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Ardmore Chatham Quays Interview

High-rise dockside development has been a central part of what has underpinned the regeneration of Britain's maritime heritage over the past three decades. One such place is Chatham Maritime, on the site of the former Royal Naval Dockyard in Chatham.

Here Ardmore Construction and its development division Byrne Estates teamed up to develop The Quays, designed at planning stage by the award-winning architect, Wilkinson Eyre. We caught up with Chris Langdon from Ardmore to find out how the project emerged from the drawing board to become a reality.


SKYSCRAPERNEWS - The South East England Development Agency originally came up with the idea, but what made you decide to bid for the build, and why that particular project?

CHRIS LANGDON - Originally the scheme came to us as a construction project but having looked at it in detail, we could see the opportunities and, more importantly, the overall vision for Chatham Maritime. We realised there was a bigger role for us, acting as developer and effectively buying into the wider regeneration project. Quite often regeneration schemes are well intentioned but are sequenced in a way that means they fail to create a destination, not the case in this instance. Chatham Maritime was well planned and is well placed as a commuter town. As an undervalued location there is still great potential for growth.

SKYSCRAPERNEWS Is the existence of the nearby high speed railway what you meant by having the local transportation links nearby?

CHRIS LANGDON - That's only part of the story, all the different elements need to be in place. The sales pitch of being able to travel from Chatham to Paris in two hours is obviously appealing but it's the London connection that is critical to capturing an additional market. Good road and rail links into London and the connections to the continent combine to make Chatham Maritime a much more accessible location. When we first started looking to move forward with the project, the actual timings for opening the local high-speed link were unknown. It's an important factor but it wouldn't in itself have been the sole investment criteria.

SKYSCRAPERNEWS - Is the development of Chatham Maritime complete?

CHRIS LANGDON - No, there's more. There's a brownfield site known the 'interface land' that's owned by South East England Development Agency (SEEDA) which we are assuming will transfer across to the Homes and Communities Agency. There have been extensions to the Dockside Outlet Centre, the local shopping centre, which has generated its own momentum, there's ongoing residential development by Countryside on St Mary's Island, and there are other proposals underway. What's great about the location is that it has already hit the level of maturity and critical mass needed for it to sustain itself yet there is still capacity for further development and growth.

SKYSCRAPERNEWS - Other historic dock areas like Gravesend have had proposals that never got planning approved, why was Chatham Maritime different?

CHRIS LANGDON It is difficult to generalise as it's usually a set of very specific local factors that make one proposal more successful than another. Chatham was a very vibrant, diverse economic centre when the Dockyard closed some 25-26 years ago, whereas Gravesend is more of an established town centre. Regeneration projects depend on whether the local community has the appetite for change and require wide consultation and local support to achieve planning. I believe one of the concerns in Gravesend was about whether the proposals were in keeping with the existing architecture of the town so development proposals had to be more consistent with the existing architecture styles and building types. At Chatham Maritime, there were fewer existing buildings and actually the vision for The Quays was all about making a statement on the landscape.

SKYSCRAPERNEWS - The whole Thames corridor and the Medway Towns has had some pretty big proposals but surprisingly little has gone ahead. What do you think went wrong with how it was approached by the powers that be in meeting their own targets?

CHRIS LANGDON - I think this isn't about any one location; it's a national story. I remember going to the Thames Gateway conference about six years ago and the Chatham proposals were being showcased. You could walk around the exhibition stands and you could see twenty or thirty visions for developments in different locations, but only a fraction of them have come off. Some I'm sure have failed because of agreements over land ownership or planning viability or lack of feasibility. One of the key things about Chatham Maritime was the approach taken by the public authorities and of course the fantastic work SEEDA has done in actually creating this destination with all its constituent parts. From the outset it was easy to see that Chatham Maritime had the potential to succeed and now it is thriving and growing. Some regeneration schemes may be housing-led but you can see from the outset that there will be very little to do there once all the flats are built, and as a result many will remain empty. It's not always in the public sector's gift but certainly the energy and support Medway and SEEDA gave to the proposals for Chatham Maritime made a big difference. This approach is much more attractive to the private sector, making it more willing to roll up its sleeves and get involved.

SKYSCRAPERNEWS - What was the process behind working out all the different elements in the project and stacking them up?

CHRIS LANGDON - We needed to complement rather than compete with what was already there or was already planned. For example, there's little point in adding in more hotels if there's already a hotel provision, so we looked at complementary uses. One of the project's aspirations was to encourage a nighttime economy with places to eat and drink. Our aim was to appeal to the cosmopolitan, young professional urban dwellers as well as existing residents from Chatham town centre, people looking for a vibrant waterside location as an alternative to the new family-oriented housing on St Mary's Island. Importantly, Chatham was one of the last enterprise zones in the UK and tax allowances that enterprise zones generate are absolutely fundamental to this type of development. It wouldn't have progressed without the enterprise zone in position. It all kind of fitted into place.

SKYSCRAPERNEWS - What influence did the Ken Yang master plan play on the eventual completed project?

CHRIS LANGDON - Ken's original plan was that Chatham Maritime had to be a stunning place to look at, it had to be a place that would have stunning views, an amazing place to be, and to be a destination in its own right. All those aspirations have been very important for us, down to the use of high quality materials like the cladding timber and glazed facades. For us it was all about creating a statement on the landscape. The Quays can be seen as you approach the Medway tunnel and from all directions and the views from the buildings themselves are fantastic. The marina and the castle give the landscape a real sense of the history and character of the place and combined with the shops, riverside walks, the cinema, the Historic Dockyard, and Dickens World all within walking distance, make Chatham Maritime a real destination. Restaurant parking is convenient which also makes a difference. The quality of the built environment and the aesthetics of the scheme all contribute. It's a nice place to live and work.

SKYSCRAPERNEWS - Wilkinson Eyre are acclaimed what do you feel they have brought to the project that others couldn't?

CHRIS LANGDON - All these things are a process, you go from masterplan drawings to detailed planning through to detailed construction drawings. It's very important at the stage when you're actually going for detailed planning approval to be able to present the quality of the original vision. Wilkinson Eyre really had the ability to understand what the original master plan was seeking to achieve and how to transform that into specific, deliverable, viable proposals that were in keeping with the original quality and vision of the design.

SKYSCRAPERNEWS - How did you pick the architect for the detailed work?

CHRIS LANGDON - Ardmore secured the project under a design and build contract. There are all sorts of ways you can approach a design and build project from a procurement view. My personal view is that you have to let the contractor do what they do best and in order to optimise that process you need a very clear sense of employer's requirements. Be very clear on what you are expecting in terms of performance, beyond that you have to let the contractors make the commercial decisions that they need to be able to do. So Byrne Estates proposed KDS as an upfront architect. Ardmore and Byrne have a long-established relationship with KDS; they have extensive experience in high rise buildings and are able to move quickly on the ground. Working with Ardmore they came up with a number of significant improvements for the scheme such as optimising layouts and cores to provide an additional number of apartments, increasing car parking spaces, practical engineering solutions for complicated boardwalks which overhang the marina. All these things were pretty technical issues which can sometimes make the process more protracted and expensive. As long as the client is clear about the things that are important to them, the contractor can take control of the design.

SKYSCRAPERNEWS - During construction and presumably the marketing and sales of the project there was the credit crunch. During that time, did this throw up many issues?

CHRIS LANGDON - It had a massive impact. We had a whole range of challenges, from mortgage availability, mortgage affordability to the economic situation in Ireland, and the impact on the banks. There were decisions that had to be made, planning issues, supply chain issues, timings and launches. So I have to say it's probably testament to the model that Byrne Estate and Ardmore employs that the scheme was delivered at all. I think a more traditional design and build developer / contractor relationship would have come to a halt. It has been a very difficult couple of years and I think that it's still tough but if the industry comes through this period as it has done before, we will all be stronger for it.

SKYSCRAPERNEWS - There have been many rumors of cable car routes through Medway linking various projects and town s together, is this going to materialize do you think?

CHRIS LANGDON - Possibly when the ski slopes get installed! I have to say I can't see it myself, so I wouldn't want to rain on anyone's parade.

SKYSCRAPERNEWS - What next for Byrne Estates? Can we expect any more waterfront regeneration schemes?

CHRIS LANGDON - Absolutely, there's plenty of wind in our sails! The key again is getting the right location. Water is often seen as a plus point because people like living in a waterside location and it looks great on architects' plans but then the wind whips up and it's a different story. From an economic point of view, water is a natural barrier; cutting off a site from its surroundings, but water regeneration still offers some tremendous opportunities as well as challenges providing the location is right.

SKYSCRAPERNEWS - Well they are the questions we discussed. Is there anything you would like to add you think we may have missed?

CHRIS LANGDON - I think the challenges of delivering a scheme like Chatham Maritime during the recession are very, very tough and it is not surprising that a number of other projects have stalled. But it is a testament to how, with the right team and the right economic approach from the start, a strong belief in the project and a commitment to see it through, you can achieve virtually anything. An understanding of the master plan and clear communication with all the stakeholders and partners and all the teams involved is critical too. Credit should go to companies like Byrne and Ardmore for actually having the stomach to see projects through during the tough times. It's one thing to sell in a high market when everyone's on the up, but it really brings out the metal when you're in the trenches together!

SKYSCRAPERNEWS - Thanks for talking to us Chris!

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