Twenty years ago, the question of what to do with our decaying dockyards and crumbling industrial buildings was a problem with few solutions. Huge swathes of abandoned warehouses and rundown offices were seen by developers as pioneer territory and the chances of enticing people to live in these inaccessible wastelands being virtually none.
Enter Urban Splash. Since 1993, founders Tom Bloxham and Jonathan Falkingham have bravely gone where no one dared to go before and, in the process, started a phenomenon. While John Prescott was demanding the demolition of historic and period buildings in the North West, Bloxham and Falkingham were proposing their salvation.
"In the beginning, we had no masterplan," confesses Tom Bloxham, "we were purely opportunistic. We started where home was, Manchester, with a passion for architecture and looked for sites with something fantastic about them."
That search has seen them branch out from their early successes. Heading south from projects like Box Works in Manchester and Concert Square in Liverpool via Sheffield and Bristol, their latest venture at the Royal William Yard in Plymouth is one of their most challenging yet.
Previously in the ownership of the MOD, the 18-acre site contains a remarkable collection of Grade One listed industrial buildings that, for the last few decades, have remained closed. Surrounded by water on three sides, it was built as a victualling yard in the early 1800s. It survived the Blitz in World War II, but the ending of the Navy's daily tot of rum in 1970 signaled its decline. But with the first phase of work completed here, the tide is, once again, turning in its favour.
Brewhouse, Mills Bakery and Clarence are the first three buildings to be converted, creating 133 apartments and three commercial spaces. There's a clear line between old and new, allowing the character and detailing to co-exist with cutting-edge interiors. The effect is a celebration of the historic and the modern.
The framework of cast-iron columns, deep loading bays and steel windows act as a backdrop to the cool, simple design schemes. Etched glass screens, Vola taps and terrazzo tiles set a modern, understated tone, drawing your eye along clean lines towards picture windows and the shifting water of the marina. It's a look that's served Urban Splash well and gives buyers flexibility to make their mark as well.
"When we first started," recalls Bloxham, "most new developments were bad pastiches of period buildings. There was a demand for contemporary design but very few new houses offered that choice." It's a mark of their success that they are still at the sharp end of the trend they began, but now the bandwagon is rolling, the larger developers are now muscling in.
Wimpey, Berkeley and Bryant now all have regional schemes on the go that ape the Urban Splash model. Is Tom Bloxham worried about this shift and its impact on Urban Splash?
"Not really. There's plagarism about, but we see that as flattering. We are about using simple ideas to solve problems using the best possible architects.We are offered loads of projects, but we only develop sites that push things forward."
This all sounds like one big puff for Urban Splash, but archive press reports on them yield virtually no negatives. They've created more than 3,000 jobs, won numerous accolades (including 30 RIBA awards for architecture) and were placed 25th in a list of best companies to work for.
The traditional image of a builder out to make a fast buck is a hard one to shift, but Urban Splash have bucked the trend. It's unusual for a developer to continue managing a mixed-use site after completion and this is a key part of their work ethic. But the one thing Bloxham keeps extolling is architecture. "It's ingrained in us," he says and if Britain's derelict buildings could form a queue, I suspect it would start outside Urban Splash HQ.
Brewhouse and Clarence apartments at Royal William Yard, Plymouth are still for sale from £310,000 to £1.5m. Phase 2 of Mills Bakery is released in spring 2007 with prices starting at £200,000. Call Urban Splash on 07000 27 28 29 or visit www.urbansplash.co.uk.
Winners of the regeneration game
Beetham Tower, Manchester
Beetham Tower or 303 Deansgate is 171 metres (561ft) tall, making it the UK's 7th tallest building. It houses a Hilton Hotel on the first 23 floors, a restaurant on the 24th and apartments up to the 48th floor. Knight Frank has several units for sale. Call 0161 838 7744 or go to www.knightfrank.co.uk
Park Hill, Sheffield
Urban Splash turned round the fortunes of Britain's largest Grade II* building on the edge of Sheffield. Problems on this early Sixties estate are giving way to urban cool with 580 flats being planned. For contact details see main article.
Royal Arsenal, London
Berkeley Homes regenerated this 76-acre site in South East London. Phase one conversions start at £260,000 with phase two available next spring. Plans include a one-acre park, commercial spaces and aresidents' gym. Call 020 8331 7272 or go to www.berkeleyhomes.co.uk
Clarence Dock, Leeds
Having converted the hallowed Haçienda club in Manchester into smart new apartments, Crosby Homes took on Clarence Dock in Leeds. Cafes, bars, casinos and hotels rub shoulders with 100,000 sq ft of office space and 1,100 new apartments. Off-plan, two-bed units range from £220,00 to £280,00. Call 0113 246 1533 or go to www.clarencedock.comReuse content