The Foundry: How social justice took the place of shoe polish

The 'London building of the year' is a home to charities that work for a social purpose, writes Andy Hillier

The Foundry
The Foundry

It has been less than a year since The Foundry opened its doors in Vauxhall, south London. During that time the building has won the Royal Institute of British Architects' prestigious London building of the year award, and, unusually for a new office space in the capital, has become fully tenanted within 12 months.

But The Foundry is not a swanky high-end skyscraper with rents to match: it is a centre for charities and not-for-profits working in the social justice field. It consists partly of a refurbished warehouse, once used as a shoe polish factory, and partly of a new extension.

The Ethical Property Company, a social business that owns and develops commercial spaces for charitable institutions and social enterprises, came up with the idea four years ago of creating a social justice hub and went on to form the Social Justice and Human Rights Centre Company. Its shareholders include charitable trusts and foundations that have helped turn the germ of an idea into a reality.

The search for a suitable building was not a straightforward one: the relaxation of the planning rules by the government meant that an increasing number of commercial buildings in its target areas were snapped up for residential development.

In the end, it took almost 12 months to find the right kind of property. Mike Butler, development worker at Ethical Property, says it was extremely fortunate to get The Foundry. He says: "The site is located next to gas holders, which potentially prevented its use for residential development because of restrictions over locating homes near to gas storage facilities."

It cost about £5m to buy the building and a further £7m has been spent on developing it into modern, airy offices. Funding for the project has come from a variety of donors, such as the LankellyChase Foundation, the Barrow Cadbury Trust, the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust and the Trust for London. A number of social funders, including Bridges Ventures and Big Society Capital, have also invested money.

Susan Ralphs, managing director of Ethical Property, says that under the terms of the deal it owns a 40 per cent stake in the building, with the rest split between its partners.

About 300 people now work for the 20 social justice organisations in the building. Tenants include the ethical product company Traidcraft, the prisoner addiction rehabilitation charity Rapt and Eiris, which provides research for ethical investors. The building also has conference and meeting spaces that are often rented by local charities.

Tenants pay on average about £39 per square foot a year, which includes costs for services such as IT and cleaning. Ralphs admits the rates are not cheap but says they are fair for the area. "Our leases are very flexible and offer short notice periods," she says. "The charities and clients we work with have a very short-term income stream and don't won't to be tied into long leases."

Butler says the centre has an ethos that is very different from that of most commercial office spaces. For example, it puts on networking events to encourage the tenants to get to know each other and form working relationships. It has also formed a link with the Lilian Baylis school, located next door, and encourages its tenants to take pupils on work placements. It also wants to open the building to the local community in future by holding events such as art exhibitions.

Media Legal Defence Initiative, a charity that supports journalists worldwide in need of legal advice, moved into the building last October. Peter Noorlander, chief executive of MLDI, says working in the building has its benefits. "Our neighbours do disability stuff and we work in the area of free speech, but we work in the same countries so we can talk about issues we've encountered - in Malaysia, for example," he says. "It's also intrinsically more interesting to work in a building with charities that have a social purpose rather than being in a building with random companies."

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