There are hundreds of abandoned buildings in Bristol, Copyright meets the group intent on turning these empty spaces into affordable homes. The work has begun, but there’s still a long way to go
Walk through Portland Square in St Pauls, Bristol and it’s impossible not to notice the frenzy of activity taking place on the grand, decrepit buildings proudly standing watch over this historic site. Banners cladding the façade of these once great houses (more recently offices) shout ‘luxury apartment’ or ‘exciting opportunity’. Regeneration? Maybe. But it’s hard not to adopt a slightly skeptical squint when you see the developers logos all gathering at once. Head to the other side of the city, much further than a stone’s throw from Cabot Circus, and you’ll encounter a very different project. A sensitive, grass-roots endeavor that’s attempting to turn empty offices into homes. Affordable homes.
Abolish Empty Office Buildings (AEOB) is a housing project founded by writer and social campaigner Tony Crofts. The group’s mission is to address the issue of office and commercial buildings standing empty in the city, at a time when there is an urgent need for affordable housing.
Instead of concentrating on building brand new homes, AEOB want to re-purpose existing properties into homes for people struggling to find a place to live. The group’s vision is almost a political manifesto, laid out as a series of points intent on giving residents a sense of ownership. AEOB puts people over profit and believes in accessible housing for all, with residents encouraged to develop the community they live in.
They hope to do this by acquiring empty office and commercial spaces across the city and turning them into homes and other community venues. The AEOB model will offer affordable, secure tenancies and grow as a result of input – financially and physically – from prospective residents. AEOB will assist tenants in any efforts to become housing co-operatives, responsible for managing the building in which they live. This is social housing, unadulterated.
‘It started from a rich/poor reconciliation laboratory held at St Stephen’s church, at which we noticed that Bristol had, at that time, over two million square feet of empty office buildings,’ Tony tells us. ‘So we started AEOB and set about raising money to buy one of them.’ And so began the group’s first venture. The aim was to raise £400,000 through donations and Community Shares to purchase AEOB’s flagship building. ‘Investments in our Community Share came in from all over the UK – Scotland, Northern Ireland, East Anglia, the south coast and the Midlands and now stand [March 2016] at £360,000,’ says Tony. ‘This has led to a match-funding mortgage from Triodos Bank for the same amount, and we are now forging ahead with conversion and development of an office we bought with planning for conversion to four flats.
AEOB are also building two new flats on the adjoining garden at the site on Battens Lane, St George. Chris Askew, from Askew Cavanna Architects, has been involved with the project from the off, ‘We have worked with Tony Crofts and AEOB from the start, helping to critically review prospective sites before they settled on the site in Battens Lane,’ he says. ‘They did an amazing job in raising funds through donations and a share issue, which enabled them to buy the property.
‘Through the construction phase, we have continued to work alongside the site team, who are carrying out the work as a custom-build, and are assisting them with quotes for trade packages, such as suppliers for the triple glazed windows.’
Both Chris and Tony have a shared vision in retaining as many of the building’s original features as possible. The aim is to strike a balance between the old part of the building, characterised by huge stone walls, and the new, highly insulated timber framed extension. ‘The completed building will be modest in scale, but the proposal addresses community and sustainability factors like the inclusion of a common room and laundry,’ says Chris. ‘We’re aiming for affordability through ultra-low energy use. The building is highly insulated and airtight, with shared energy systems (a pair of boilers, underfloor heating, solar PVs on the roof) to keep things simple and costs down.’
‘Space is at a premium, but it is important that the flats are not mean. So, for example flats on the first floor have high ceilings over living rooms, and on the south elevation there are Juliet balconies with double doors to ensure maximum light. The southern elevation also benefits from an integrated shading and growing structure to maximise the opportunities for residents to grow their own produce.’
Although small, this project will showcase the group’s capabilities and, hopefully, encourage more investment. ‘We hope to go on to another similar-sized project, which will give us property valued at one £1 million,’ says Tony. ‘We shall be offering a three per cent dividend on the share which we hope will then make us attractive to pension funds. ‘We are of course eager to collaborate with, or franchise our method to, groups in other towns. We aim to start a people’s DIY movement to provide genuinely affordable homes, which the government is not doing.’
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