The Old Vinyl Factory: Regeneration with a purpose
Regeneration, properly done, does not happen quickly. It takes an incredible amount of patience, tenacity, creativity, hard work, a strong vision and a great team.
It can also be something of a thankless task. Developers don’t have a great reputation in the eye of the public and trust and goodwill is limited, if not entirely absent. So why bother at all? Why not just take the easy route, choosing a site without obstacles, challenges and complexities. Deliver what convention says can deliver the highest reward for the least risk.
Because that’s not what U+I is about. Our passion lies in uncovering potential and transforming places. That’s where the real rewards lie – beyond those measured on the balance sheet.
In many ways The Old Vinyl Factory, U+I’s large-scale regeneration project of a brownfield site in Hayes, west London, epitomises this approach. Soon to be complete, the 17-acre mixed-use development will feature over 700 homes with 376 already delivered and the remainder now under construction – including for sale, affordable and build to rent – alongside 550,000 sq ft of offices, an innovation hub, an academy school, a health centre, shops, cafes and a cultural hub, all connected by extensive public realm.
The masterplan: The Old Vinyl Factory is a mix of re-imagined Art Deco office buildings, new homes, innovation and educational hubs, restaurants, shops, gym, cinema and a live music venue
At the heart of The Old Vinyl Factory’s long and complex story lies the clear understanding that creating a place that really does improve an area, transforming its potential, can only be done when you involve everyone in its development, engage a wide range of creative people and have everyone pulling in the same direction.
At TOVF, U+I has led the masterplan and remains freeholder as well as delivering a number of the buildings on the site, but we also have key partners/stakeholders who have also delivered a number of the other building including: Really Local Group; Hub; Weston Homes; Joseph Homes; Crest Nicholson and masterplanner Studio Egret West.
When U+I acquired the site in 2011 not many people thought it was a smart move. Previous plans for the site, which was once home to EMI’s global manufacturing headquarters, including His Master’s Voice, had failed to materialise. Supported by a planning policy that required employment space over any other uses, the previous two owners of the site had proposed developing a business park on the land.
This turned out to be an unsuccessful strategy. For a while, the location made sense for employment use – at the border between West London and the Thames Valley, close to Heathrow, with great road and rail connections and Crossrail on the way – at a local level there was not the sense of place required to attract occupiers. And the amazing history of TOVF would have slipped into the background if only commercial space was brought back to the site.
With the absence of amenity and sense of community that occupiers now expect in a workplace, a purely employment-led scheme was doomed to fail.
So, when we acquired the site, we went back to the drawing board. It seemed clear to us that to make the site successful we had to think beyond property to consider local economics, social sustainability, community, provenance and place. What Hayes needed was a new part of the town centre, a mixed-use development with homes, shops and workspace, not another business park.
But to deliver this we needed to convince the London Borough of Hillingdon that while their planning policy for the site wasn’t wrong, exactly, it wasn’t enabling the full potential of the area. Fortunately, we found in the council a partner who understood that sometimes it’s necessary to think outside the box.
By demonstrating that we could create the same number of jobs (4,000) on half the site that the council wanted on the whole site, while building residential, amenity, and fantastic public realm on the remainder, we managed to assure the council that we could create a successful place that would drive the job creation they wanted, as well as provide much needed homes.
It was from that moment that The Old Vinyl Factory was born – and everything we have done since has been focused on working with our partners to deliver the vision. The masterplan was granted outline permission in 2013, alongside a separate detailed consent for the first phase comprising The Gatefold Building, a build to rent scheme, which was the catalyst for entire development, providing a crucial gateway to the site and enhancing the setting of the surrounding, locally listed buildings. Reserved matters and detailed design were then submitted for each phase/ individual building. After starting on site in 2013, seven of the buildings have been completed with the entire masterplan due to complete in 2023. And what have some of the successes been so far?
• For a start, calling the place The Old Vinyl Factory and not London Gate Business Park. This was about mining the past to provide inspiration for the future. We wanted to draw on the story of EMI and make that central to the new place that we were creating. Buildings, road names and landscaping features have all been named after the original uses on the site, helping TOVF retain its provenance.
• Opening the site up and letting people in by involving the local community in events and activities, whether making music or hosting exhibitions on the history of the site and pop music. We wanted to show young people how important the site was in the history of music and help foster a sense of identity and place.
• Working with great partners, developers and architects, to deliver high quality buildings that work together to build a sense of place.
• Bringing exciting businesses to the site by establishing the Central Research Laboratory in the Shipping Building on the site. This innovation hub opened in 2015 and has continued to foster start-ups in the manufacturing sector, supporting more than 100 businesses, including 25 new start-ups, with more than 60 full-time jobs created and over £5m in investment raised, as well as attracting major occupiers like Sonos. CRL has now spun itself out from this experiment to stand alone as business called Plus X, backed by U+I, with plans to open 25 more sites (some in other U+I projects) over the next ten years.
• Curating and programming a leisure element – designing a boutique cinema with EMI exhibition and live music, cafes, bars and restaurants, climbing walls and a gym and public realm.
• Installing an academy school specialising in music production and media – with loads of noisy young people giving the place their energy.
• Opening Vinyl Lounge – a worthwhile use that provided a community space for a range of activities (homework clubs, meetings, yoga classes, training days etc) as well as hosting events, exhibitions and other activities on site.
• Employed local apprentices to train and work in the Shipping Building café and to help maintain the estate grounds.
• Installing a giant 6m Nipper the dog, the icon of the HMV record label, to help give the site a sense of place, fun and identity. Vinyl Square, the largest public landscaped area within development, has recently received consent and will become the permanent home to Nipper.
• Hosting an NHS Covid vaccination centre.
That’s just a handful of highlights from the journey so far, with more to come. Recent planning consents include the transformation of the old Powerhouse building, dating from 1907, into a 29,000 sq ft innovation hub. Due to the success of the CRL we are now creating a permanent innovation hub in the Power House, to be run by our partners Plus X. This will bring together flexible workspaces with a wealth of facilities and support including media studios, prototype workshops and bio labs to support entrepreneurial designers and engineers, driving a new generation of innovation on the site. Part of the Power House will also be returned to its original use – a site wide energy centre – providing sustainable heat and hot water to the individual buildings on the estate.
Built as the power-generating plant for EMI’s headquarters, this exemplar of early 20th Century industrial infrastructure will be re-purposed to power the future of innovation and house an energy centre serving the whole neighbourhood.
Consent was also recently granted for amended plans for the Gramophone. This will bring the former pressing plant of the old EMI factory, where records where made before being shipped around the world, back into use as cinema and mixed-use community and cultural venue, with a four-screen cinema, EMI museum, café, recording studios and exhibition space. The Gramophone was awarded a £1.2m funding boost from the GLA’s Good Growth Fund, showing significant confidence in the scheme’s importance to Hayes.
This is part of our strategy of careful curation of the retail and leisure offering at TOVF to ensure that it has a balanced mix – some national operators, with strong covenants, but also smaller operators and independent businesses. What we find is that successful places need to have a sense of identity or character – that kind of magic alchemy that just makes a place work. And part of that alchemy is having a unique and interesting leisure, hospitality and retail offer.
But to do this you have to be prepared to be creative about covenant strength and think about it in terms of footfall. Smaller operators like the Really Local Group, who are bringing their unique independent cinema and cultural offering, or The Nest, a start-up operator of artfully designed indoor climbing and bouldering walls, offer something different and interesting.
The Gramophone was the production centre of EMI and will now be brought back into use as a cultural and community space.
The range of businesses and services at TOVF have been carefully curated to create a diverse and interesting place. At The Nest, visitors can enjoy first-class bouldering facilities spanning an unbroken 70m long wall.
HMV record label icon, Nipper the dog, gives the site a sense of place, fun and identity.
As one of the first developers to commit to the Architect Journal’s Retrofirst campaign, U+I puts the re-use of existing buildings at the heart of its approach to sustainable regeneration. This is evident at TOVF, where the masterplan set out to retain the industrial heritage on site, with the protection and reimagining of the Art Deco buildings that had lain derelict for close to 40 years prior to U+I’s acquisition.
Our plans repurposed the buildings, retaining the embodied carbon and preserving the industrial heritage, while bringing new jobs back to what was once such a vital employment centre in Hayes. New development has also been built to high sustainability standards, including the Boiler House, 54-home cross-laminated timber building at the heart of project. The building’s distinctive stainless-steel shingle façade covers a cross-laminated timber structure – providing a range of environmental and thermal benefits, as well as enabling an ultra-efficient construction process. The Boiler House also offers rooftop allotments for residents to grow their own vegetables and plants. Meanwhile, urban realm improvements are aimed at boosting biodiversity, while a Santander bike stand provides a sustainable transport link for residents.
When the site is fully occupied, more than 4,000 people will work there, many of them new jobs to the town – and as an extension of the town centre, this community, along with the residents of the 700 homes, will catalyse more jobs and opportunities for growth in Hayes. And in the end that’s why persisting with regeneration of difficult brownfield sites and striving to do it well is so important.
Its name deriving from the steam and heating plant that once serviced the entire site, The Boiler House now provides thoughtfully designed studio, one and two bedroom apartments.