Beside every great architect... Felicity Morgan

Friday, 5 October 2012

Part 3

We were again running out of space in our offices in Great New Street. Out of the blue I received a call from Charles Harman Hunt who had been a partner of Kenneth Rees-Reynolds and had his offices in Mayfair. He told us that the flat opposite in Balfour Place had become vacant. After the War, when many offices in the City if London had been destroyed the planners had allowed residential buildings in the West End to be used as offices for a limited period. Balfour Place behind Park Lane and the Grosvenor Hotel was the ideal location for us as it consisted of ground floor offices and semi-basement with a small yard backing onto Purdy in Audley Street. By this time the firm had grown to about eighteen staff including a receptionist and Joan Glenn our personal secretary, and two more secretaries. Soon after we moved to Balfour Place, Roussel had found a site in Swindon and David and I went to Paris to their head office to meet their managing director and receive instructions as to their requirements. As they had recently built a factory in Mexico, I flew over to see their facilities. We then agreed plans of phase one of the laboratories, offices, production area and warehouse. The work was successfully completed and they went into production after moving from Harrow Road.

At about the same time that we were designing the factory for Roussel, John Cannell who was also on the Roussel contract was introduced to a new neighbour who had just arrived in England from Indianapolis, USA, to find a site for a new laboratory. Although Ely Lilly had an existing pill factory near Basingstoke they were looking for a site not too far from Heathrow so that they could be in contact with the States and also they wished to attract senior chemists and biologists etc. who were unwilling to move to Speke in the north of England which was a rather poor establishment.

I was introduced to John Larson and together we scoured the countryside looking for a large Green Field site. As a typical American, he thought that they could buy any suitable vacant piece of land, little appreciating our strict planning laws. However, one morning before meeting him, I saw a very small notice in For Sale Times, which I thought might be a possible site. We visited Earlwood Manor, Windlesham in the rain and decided that the large house and walled garden on an eighteen-acre site would be ideal so long as we could get the necessary permits and planning approvals. British Oxygen had been occupying the house but had decided to sell as they found it difficult to expand.

After a lot of arm-twisting by Eli Lilly at Ministry level, they got their permission subject to Bagshot local authority agreement. To make it easy for the members of the local planning committee, we had an impressive scale model made of the whole of the 18-acre site including the Manor House proposed laboratory extensions with all the existing surrounding trees on the boundary with the A30. Ultimately we received approval and John Cannell of Gardner & Theobold was appointed QS and John Bunce, Structural engineer. The work proceeded satisfactorily although the client insisted on a Critical Path Analysis, which, at the time, meant little to the average English foreman who was used to the old-fashioned Bar Chart.

Once again we were running out of office space although we had rented an annexe in Mount Street to cope with the Roussel workload. This time, David Branch, on his way to lunch, saw a lettings board on No.7 Tilney Street at the side of Alliance & Leicester Head Office in Park Lane. As the space was surplus to their requirements and semi-detached they agreed to let it to us on a short lease at a reasonable rent of £8,000 a year.

Not all jobs went like clockwork. One in particular took 12 years to complete. While we were still at Great New Street, WV Zinn, the structural engineer who had worked with us on the office building in Lambs Conduit Street asked us if we would help design a new cleansing depot for St. Pancras Council. The large site at Ashburton Grove adjacent to the marshalling yards was used for refuse collection with a long conveyor belt where old women sat dressed in sacking picking out the useful bits & pieces from the rubbish for recycling. All this in a dark Dickensian warehouse. We were asked to design new facilities including garaging for the refuse lorries, workshop and muster hall for the street cleaners.

Unfortunately, over the first few years the council sold off parts of the site and at the same time increased their brief. Eventually, we designed a very complicated four-storey ramped garage for the refuse lorries, workshops on the ground floor, muster hall and canteen and two vertical concrete hoppers for the salt and grit with gravity-feed to the gritting lorries below. It was decided to produce a model of the building so that the council could appreciate the complexity of the design. We also included, as requested, two flats on the top floor. When I presented the £1,000,000 plus design to the council members it was approved without a single voice of dissent. However, there was a long discussion as to the number of bedrooms as I feel that was all they could grasp to the complexity of the design. During the course of the development, the main contractor unfortunately went into liquidation with all the problems of security to the unfinished building to prevent sub-contractors from entering and reclaiming their equipment.

One evening I was summoned by Mr. Shane to meet him at Harrow. We wa1ked round a large triangle site behind the town centre with 40 prosperous houses. It appeared that the planning authority had zoned the whole area for commercial use much to the dismay of the occupants. However, having consulted their solicitors to no avail the penny suddenly dropped and they appointed a surveyor to negotiate the sale of the whole site.

Our client bought it for £500,000 and promptly sold a ha1f share to Mr. McAlpine for £500,000. All the occupants could not vacate their houses more quickly having each received at least 4 times the value of their houses. When the demolition contractors arrived they had left everything including the light bulbs.

We designed 3 ten-storey office buildings, which were obviously built by McAlpine. One was taken by the National Coal Board and one of the few problems we had was that Lord Robin, the chairman, wanted his boardroom on the 6th floor to have an open coal fire. The builder had to drill through 3 floors to provide a chimney. We also had proposed oil-filled boilers for the building however we were asked to go through the exercise of providing coal firing. However there was no room for coal-bunkering or ash disposal. All was solved in the end by tankers arriving called 'coal derivative oil' to the approval of the Miners' Union.

Some time later we were asked to design a building for the Inland Revenue in the centre of Redhill. Mr. Shane appointed Wyatt as main contractors. However when they started piling, the strata changed from one end of the site to the other with the consequence that instead of hitting stone they hit a spring, which flooded the site at one stage to a depth of 4 feet. As the site was adjacent to the main Brighton Road with all main services in the adjoining pavement some 10 feet above, at any moment the retaining wall was likely to collapse. The builders performed a magnificent job under extremely adverse conditions to shore up the whole length of the existing brick wall. The contractors ultimately completed satisfactorily. However I had to meet the chief inspector who informed me that as he was the senior member of staff with 25 years experience he was not only entitled to a desk, two chairs and a hat-stand but also to 150 square feet of floor space. He had measured his room (probably with a ruler) which he informed me was only 145 sq. ft. I apologized, and suggested he added the windowsills in his calculations!

I was summoned to Shane's office in St. James' Place to agree the final account. Due to the extensive problem with the flooding of the basement I had certified extra time and money on the original contract. Although he had originally agreed to this extra work, I realized at this meeting that I was dealing with a hard-nosed businessman, determined to make his fortune at all costs. I decided there and then never to deal with him again.

Unfortunately, at a later stage and against my advice, my partners designed and built a shopping centre in Doncaster which included a cinema for ABC and later on, they designed, when I was about to retire, an office building in Ashford, Kent for Mr. Shane.

It was mooted that the Channel Tunnel would be built starting at Folkestone and the proposed railway route to London would pass through Ashford. Shane had now formed a company called Equitable and Debenture and had bought a site and, once again, called on my long-suffering partners to design a 12-storey office block. It was proposed to clad the building with curtain walling. Anticipating problems, having already appointed William Moss as the main contractors, we appointed Alpine Windows for the work. To ensure that their design was satisfactory, a 2-storey mock-up was made of the mullions, which were tested with high-pressure water spray and found satisfactory. However, when the building was completed and occupied by the Ministry of Health, with wind and rain coming from certain directions, leaks occurred. Alpine tried to solve the problem with mastic sealants without success. Ultimately they checked their calculations and found that they had designed for a 30-mile-per-hour wind load and not 80 and that, although the aluminium profile of the mullions was the same, their thickness was wrong. The client sued them and they promptly went bankrupt. Under the Law of Tort the client then sued us for £2,000,000.

By this time, I had retired to Swanage but was still a consultant. David Branch and David Roberts took the brunt of the court case during a very hot summer, which took its toll on both them and the workings of the office. One day I was reading the Times and saw that Equitable and Debenture were selling part of its portfolio to Mr. Ritblat of Land Securities for £17,000,000. Although retired, I could not lose this opportunity to inform Mr. Shane that, over some 20 years, we had designed most of the developments he was selling, and as a result the firm was suffering as we had only insured with Lloyd's for £1,000,000. Apart from sending the letter to Shane, I sent a copy to David Branch who passed it on to our solicitors who were in the middle of fighting our case. I received a blasting from Mr. Stephen Ralph who reminded me that it was not correct to correspond with the opposition. The case dragged on and I was summoned to Lincoln's Inn to meet the solicitors with David. At this meeting, I was handed a check from Lloyd's for £1,000,000 in full and final settlement of our indemnity policy with them. Our first reaction was to cut & run to South America, however, we were advised to put the money on deposit.

The court case went against us and we finally paid the damages of £986,000 which included the solicitors fees leaving £24,000 which was divided equally the two Davids and myself, just in time to help pay for my daughter's wedding in July 1986.

To be continued...

No comments:

Post a Comment