INTERVIEW: Nikki Gibbard on Helical Bar’s grand design for the City

Helical Bar’s Nikki Gibbard on opportunism, architectural integrity and being responsible for the biggest resi scheme in the City of London since The Barbican…

  • There aren’t many top developers who’ve come from the world of television; how did your move into the property industry come about?

Nikki GibbardIt was initially largely by chance that I ended up in the property industry as I first worked at Helical Bar on a temporary basis between freelance television jobs. I was drawn to both the business and the people at Helical who seemed to combine fascinating projects with a great team spirit.

When I was asked to stay on permanently I had no hesitation in accepting and haven’t looked back since. Helical have been enormously supportive of my development and while working I undertook the MSc Real Estate course at Reading University which enabled me with the technical knowledge I needed to be able to progress.

  • You were promoted to Development Executive earlier this year; which schemes have you worked on to date?

My first major project at Helical was the redevelopment of 200 Aldersgate, a tired, large office building adjacent to the Barts Square site.

With MoreySmith and branding agent DN&Co we completely redesigned and repositioned the building, transforming it from an unloved and vacant lump into a vibrant, fully let modern office building with great tenant facilities and a real community spirit among the varied tenants.

Seeing work commence on site in January will be a huge landmark for us

Barts Square has been an ongoing project for the last four years as we acquired the site in early 2011. It is extremely exciting to work on a scheme from the very start right through to handover of the final unit and my role on this project has encompassed everything from planning to working with the architects on the detailed design of every unit right through to the development of the branding and sales concepts which is what we are doing currently. Seeing work commence on site in January will be a huge landmark for us and something which we are greatly looking forward to.

I am also currently working on The Bower, our large office and restaurant development adjacent to old Street roundabout. This is another large placemaking scheme in an area of considerable development and a project that is going to make a huge aesthetic and functional improvement to this burgeoning and exciting area.

  • Considering Helical Bar is better known for its commercial projects, how would you say the firm’s approach differs from a typical resi developer?

We really understand buildings and our attention to detail is excellent. We believe that this is essential in all building projects and apply this rigorously to all our projects. We take a forensic interest in each aspect if the scheme design and are able to apply our detailed knowledge of developing complex schemes in sensitive, historic sites, of which this certainly is one, to achieve excellent architectural results. We veer away from homogeneity and want the finished product to be something we are extremely proud of.

  • How did you identify and acquire the Barts Square site and what attracted your team to the project?

The site is immediately adjacent to 200 Aldersgate as above and while working on 200, we were alerted that the site next door was coming up for sale and that we should have a look at it.

We couldn’t believe that there would be a suitable residential site in such a busy area of the City but as soon as we went to have a look at it we literally fell in love. It is incredible how much the atmosphere and character of the site hits you the moment that you step onto Bartholomew Close. While being metres from the epicentre of London business, you feel like you are in a historic village, with the cobbled streets and winding alleys that invoke thoughts of an era long past. This is why we have taken such care over the design.

We wanted to create something that didn’t feel too shiny and new, to design buildings that feel like they are meant to be there and to develop a real place, not just an obviously new residential development.Barts Square

  • The nature of the site means you will be developing nineteen buildings, all from different periods and in varying architectural styles. Which is your favourite and why?

My favourite building at Barts Square has always been The Askew Building (below) which to me, completely embodies the style and character of Barts.

The use of white glazed bricks and green terracotta tiles references the warehouse buildings apparent in the area and the Crittal style floor to ceiling windows will give each apartment in the Askew Building a beautiful sense of light and space.

The apartments in this building are all open plan, well proportioned, warehouse-style residences that have been beautifully designed by interior architects, Johnson Naylor.

  • Creating a sense of atmosphere and a ‘buzz’ is often tricky; how are you planning to turn these disused hospital buildings into a hub of activity?

While we want to create life and vitality at Barts we most definitely want to preserve the sense of calm and character that currently exists there. Therefore we are going to select our retail and restaurant tenants extremely carefully so that they embody the quality of the area and scheme and add a carefully curated sense of culture, particularly around the Square and along Little Britain.

We will be seeking independent, interesting businesses to occupy our ground floor units that will both look beautiful and deliver an excellent service or product. This is a similar ethos to that being applied at The Bower, our scheme at Old Street, where we are working with a number of independent, pioneering restaurateurs to create a new destination.

  • Are there any projects from the last few years that you have really admired or wished you could have worked on? What or where has inspired you?

I am endlessly impressed by Argent’s amazing Kings Cross development. Not just the scale of the redevelopment but the quality of each and every part of it is an immense achievement. The fact that they operate with integrity and humour has always impressed and inspired me.

New York developers seem to be able to create new residential buildings of considerable density, scale and mass without losing architectural integrity

In terms of locations, I have been hugely inspired by the current residential development schemes in New York and I went there for a research trip early in the design development stages of Barts Square. New York developers seem to be able to create new residential buildings of considerable density, scale and mass without losing architectural integrity. This is largely due to intelligent material choices and exemplary design detail which are essential qualities when creating a successful scheme and themes which I hope run obviously at the heart of Barts Square.

CIM Group and Macklowe Property's 432 Park Avenue scheme in New York (Image by DBOX)
CIM Group and Macklowe Property’s 432 Park Avenue scheme in New York (Image by DBOX)
  • How did the Singapore and Hong Kong launches differ from the London event?

The format for both were slightly different with our UK launch being an evening event followed up by our permanent marketing suite at 56 West Smithfield while the HK and Singapore events are intense weekend long exhibitions where purchasers come intending to purchase in the room.

The Asian buyers are far more accustomed to buying residential property off plan and are extremely informed and aware of the market and the purchase process. Quite a few of our UK purchasers are owner occupiers for whom the process is far more emotionally vested and a different approach is required, hence why we have our permanent marketing suite so that buyers can spend as long as they need to learning all about the scheme and the area before purchasing.

  • Have you noticed any buyer trends emerging so far?

Yes and no… the predominant trend is that there is no trend! We have attracted an extremely wide range of purchasers, from investors to owner occupiers, younger professionals to older people looking to downsize and move back to the City with all it has to offer, and from UK nationals to overseas residents. We set out to create a genuine community at Barts Square and are delighted that this is becoming a reality. Having met most of the purchasers personally, they are certainly a lovely bunch so far!

  • EC Harris recently warned of a ‘construction crunch’ facing the top end of the industry, which could render some PCL projects undeliverable. Have you noticed a shortage of resources, and if so, in which areas?

There is no denying that the market has moved and the sheer volume of construction projects happening in London is creating an increase in construction prices. However we have excellent long standing relationships with contractors as well as a very good development track record and have secured an excellent contractor to deliver Barts Square for us.

  • Following on from the success of Barts Square, will you be on the lookout for other sites in Central London? If so, are there any areas of particular interest or ones that you can see outperforming over the next five years?

We are always on the look out for new sites and as a company have historically aimed to be nimble with our development and investment choices, seeking interesting and perhaps challenging sites that can deliver maximum returns for our shareholders. For this reason we do not restrict ourselves to one type of asset or area although we do focus for developments on Central London. We are currently working on several schemes in EC1 and the surrounding areas (Barts being one) and this is an area we certainly believe in and will look to continue working in.