margaret Ford