Charity starts at home construction

A rookie in property development is making a tidy profit - and then giving it away to needy groups. Graham Norwood meets the maverick
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The Independent Online

The words "property developer" and "charity" rarely crop up in the same sentence but a woman in south-west London wants that perception to change.

Charlotte Grobien, a rookie property developer, is managing the construction of three houses in Putney. They are due to be completed by next summer and should sell for a tidy profit, which Grobien is going to donate to local charities.

"In 2003 we had work done on our family home in Putney. That gave me the idea to raise money through similar projects," she says.

She originally wanted to refurbish a house to make a quick profit of £50,000, but a lack of a suitable property meant that her company, Give It Away, had to tackle two new build schemes, from which she now expects to make a profit of £300,000.

A scruffy property in Putney is being demolished to make room for two homes with four bedrooms and three bathrooms. In the autumn, work will start on turning an empty plot into a coach house. Grobien has no salary, but most of the work is being done for free or at discounted rates by professionals including Savills, the estate agent, Faegre & Benson, conveyancing solicitors, and specialist craft and building firms.

"She's completely serious, just like any conventional developer. But because of her negotiating skills and the causes involved, she'll probably get better deals than most developers. It's a virtuous circle and everyone should benefit," says Alex Howard Baker of Savills. Geoff Barham, of JTD Timber Frames, says that he has never come across a scheme like this: "It was difficult to believe at first, but it's true. If Charlotte keeps the same team on her sites it'll build up trust and create quite a different way of working for all us contractors."

Grobien is now seeking suppliers - and you get the impression that it may be hard for a firm to say no. "The less we spend, the more we have to give away. We need two complete kitchens to be donated or at least heavily discounted," she says. She has already obtained free or cheap materials and fittings, from roof tiles and under-floor heating to carpets and fencing.

Her wish listincludes the fittings for six bathrooms, sound systems and security alarms, patio stones and garden sheds. "I've written to celebrity gardeners asking them to get involved. It'd be ideal publicity for them and free for us," she says. Grobien recently worked at Wandsworth prison and in local schools after a career as a conference organiser and events manager. The profits from the sale of her homes will go to South London charities.

These include Shaftesbury Homes and Arethusa, a charity for children in care; Fairbridge and Skilltrain, for 13-to-25-year-olds who have school, work or social difficulties; a pre-school called Small Steps; Whizz Kids, which provides mobility for disabled children; the Shooting Stars Hospice for children; the South London Actionnaire Club's centre for blind and partially sighted children in Tooting and the NSPCC.

Some of the charities have asked if youngsters linked to their groups can have work experience on the construction sites. Grobien says yes, so long as they stick to health and safety laws. One chain of London estate agents called her idea "commendable" but refused to help. So far the celebrity gardeners have not responded. But Grobien remains undeterred.

"Those people who have been helpful have been very, very helpful indeed. It's been a leap for them because they didn't know who I was or anything about Give It Away. It's not exactly a typical property company."

If the three Putney homes produce the profit she expects, she will start on new schemes. "I'm getting fed up with my own voice explaining about Give It Away, but I'll do what it takes to make the money. The property world hasn't quite seen anything like this."

Give It Away can be contacted at www.give-it-away.co.uk or on 020 8876 8807.

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