Words:
Carl Turner

Related Project:
Peckham Levels
Pop Brixton
Coachworks
Hackney Bridge

Photography:
Rory Gardiner
Tim Crocker
Guy Archer

So, what is a meanwhile space? Meanwhile is a term describing a space (like an empty shop unit), a building (like an empty department store) or a place (like an empty site awaiting redevelopment), and the term describes how the space might be used temporarily while it is empty or awaiting a long-term use perhaps yet to be decided. Or literally what happens in the meanwhile (or intervening period of time to use the dictionary definition).

Meanwhile has become recognised as a serious tool for regeneration in recent years, having the power to test ideas, build consensus, support local people, and cut through red tape. I have been at the forefront of meanwhile thinking, involved in seminal meanwhile projects including Pop Brixton, Peckham Levels and most recently Hackney Bridge. As well as my day job as Director of Turner Works (architects and urban designers) I also designed, built, and now operate a meanwhile space called Ashford Coach Works (in partnership with the local council). So, I’m in the thick of it.

Here are my top six tips for getting it right. I start off with the Why and work back from there.

1 – Why?

It is critical to understand what you are trying to achieve. There are many misconceptions about meanwhile uses that I’ll try to set straight here. But right from the start a clarity of vision about the why is the most important consideration for any meanwhile project.

Reasons to run with meanwhile projects might include:

 

Testing ideas

Testing capacity

Proving local demand (for space)

Providing space or facilities required by local people

Increasing footfall to an area through activation and events

Providing local employment and training opportunities

Creating social value on many levels

Using empty space which is at a premium

Enlivening high streets

What meanwhile use is unlikely to achieve:

Making money! If this is an objective or key driver then think again. Meanwhile projects cost more than people think to set up, they can be labour intensive to run, and they are often seasonal faring better in summer than winter for example. That is not to say that money can’t be made, but this is not development, and short-term profit is an unlikely outcome. In fact, many meanwhile projects need significant capital investment to get off the ground.

They can however create ‘value’ by lifting an area and attracting long term investment (but don’t get me started on gentrification – I hate the term).

Clarity of purpose is thus an essential starting point.

2 – What?

Now that you know why you are thinking about a meanwhile project (or what problem you are trying to solve), you need to turn to what the project is. If you don’t have a site or a place in mind, you will of course need to formulate a brief, or a list of things you need to achieve and what type of space or spaces you might need for these activities.

You might also be starting with a site or building and trying to figure out what to do with it. You need to take a step back and start with the why. It might be that once you know why that your site isn’t suitable for meanwhile, not all are.

 

What is the space that you have or that you need?

What activities are you planning (work, food, play, events)?

How many days per week will you open?

What is the lifespan of the project?

We think about projects with different lifespans as tools to achieve different outcomes.

Pop-up:

Short activities more like a party or short festival to generate noise and get you noticed or signal something coming along soon. These would be things that don’t require planning consent, take minimal organisation, but will still need funding and running on the day. Might be a weekend or a week of activities.

Set Down:

Longer than pop-ups, perhaps anything from a few months to a couple of years. These will require forward planning perhaps a few months ahead, might need investment and will likely require continued input in terms of operations. This is at a scale that could be set up and run by community groups.

Sow Seeds:

We would characterise these as three-to-five-year projects with requirements for investment and operation (Pop Brixton is a good example of this duration of project). Likely to require planning consent, building regulations approval and more. This scale is unlikely to be set up and run by local communities, requiring specialist skill sets.

Take Root:

Five years or longer, still meanwhile but a step up in scale. These are significant regeneration projects often requiring partnerships between landowners, local authorities, operators, and the community. Significant investment of several million to get these off the ground, requiring a dedicated team of people to operate the site. Peckham Levels would be an example of this type of meanwhile use.

Some projects may start as seeds and morph into a more established meanwhile use. One of the great joys of meanwhile projects is that it is often a journey rather than a defined, pre-determined outcome. That is why they are authentic when done with conviction.

3 – How?

Armed with your purpose (your why) your site, brief, length of project etc. (your what), now you need to figure out how to pull it all together. First you need to look at the skills that will be needed to pull this off, the skills you have available and then put a plan together to plug the gap. You are going to have to consider the money (funding) to build and operate the space, how to progress a design from an idea or sketch to something that can be built, who is going to build it, and how you launch the project and transition into operations.

There are many excellent precedent projects to inspire and inform. Put a timeline together for design and planning (anything from 6 months to 2 years), construction from a few weeks to 12 months dependent on scale and you will need to start building a team while you are completing the project so that you can hit the ground running when construction ends.

If you are planning to sublet space, thought also needs to be given to when people will jump on board. I’ve found with short let spaces that people prefer to see it built and ready to occupy before they commit. Assume the space fills up over time (perhaps taking a year to fully let) so your cash flow projections need to reflect this.

You should also crash test your cash flow at 80% occupancy to check it is robust and sustainable over time.

One of the big questions for meanwhile is how to fund it. If you don’t own the land or the building, you can’t leverage debt easily (borrow against the asset) and won’t benefit from any uplift in value from your project.

Teaming up with landowners or building owners might be the answer. For instance, if a landlord has an empty commercial space, they will be paying bills, service charges and business rates even while its empty, and these can be substantial costs. Even if they charge a meanwhile operator no rent, their property will be far more secure, and those costs can be passed onto the meanwhile operator. Everyone wins!

Taking our Coachworks project, we entered a joint venture or partnership with Ashford Council (we set up a company as a vehicle to manage the project). The council had buildings that they wanted to activate with meanwhile uses and they were prepared to invest the capital costs to carry out the refurbishment and conversion costs to stop the buildings being an eyesore opposite the main rail station in Ashford, to provide start-up or incubator space for local creative businesses and change the narrative of Ashford to attract people and investment. This has a huge value. We had to find some seed money having taken a 5-year lease on the site following completion of the building works. We are two years into the lease. We now have a stable model that is breaking even despite the effects of the pandemic. The site is fully let, but this took around 12 months and rent levels are less than we initially thought.

Although we aren’t making much of a profit, we are more or less breaking even (thanks to Grant funding during Covid), but we are delivering on our why, which is to provide affordable start up space in Ashford and to test the model (of meanwhile uses) out of central London.

4 – Running the show (or how to operate a space)

Running a project isn’t for the faint hearted. Finding the right organisation or doing it yourself is probably the hardest part of any meanwhile project. If the buildings are the hardware, the people and systems are the software. Again, the why needs to drive this.

I’ll unpack some of what we do at Coachworks by way of illustration. Coachworks has roughly 15 studios of varying sizes from 120 up to 800sqft. We have co-workspace for up to 20 people all within a converted corn store building. We have an external yard with shipping containers housing 5 food and drink businesses (we run the main bar) and then a converted steel framed shed (that we call The Hothouse) with more units with a bottle shop, hair stylist, radio / recording studio, an indoor bar and soon to include a small bakery. We are also building three extra units due to demand. We run a programme of events and activities to drive footfall to the site to support the traders, more on that later.

We manage all of this with a local operations manager (currently part time), and the two directors (I’m very part time). Our hospitality crew who run the bar also help out with site operations and holding the whole thing together on location. In total a mixed crew of around 5 full/part time people.

The site is open 7 days per week and nearly all year round. The hospitality side of the operations run from Thursday lunch time through to Sunday evening. January we may as well be closed as trading is almost non-existent (for hospitality).

We also work with some of our tenants who look after our site photography, filming, social media, and graphics for a fee / bartered lower rent. This is a lot for a small team to manage (we also put on events throughout the year) and host parties by demand. This all takes energy and planning.

5 – Keep it fresh. Activation is key

One of the main reasons high streets are failing is that they generally consist of a collection of unrelated businesses who happen to be located in one place, with little or no joined-up thinking or pulling in the same direction (BIDS have evolved to try to counter this fairly recently).  Structures have also promoted longevity where businesses sign up to long leases creating a stagnant, generic local offering. Our approach differs in that we promote a stepping-stone economy. This is by offering short leases, where we encourage businesses to try out ideas at small scale, learn and move on to more ‘grown-up’ spaces. This keeps it fresh and means that the affordable space at the bottom of the pipeline is available to new entrepreneurs.

In addition, through a seasonal programme of events and activities, from film, to music, yoga, skateboarding, gaming, awards ceremonies, karaoke to name but a few, we can provide a constantly changing draw for people and drive footfall to support the public facing businesses. Although most meanwhile spaces are not typically high streets, they do offer an alternative and a model for high streets.

We find that the buildings and spaces become platforms for local people and organisations who come forward with ideas and suggestions for events and activities and thus as site operators we can support those local events, targeting less commercial times when community groups can use the space for instance.

6 – Don’t forget the exit strategy

Meanwhile will come to an end and that is an important part of the strategy. It is a question we are often asked. What if it’s so successful that there’s a campaign to save it? This is of real concern to developers, landowners and local authorities who want long term development and see meanwhile as a potential risk to those future plans. To counteract this, the temporary nature of the project needs to be spelt out to all right from the outset. It needs to be a temporary use in planning terms and thought needs to be given to what happens when it’s all over.

What do you do with the building or structures if they have been built or deployed temporarily? There’s a cost to demounting and relocating or recycling structures. What about all the kit, the furniture, fixtures, and fittings? These costs need to be factored into the plan and homes found for the accrued stuff.

More importantly, what about the people, businesses & organisations that have made the space their own and made it what it is. Is there a strategy to decant into part of the emerging long-term development? Time will have been invested in building up an ecosystem or local community be it arts or business led, and conversations will need to start early to ensure the exit is harmonious and planned. The whole idea of incubating talent locally is that there is grow-on space for that very talent, and that it remains local.