Stuart Holt is the founding director of Javelin Block, a company that re-animates and restores industrial and historic buildings with sensitivity. Javelin Block preserves the unique identity, heritage and integrity of each site while reinvigorating the surrounding communities by offering new shared spaces and employment opportunities.
Based in Birmingham, UK, the Javelin Block headquarters are situated in the Jewellery Quarter at the Compound, a multi-RIBA award winning and Sterling Prize nominated industrial warehouse conversion, that plays host to the world’s leading creative organisations and individuals, most recently film director Steven Spielberg, Warner Brothers, Nike, Facebook and Microsoft. We caught up with Holt in Sydney, where he spoke at the QIC GRE -sponsored Forefront summit about community, branded storytelling and contemporary culture.
Georgina Safe: Can you describe Javelin Block’s vision?
Stuart Holt: Our vision has always been simple – ‘buy to live’. It’s a philosophy that helps form small economies and communities, and makes for a better place to live and work – quite the opposite to ‘buy to let’. People recognise that we’re doing the right thing by saving dilapidated buildings. For example, it would have been a lot cheaper and easier to knock down the nineteenth century press shop, that now comprises a key part of our Comet Works scheme, but we wanted to save it as we felt it was integral to the spirit of the neighbourhood. If you take the Riflemaker development, a former factory and living quarters for rifle makers which we brought back to life after 40 years of neglect, that too will still be here in 100 years with all its history and provenance. I never build anything that I wouldn’t want to live in myself. I want to build something that will make people stand back and say, ‘wow, that’s brought that back to life’.
I worked with a blank slate on Water Street - an empty street with nothing on it. It allowed me to commit to restoring and reanimating buildings so that people wanted to come and live in them. What we’re doing now is creating spaces that will attract people to come to Birmingham to live and work. I want to populate our area with creative, free-thinking, forward-looking individuals. That was always something that was in my mind from day one. I don’t think we had those individuals when I first started, when I first came here there was nobody around. Now we have a diverse set of people working in so many different and creative fields and I don’t think you can compare this area to anywhere else in Birmingham.
GS: How did Javelin Block begin?
SH: It was 2005 and I was running along the canals in Birmingham training for the New York marathon. I didn’t know the city at all so I came off the canals into the Jewellery Quarter to see what was going on and I couldn’t believe how neglected a lot of the buildings were. I was living between Birmingham, New York and LA at the time, and knew that people would grab these buildings in other cities and do something constructive with them in no time. There was so much opportunity, it was screaming out for somebody to do something. When I looked into it a bit deeper, one of the main reasons why no one was doing anything, was because people were asking for crazy money for these buildings. No one was prepared to put a spade in the ground and just go for it. So, I bought a map and started earmarking all the buildings to bring back to life. I was by no means a developer and I’m still not a developer – I see myself more as a re-animator. Before that first time, I’d only worked on my own properties. People were enjoying what I was doing, but it wasn’t an actual business until the credit crunch hit in 2008. The financial crisis actually did this city a lot of favours as it flushed out people who were holding on to buildings hoping that someone was going to come in and pay them hugely inflated prices. When the crisis happened, people had to start letting them go and as soon as I saw that, I knew that that was my opportunity.
GS: How did you go about renovating them?
SH: First and foremost, we work with the buildings - not against them. A lot of the buildings that we work on are from the 20s and 30s and were engineered so well during that era that we adopt a less-is-more approach and strip them right back to their original features. One of my main concerns was that I often saw new buildings going up and the developers not worrying about the ground floor space because they were too focused on making money from the upstairs apartments. So what I did was to turn this thinking on its head and say, ‘Let’s focus on the ground floor spaces and get local businesses and people into those spaces’. Gradually that became the reason why people wanted to buy the flats, not the other way around. In my opinion, if you’re going to develop a site, then go and speak to the community, see what the community wants, and give them the space on the ground floor. I’m not saying give it for free, but give them a hand. If the business is successful, they’ll sign a lease because they’re a part of the local community, so they’re not going to move away. We did that with a little space in the side of an old warehouse, we said, ‘Use that. We’ll do it up for you’. We used all the reclaimed timber we had left and built it out for them
. We gave young talented individuals an opportunity and they now have a successful business that really brings people together - that’s building communities. Build it and people will come.
GS: You’ve also done some pioneering work with the homeless?
SH: I wouldn’t necessarily call it ‘pioneering’ I would just call it common sense. When we started in the area there were quite a few homeless people around. So
GS: Tell me about the Henrietta Street Gym development?
SH: It was an old garage that was left derelict after a fire, and we converted into a heritage boxing and fitness gym. Neil, the owner of Henrietta Street Gym, was considering moving out of the city because it just wasn’t affordable. I showed him what we could do with the space he’s in now. Now he’s paying no service charge, less rent and is in a bigger and better building. He was open enough to run with my ideas and his business is now flourishing. Nike has just done a shoot in there and the gym has become a real pillar of the community.
GS: The Compound is your home as well as your company headquarters. How does that work?
SH: It works extremely well because we wanted to run Javelin Block as a transparent company. So our home/office is also our show flat. We run an open-door policy that breeds trust and confidence. Since opening my home/office it has also become a creative hub and an inspirational place for many of the world’s blue chip companies.