Jacob Loftus - Founder and CEO of General Projects

Posted on 15 May 2020

Susan Freeman

Hi, I’m Susan Freeman, welcome back to our PropertyShe podcast series brought to you by Mishcon de Reya in association with the London Real Estate Forum where I get to interview some of the key influencers in the world of real estate and the built environment.  The current situation means we are now recording the podcast digitally so please do bear with us if the sound quality isn’t quite up to our usual studio standard. 

Today I am delighted to welcome Jacob Loftus.  Jacob is the Founder and CEO of General Projects, a design led real estate developer that creates experiential and sustainable buildings designed around the needs of the new economy.  With a focus on the changing nature of the home and workplace, General Projects collaborates with architects, designers, creatives and tech experts to deliver environments that inspire people and connect communities.  Since its inception in 2016, the business has led the reinvention of over 900,000 square feet of real estate across London, most notably this includes the reinvention of the iconic Grade II listed, One Poultry, transformed into the first creative HQ in the heart of the City.  Ongoing projects include Technique, an 80,000 square foot media style office building in Clerkenwell built entirely from cross-laminated timber; the reactivation of the former Woolworths HQ on Marylebone Road; Storybox, a former MI5 bunker in Vauxhall which is being transformed into a new experiential leisure hub; Expressway, an SME workspace and industrial complex in Silvertown; and most recently, Twickenham Film Studios.  Prior to founding General Projects in 2016, Jacob spent seven years at Resolution Property.  Whilst there, he pioneered their push into design led creative real estate including leading the award winning development of Alphabeta in Shoreditch.

So, now we are going to hear from Jacob Loftus about General Projects and on his innovative approach to development.  Jacob, welcome to the digital studio.  I think the last time we actually saw each other in real life was at the great dinner debate you hosted with Pat Brown and various people including Thomas Heatherwick who was a guest and we were talking about the future of London and that was obviously just pre-lockdown so, let’s jump straight in with, what made you choose real estate as your career?

Jacob Loftus

Hey Susan, firstly thank you very much for having me.  I think it was probably a combination of things; I went to University in Boston for four years, I was originally, well, I still am but was always very interested in politics so decided to study International Relations as my Degree.  I then came back to London sort of hanging around for a couple of days in that first summer holiday sort of wondering what to do.  I had always been quite interested in branding, marketing, design and architecture and my dad was sort of saying, “Oh there’s this real estate company called Derwent, you should have a look at them, they are doing all sorts of interesting slightly more creative and cool things with real estate.”  I thought that sort of sounded quite interesting and started Googling them and they looked like quite an interesting company.  I think at the same time, all of my friends seemed to be going into finance and I sort of felt a little bit of a pressure that perhaps finance was the place for, you know, aspirational people at the time and very fortunately I came across a real estate private equity fund called Resolution who I fortunately had a bit of a contact at and they seemed to be doing interesting things with real estate and they were also in the world of private equity which felt a bit more financey so I felt like that sounded like a really prestigious environment to kind of go into that straddled the two sectors and so I managed to wangle myself a two week internship there using a bit of hutzpah and charm and the two weeks were really interesting, I was involved in looking at a few deals that they were exploring at the time, got really excited and passionate about spending time in the buildings, understanding how the financial modelling worked and kind of, at the end of the two weeks, I sort of took a bit of a chance because the person who had got me the internship in the first place was off on holiday for a few weeks and so, kind of Friday afternoon I just waved goodbye to everyone and said “I’ll see you on Monday morning” hoping that no one had realised that I was supposed to be finishing that day and everyone just sort of said “Yeah, yeah, see you then” so I just sort of kept coming in for a few weeks and then when the CEO finally returned from holiday he sort of walked in and looked at me and goes “What the hell are you still doing here?” and I just sort of shrugged, you know, embarrassingly and said “Oh well, everyone’s kind of busy and I’ve been helping out and didn’t want to let the team down” and it just sort of went from there and within a few weeks they felt compelled and sufficiently guilty having worked me to the bone for no pay that they felt they had to give me some kind of opportunity there and so begun the seven years that I spent there which was a really fantastic career for me, experience. 

Susan Freeman

I think that’s a, that was a great story and of course there are one or two people in your family who are involved in real estate so I suppose it wasn’t totally foreign. 

Jacob Loftus

Yeah, different members of my family are and, you know, so it’s always been an industry that’s kind of been talked about at the dinner table and always, you know, something that I’ve felt connected to.  My mother is also a very bohemian and creative interior designer and whilst it’s perhaps not exactly the same sort of aesthetic that I bring into our projects, you know I’ve always grown around a very creative and design led aesthetic with her that’s definitely a big shaping influence as well. 

Susan Freeman

That’s interesting so, after seven years you decided to start your own development company and I have always, I wondered why the name General Projects?  Where did that come from?

Jacob Loftus

Really good question.  I met a really interesting character on one of our projects back at Resolution.  One of the things about our approach I suppose with all of our projects is we really like to bring interesting and unusual people round the table, you know, so whilst we obviously work with fantastic architects we always try and bring in artists, branding consultants and other creative professionals into the kind of design circle so that we are getting lots of different ideas and influences shaping a project and Alphabeta, one of the bigger projects that I did at Resolution, included a really creative and colourful character called Simon Turnbull who is a bit of a branding and marketing guru.  We really hit it off on that project, he’s worked on pretty much all of the projects I have ever done since and when I decided to set up alone, we spent a bit of time together kind of spit balling what should it be called, what’s the ethos of this business, what are we trying to create and in typical fashion we sort of came up with loads of different ideas and General Projects stuck, I think mainly because for me one of the big things that I’ve always really valued and always been really motivated by is kind of being involved in a quite a diverse mix of different things.  I think the industry can be a bit copy, paste, repeat and a bit cookie cutter in its approach and I think one of the key things about what I was keen to do with General Projects and have kind of always done is, you know, to get involved in buildings, you know, in locations from east London to west, Bristol to Manchester, we are interested in converting old warehouses, we are interested in reinventing boring 1980’s buildings that, you know, most people think should be ripped down, we like to find unusual spaces, we like to build new build construction in very different ways to most of the industry so I think General Projects sort of resonated as a kind of fairly bland background statement that in a way felt like it could be really relevant and adaptable to every possible idea or project we might want to do over the course of the next 25 years, 30 years, however long we can keep this going for. 

Susan Freeman

Yeah, I think, that is great, it makes me think of General Magic, I don’t know why but I… it’s a great, it has a sort of retro feel to it as well which I really like and interesting what you say about getting interesting and unusual people together because I know one of the things you say on your website is that great minds don’t think alike and that, you know, that’s a good thing about getting, you know, getting people together from different creative backgrounds.  You have a wonderful sense of timing because I think you set up General Projects in the same week that we voted to leave the EU and then four years on, you were recently granted planning consent for Storybox, your one and a half acre bunker in Vauxhall so that was just weeks before lockdown so, how has this lockdown affected your projects?  Are you able to carry on with your planning applications virtually?  How are things working in practice? 

Jacob Loftus

I have been incredibly impressed in kind of so many different spheres that we are involved in by how kind of how quickly and resiliently firstly our team at General Projects has kind of adapted to this, you know, slightly different way of working but also how the different partners and collaborators and stakeholders that we are engaged with have as well so, I think since lockdown started we have submitted a planning application on a project in Marylebone which is the old Woolworth’s headquarters designed by Richard Seifert on the Marylebone Road so, Westminster Council have been brilliant at helping us ensure that that project was able to move forward and planning was submitted.  Down in Elephant and Castle, we are reinventing the Grade II Listed Walworth Town Hall in a joint venture collaboration with London Borough of Southwark and that project was due to just, you know, be getting ready to submit planning now, we were supposed to have our final public consultation the day that lockdown was imposed and brilliantly, you know, Southwark worked with us and we worked with the local community to agree that we could do that public consultation entirely online so that’s been done and then we’ve then held our design review panel with Southwark as well and we are expecting to submit the application in ten days’ time so based on the latest announcement from Boris we will still be in lockdown when that goes in.  At our Clerkenwell office development, construction did have to stop for a few weeks over lockdown but the contractor is now back on site, obviously respecting social distancing rules but that’s seemingly continuing, at a slightly slower pace but continuing none the less so, there is no question that it has been fairly disruptive and momentum has been lost on some things perhaps and there’s obviously a huge amount of uncertainty as to how we are going to move forward from here but I think we’ve been able to manage pretty effectively and efficiently so far. 

Susan Freeman

Yes, it’s amazing how things go on and you know who would have thought a few months ago that you could carry on with the planning process virtually.  So, Jacob you’ve positioned General Projects as a design led innovative developer and you focus on unusual projects which respond to changing demographics, the way the workplace is changing, I mean what are the changes that you focus on that you think may be more old school developers hadn’t focussed on?

Jacob Loftus

I think there’s a really unusual thing that exists in our industry that even now, it’s still kind of never fails to bewilder me.  I don’t know what the percentage is but the vast majority of buildings you walk into that are being built today, whether they are housing or whether they are offices, are just so bland, so uninspiring and you can just see from the outside and the inside that primarily the design of those buildings were driven by someone on a spreadsheet, someone 100% focussed on managing costs and actually there’s not a kind of ounce of anything that’s really focussed on human experience, the happiness of a person in trying to create an environment to foster that, they’re completely lacking in a responsibility to kind of wider society in terms of how the architecture of that building might contribute to the place that they’re in or, you know, create a lasting legacy and I just find it kind of so unusual and counterintuitive that so much of the industry for such a long period of time is even able to sustain itself delivering that sort of approach and, you know, this isn’t a minority of buildings, if you walk around most parts of central London and look at anything built in the last twenty or thirty years, a building that you would say has a really positive impact on that community and really feels like a great place to live or a great place of work, is definitely in the minority of buildings not the majority and so I have always found it completely odd that in a kind of free market capitalist liberal economy that we live in, how is that even sustainable, how does the market not kind of weed out that underperformance and I guess that sort of speaks to the dynamics of supply and demand for the housing and other things but I think from my perspective and for general projects we are almost in, in the context of all of that stuff, I would say we are more in the people business than the property business.  All of our projects, the only thing that gets talked about in all of our design team meetings and all of our branding meetings and all of our marketing meetings, everything’s just about the end user.  The only thing we are interested in is, how do we create the most beautiful building?  How do we make it exciting and interesting and creative?   Ultimately, how do we create a place that we would want to live or work in and we are quite a young team as a business, as individuals we are all quite aspirational, we are all interested in design, we all want to be doing innovative things so for us, the primary focus on everything is, if we don’t want to live or work there, it’s either not a project we should be doing or we’ve got the design completely wrong and we need to start again and I think that kind of approach hopefully encourages us to be much more creative and aspirational and to differentiate our buildings quite a lot. 

Susan Freeman

It does sound exciting.  One of the things that I was wondering about is whether the way people use buildings is going to change as a result of this pandemic?  I know you’ve talked about the lobby of an office building as being a bit like a hotel lobby and it should be an amenity space for the tenants that can be accessed by the public as well.  Do you think that’s going to change or is it temporarily and then perhaps we get back to, you know, business as usual as it seems to have done in the Far East?

Jacob Loftus

Yeah, I think it’s going to be natural that there’s going to be definitely a temporary hiatus on gathering and communal events spaces and encouraging close proximity, you know, whether it’s within co-working spaces or interesting coffee shops or event areas within buildings, there’s obviously going to be a temporary pause on that.  I think, in terms of the long-term fundamentals that get changed as a consequence of Covid, I am actually kind of of the belief that the majority of those kind of key trends and changes were already well on their way to becoming commonplace and actually Covid is perhaps going to be a bit more of an accelerator, you know, so from my perspective sustainability, health and wellbeing, you know, have been buzzwords that the industry, most of the industry, has been talking about but actually there haven’t been huge examples of kind of real innovation in those spaces as of yet whereas I think the occupier of tomorrow, the business of tomorrow, is going to think so much more carefully about, you know, how healthy is a building, actually is breathing mechanical ventilation all day the right way or do we have to have a building that enables openable windows?  Yes, it was always important to have good quality cycling facilities and enough bikes for all of our staff but did people ever really as a business look at the ratio of how many bike spaces there were getting whereas tomorrow’s occupier, tomorrow’s building, that’s probably going to become much more important.  Access to green spaces within buildings, it’s going to become much more important.  Equally, the flexibility revolution led by WeWorks and Office Groups and flexible workspace providers, I think it was always clear for me anyway over the last few years that was becoming an increasingly mainstream requirement of occupiers and I think the way we will work after Covid is only going to be more flexible so the model for landlords is going to, I think, continue to be radically re-shifted into more of a hospitality type relationship and I always find it quite funny that, you know, the word landlord and tenant still exists, it’s like a feudal term from tenth century England and it’s like when we look at the businesses who occupy our buildings, they are businesses who might be signing five/ten/fifteen year leases, they are committing to pay us income for a very long period of time at very significant sums of money, they are our customers, not out our tenants and isn’t that kind of obvious and there’s this kind of whole antiquated relationship, you know, stemming from the word of landlord, everything through the fact that leases are a hundred pages, that kind of every five years you and your customer who pays you huge amounts of rent and who you hopefully want to stay here forever, get into this kind of adversarial, you know, situation around something called a rent review which pits both of you against each other and tries to essentially foster kind of some hostile environment which couldn’t be any more the antithesis of kind of customer service and building relationships with your customers so, for me we were on a big shift anyway over the last few years to the world of real estates having to become much more customer-centric and much more focussed on flexibility, customer service, user experience, hospitality and I think Covid is going to accelerate that even further because businesses are going to want more flexibility, they are going to expect more choice and ultimately as people work in different ways in different spaces that they want and when they need to use them and how they want to use them is going to have to change and become naturally a lot more adaptable so, landlords if they are still going to be called that are going to have to be much more capable of offering different spaces and different operational means and different types of environments to keep their spaces relevant and attractive to the customer of tomorrow. 

Susan Freeman

It does feel as we have a once in a generation opportunity to change things and, you know, as you say these trends that were already there, they’ve been accelerated and it would be a shame if people then sort of drift back to business as usual and I know one of the things that’s causing concern is we all seem to, I mean you obviously didn’t wake up on 1 January realising that sustainability and climate change were technically important but I think a lot of people actually had come to that conclusion and the concern is that with, you know, this new crisis that sustainability and the need to reduce our carbon footprint might effectively go on the backburner if you will excuse that expression but I know that sustainability is something that you take very seriously and we have spoken a little bit about, in the past, about using cross-laminated timber which I think you are doing in some of your developments.  Can you talk a little bit about that and, you know, the other materials that you’re using to reduce carbon footprint?

Jacob Loftus

Yeah, I think for us as a business particularly being a group of younger professionals, climate change and social responsibility is very much at the top of our agenda and whilst I think some of the industry has been slower to recognise the wider real estate responsibility towards climate change, I think what has now very clearly happened and, you know the penny has dropped as you said, is actually whether it’s investors or the end occupier of a building environmental and sustainability has become such a key component for them that even the developers and the more antiquated members of the real estate industry who perhaps didn’t see sustainability as such an important thing, are very soon, if not already, finding out that if they are not delivering buildings that do achieve high quality environmental credentials that actually occupiers aren’t going to want to come there and investors aren’t going to want to buy those buildings so, I think the market is going to force even the most backward looking to evolve quite quickly.  For us, we’re very interested in being somewhat pioneering in this space, there are many different things that real estate industry can be doing to massively reduce our carbon footprint and also to show that actually we can be a really good contributing force in kind of promoting sustainability more generally.  I think one of the interesting things for us is we are very much interested in the reinvention of existing buildings first and foremost.  It’s obviously much more sustainable to refurbish and retrofit an existing building than knocking it down and starting again.  Just that decision to retain an existing structure and reinvent it rather than start again from scratch by knocking it down, already is a kind of 50% carbon saving, just through refurbishing rather than redeveloping so, it’s a much more responsible way to begin with and that’s always our kind of starting point.  We often have a big pressure to add more space to buildings and as you mentioned we’re doing quite a bit with cross-laminated timber, again, timber is a much more sustainable material than building out of, you know, steel or concrete, between 30 and 45% saving in terms of embodied carbon, not to mention the fact that when you build out of concrete, build out of timber rather, because it’s prefabricated offsite and is delivered ready to be installed, you actually significantly reduce the amount of traffic coming to the construction site and are able to build slightly quicker as well so that’s, you know, significantly improving air pollution and the environmental credentials for your neighbours around so that’s really interesting from our perspective and actually over in Clerkenwell at the moment we are under construction on a existing distillery, gin distillery, that we are adding three floors to, it’s being built 100% out of cross-laminated timber and we think that actually it’s a much more beautiful and organic way of working as well so, within that building all of the timber structure including the ceilings which are also being fully made out of timber, it’s all being whitewashed and left exposed and we think that will create a really kind of lovely organic environment for people to work in.  We are trying to do other innovative things as well so we are working with a company in Amsterdam who take, who divert household waste and instead of taking it to the landfill, they divert it to their factory, they crush it down and essentially make really beautiful handmade bricks from it.  The bricks look as beautiful as any kind of high spec handmade brick that you can find on the market but they are 65% made out of household waste.  We think the idea of kind cladding a building in waste, a) is a fantastic message in terms of sustainability and recycling but to 90% of the people walking past it, they’ll never know anyway and they’ll just look at it as hopefully a beautiful building and we are really interested in kind of creating these examples of showing how sustainability can be exceptionally beautiful as well and, you know, equally cost effective too, we like most others also have to make our projects viable, we are ultimately a for profit business but we don’t believe that profit and kind of purpose and you know social environmental responsibility necessarily can’t marry up and work together.  One of the lovely things that we always talk about on a lot of our projects particularly with local stakeholders and, you know, Local Authority partners and other people we collaborate, is this idea of the General Project’s two plus two equals five business model and, you know, the idea of our two plus two equals five is really we think there’s this kind of historic perception in the real estate industry where the developer and, you know, the local community or the wider environment are at a kind of adversarial situation whereby, you know, only one can win and the other has to lose so, you know, for the developer to win, he’s looking to maximise his profit and as a consequence design quality, give back to the local community, sustainability kind of goes down and vice versa, if the developer has to give away too much he’s not making enough profit so there’s kind of I think historic perception of you know adversary in the industry where it’s a zero sum gain, you know the developer either wins or loses.  We kind of see it from completely the opposite perspective whereby there’s this opportunity for two plus two to equal five.  If we can create buildings with fantastic design where sustainability is at the heart of them, where we really engage with the local community, we’ve understood their needs, we’ve tried to think about creative ways that actually this project can be enhancing the lives and experiences of the people who live around us and actually we can create something that’s going to contribute something for the long-term, actually there’s this kind of really interesting place somewhere on the Venn diagram of all of those different things where everything overlaps really nicely and actually we end up creating something that’s more valuable from a financial standpoint because this project is doing all these other wonderful things which means people want to be in this building, people want to stay here longer and equally, you know, the environment and the wider kind of community around us and hopefully broader society is also benefitting as well and you know there’s this kind of extra top slice of value that everyone benefits from just by kind of thinking much more holistically about what you are doing and that’s something we kind of always strive for in all of our projects both in terms of environmental and sustainability but equally in terms of, you know, social value and community impact. 

Susan Freeman

Do you think it’s a generational thing?  I mean, do you think, do you actually think millennials are more socially conscious because you clearly feel a responsibility to create social value and a positive impact on the community which, you know, hasn’t always been the way in real estate?

Jacob Loftus

I definitely think it is a generational thing for sure.  I think my peers and people of my generation, in a more broad context I think see community benefit and social responsibility as a kind of more fundamental part of their lives and part of their lifestyle although, you know, I wouldn’t want to detract from many in the older generation that equally feel a responsibility to deliver that.  We as a business definitely do feel a big social responsibility and like with the environmental side of things, we are trying to find interesting ways of creating very tangible, meaningful social impact through our projects which contributes to the two plus two equals five business model and it’s been a really interesting learning curve for us over the last kind of twelve months when I think this has really become much more of a focus for us but we are just in the final throws of setting up a big partnership with Newham Council on a project down in the Royal Docks where we recently bought and have refurbished a very big business centre with 162 local SMEs working there and we were talking to the Borough trying to understand the socioeconomic demographics of the wider area and some of the key aspirations that Newham as borough have because obviously as a London borough it’s got one of the highest deprivation rates, you know, highest unemployment rates and the council is really keen to be prioritising and inclusive economy in trying to kind of foster new opportunities for young people in the Borough and we are sort of sitting there having this really interesting conversation with the Mayor and a couple of other key people at the council and I am trying to understand their key criteria and we sort of left thinking, well there are a thousand people working in this business centre, 162 local business, actually in terms of kind of scale and network effect that is a huge number of people and businesses that if we could design a model, you know, and set up some kind of structure to work with them to give something back to the community, it could actually have a real kind of meaningful benefit given the size of it so the partnership that we’ve set up with the Borough now, is going to see all of our businesses take on, or hopefully the vast majority of our businesses, take on a local sixth former from one of two or three local schools that we are partnering with and those kids will be coming to the building once a month and doing one on one mentoring programmes to help prepare them for life in the workplace and give them some real world experience before they leave school, we are partnering with the Borough on a new apprenticeship programme which I hope will place 25 to 30 apprentices at the building from next year, we are just finishing a big refurbishment of our lobby there and that’s going to include some open co-working spaces and we’ve decided that rather than renting out those spaces we are actually going to give all of our co-working spaces away for free to local graduates from Newham who are trying to start new businesses and the one final thing that’s, well there are many other things involved in this but the one really interesting thing that we’ve also done is we are starting to change our standardised lease in that building to an impact lease and what we are saying in the lease is any business who wants to come into the centre moving forward, 1) has to give a discount on their services to other businesses in the centre because we want to foster a kind of real community spirit amongst the businesses there and 2) they have to commit to giving an hour a month of community give back and that can either be through our programmes of, you know, youth mentoring and apprenticeships and stuff like that or it can be something else they want to do and it’s quite unusual I think for a kind of, dare I use the word, ‘landlord’ to kind of be requiring an occupier of a building to be doing that stuff but we talked to a lot of businesses in the centre and we explained why we are doing it and what the thinking behind it was and almost everyone we spoke to was incredibly excited by the whole thing and really supportive of it and, you know the feedback from most of our businesses has been “Actually the idea of being able to mentor a young person is actually really interesting for us and the fact that you set up the programme and you’ve made it easy by building the partnership with the school and arranging for the kids to come and meet us in the coffee shop in the lobby of the building so we don’t have to go anywhere and it’s done on a Thursday afternoon which is a good day for us.”  Removing all the friction and making it really easy for people to give back is something that we’ve learnt is a really great way of us as a business being able to kind of facilitate social value through our projects and, you know, this project with Newham, we’ve had it kind of economically assessed and, you know, will hopefully be delivering £5 million of tangible, social impact value over the next five years and if that became something that other real estate owners were able to kind of evolve and bring into their buildings, if you extrapolated that over fifty or a hundred buildings, you’re suddenly getting to £50/100 million of social value for a Local Authority kind of created out of thin air with very little cost attached to it. 

Susan Freeman

And it sounds like a pretty amazing model and I was also looking at your plans for Walworth Town Hall because I think you’re also looking at innovative uses for the community space there.  So, what are you looking at there?  What are your plans?

Jacob Loftus

Definitely.  So, the Town Hall is a really interesting project in itself.  It’s a magnificent Grade II Listed former town hall but unfortunately had an enormous fire in it in 2012 so has been sitting derelict and empty since then and the Council concluded that they no longer needed it, they relocated the town hall function and a year and a half ago they went out to do a kind of public tender with developers to find a partner to restore the building and bring it back to life as a new workspace and creative hub.  We thought that sounded really interesting and we spent a lot of time looking at the opportunity and I think it’s fair and honest to say that our original plan was, you know, we thought the building was incredibly beautiful from architectural standpoint, we really liked, you know, the regeneration story that was happening at Elephant and Castle and we felt that we could do something really cool, creative and interesting with the building from a kind of workspace perspective.  As we kind of went through the bidding round, or rounds plural, we were approached by the Walworth Society who are a local community and heritage group in the area, sort of said we’d love to meet you and talk about your plans and we invited them in and it was incredibly actually humbling and slightly embarrassing if I am honest, how much they were kind of explaining to us about the history of the building and the local community who lived there and, you know, just how much people felt such a kind of strong connection and resonance to the building, elderly people in the area saw most of their kids married in that building when it had civic functions and that actually so much of the local community revolved around the civic functions that that building provided to them for, you know, twenty, thirty, forty years and kind of here were we, new young developer, just interested in kind of turning it into something cool and not belittling what we are doing but I think for me it was quite a humbling experience that actually we really hadn’t perhaps appreciated some of the different facets that existed in the complex of this project and we sort of walked away from that meeting and thought, “Hmm, we’re not at all happy with the plans as we’ve designed them now and actually I think we need to kind of completely rethink our project and work out how we kind of put something of real merit, of real quality back into this project that will be for the community” and I think we kind of concluded actually quite quickly that to make that economically viable within the project just kind of didn’t really work because the fire damage was so big that we could just, the costs of putting the building back together didn’t really leave much in it to then kind of create something fantastic that we could give away for free back to the community but we sort of said “This is what the building needs and this is what the project should be about” so we kind of set about designing this really interesting new concept which was to create a purpose built new community centre on the ground floor of the project in the most grand room within the building and kind of the idea that we had having spoken to quite a few community groups about it was there are a lot of examples where developers create ‘community centres’ as part of a planning requirement and then no thought was given as to how they are going to be operated in the future and, you know, they basically just kind of end up sitting there collecting dust and don’t really have any kind of tangible benefit to anyone and so the feedback kind of from the community was, we need to kind of create the space, we need to remain a bit of facilitator from it but we actually need to find ten, twenty, thirty local community groups who all can use the space for, you know, a day, a week, two weeks at a time, programmed and timetabled by us so that a huge diverse mix of community groups all benefit from this space and so the kind of ideas gained momentum and then we had to go back in and re-present the project to Southwark which was slightly awkward because we kind of came in and said “Look, we’ve changed our plans based on, you know, a lot of community engagement and feedback that we’ve had.”  Bear in mind at the time we were still in a competitive process with another developer to try and win the project and we said “Look, this is what we want to do but to make it work we are actually going to need a grant from the council but we really think, and we’ll invest in it alongside you but we can’t fund a 100% of it ourselves” and the Council were really intrigued by the model and the offer that they thought it was a really great idea as well and we ended up winning the competition despite the fact that essentially our project needed a subsidy from the Council whereas others were not requiring anything of the sort but I think, you know, for me that was a really great lesson in A) really thinking a lot more deeply about some of the consequences and impacts that our projects have on different communities and really kind of making me a lot more aware about just how important it is to you know really be engaging with people form an early stage of the project, really to be kind of researching and understanding the local communities and the histories of neighbourhoods that we are developing within and also kind of showing that actually with some flexibility and financial creativity there are really interesting ways that you can do something that hopefully has a really kind of meaningful and lasting impact. 

Susan Freeman

It’s a really interesting learning curve isn’t it?  And I have a final question, Jacob.  What do we need to do to get more young innovators like you to actually join the property sector and actually stay in the sector?

Jacob Loftus

It’s a great question.  I mean I do think there are tons of incredibly talented young people already in the sector, whether it’s architects, planners, engineers, investors, developers, you know, we come across tons and tons of interesting young people all the time so, I definitely don’t think that the industry is necessarily lacking in that talent at all, I think perhaps the slightly bigger challenge is let’s be honest, the industry does have a bit of a reputation for being somewhat overly controlled by an older demographic of a particular gender and I think perhaps the way to reframe that question and probably the more important thing from my perspective to think about is actually how do we make sure that a lot of the young talented people that are already in the sector are kind of being given an opportunity perhaps earlier in their career to take on more responsibility and be able to flourish that little bit more.  I often joke that one of the big reasons why we think our projects are often hopefully successful and why we think General Projects has quite a good edge relative to some of our competitors is the fact that we are a very young group of people doing what we are doing and ultimately, you know, when you look at the end user today, you know 50% of the global workforce today are millennials, by 2025 75% of the global workforce will be millennials and so, you know, from my perspective I think a lot of companies would actually do very well to actually give some of their younger staff members more responsibility and more of an opportunity to have a kind of meaningful contribution to, you know, the design process and the decision making process because ultimately those people are probably going to be increasingly far more connected and in touch with what the occupier of tomorrow and the user of tomorrow wants than perhaps a lot of the decision makers that are around today are. 

Susan Freeman

I think that’s a really interesting message to end on so, Jacob thank you, thank you very much. 

Jacob Loftus

Cool.  Thanks, Susan. 

Susan Freeman

Thank you so much to Jacob Loftus for talking to us about how he used hutzpah and charm to start his career and his refreshing design and approach to development. 

So, that’s it for now.  I really hope you enjoyed today’s digital conversation.  Please all stay safe and join us for the next PropertyShe podcast interview coming very shortly. 

The Propertyshe podcast is brought to you by Mishcon de Reya in association with the London Real Estate Forum and can be found at Mishcon.com/PropertyShe along with all our interviews and programme notes.  The podcasts are also available to subscribe to on your Apple podcast app, and on Spotify and whatever podcast app you use.  Do continue to let us have your feedback and comments and most importantly suggestions for future guests and of course you can continue to follow me on Twitter @Propertyshe for a regular commentary on all things real estate, Prop Tech and the built environment.

Jacob Loftus is Founder and CEO of General Projects, a design-led real estate developer that creates experiential and sustainable buildings, designed around the needs of the new economy. With a focus on the changing nature of the home and the workplace, General Projects collaborates with architects, designers, creatives and tech experts to deliver environments that inspire people and connect communities.

Since its inception in 2016, the business has led the reinvention of over 900,000 sq ft of real estate across London. Most notably this includes the reinvention of the iconic Grade-II listed One Poultry, transformed into the first Creative HQ in the heart of the City. Ongoing projects include; Technique, an 80,000 sq ft media-style office building in Clerkenwell built entirely from cross laminated timber; the reactivation of the former Woolworth’s HQ on Marylebone Road; Storybox, a former MI5 bunker in Vauxhall being transformed into a new experiential leisure hub; Expressway, an SME workspace & industrial complex in Silvertown and most recently Twickenham Film Studios.

Prior to founding General Projects in 2016, Jacob spent 7 years at Resolution Property as Principal and subsequently Head of UK. Whilst at Resolution, Jacob acquired and developed over 1.5m sq ft of real estate. Jacob pioneered Resolution’s push into design-led creative real estate, including leading the award winning development of Alphabeta in Shoreditch. Jacob holds an MSc in Real Estate from London Southbank University and a BA in International Relations from Boston.

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