Norfolk Network stories

Fortune favours the brave: Dominic Richards comes to Norwich

Charlie Watson
Singular Publishing

Dominic Richards has come a long way. Today he’s the chief executive of Architekton, the London and Norwich-based architect-developer business that has acquired the St Mary’s Works and St George’s Works sites in central Norwich, but when he took the life-changing step of leaving Australia for the UK at the age of 19, he had to live on his wits and learn fast about life in a new country.

“I arrived fresh off the boat in 1986 with £40 in my back pocket,” says Richards, addressing a sellout Norfolk Network audience at St George’s Works. “Of course, arriving in the country at that young age with no support network behind me meant I had to act like the immigrant I was, and I had to live with constant fear and uncertainty. But constant fear and uncertainty are pretty much the stock-in-trade of being an entrepreneur.”

At the evening event, life as an entrepreneur is Richards’s initial subject, and he begins with a fast-talking tour of three current projects, in Suffolk, East London and the Far East.

A retreat, a school, an urban lifestyle

The Suffolk venture is Retreat-East, a private members’ country club and spa at Hemingstone, and the tale here is one of protracted battles to secure both finance and planning permission. After 12 years in the making, Retreat-East launches in May this year. Next up is Prosper, a digital education programme for school-age students in the Far East. The programme’s online identity is King’s School, a virtual British boarding school. “At this point I should thank JK Rowling, by the way,” says Richards, “because she’s meant that we don’t have to explain what a British boarding school is!”

Cutting-edge gaming technology brings King’s School to life on screen, and the educational content and methods are designed to teach English, creativity and critical thinking. To a British audience that sounds like nothing out of the ordinary, but in cultures where schoolchildren are under huge pressure to learn by rote and to avoid making mistakes – rather than being allowed to make mistakes and learn from them – it’s a significant point of difference. After trials of the beta version of Prosper in Japan and Singapore, the programme goes live in China in Q2 this year.

Back in the UK, Architekton’s East London project is at Spitalfields, near Liverpool Street station. Here the plan is to create a mixed-use development that includes affordable homes (aimed at young Londoners struggling to get on the housing ladder), a farm shop and deli-café selling fresh produce from East Anglia, and short-let retail premises with street frontage that will enable small-scale producers to open artisan pop-up shops in the capital.

And so, finally, to St Mary’s Works and St George’s Works in Norwich, the reason for the sell-out audience..

“The industrial stronghold of Norwich”

Behind Richards as he speaks, the scene is set by an eight-metre-long, floor-to-ceiling photograph. The black-and-white image shows workers in the 1930s or thereabouts in a former shoe factory on one of the Norwich sites. Shoemaking was a pillar of the city’s economy in the 19th and early 20th centuries, with St Mary’s Works and St George’s Works forming one of the centres of production. It’s this industrial heritage that will inform the look and feel, and the mixed-use composition, of the new development. According to Architekton’s website, “The regeneration of St Mary’s Works aims to celebrate the existing context and diverse quarter in what was once the industrial stronghold of Norwich.”

Once the company had secured the two sites, the next step was to consult with local people (see “We sat down with the local community, under the auspices of the Prince’s Foundation, and we did what’s called a ‘bimby’ [beauty in my backyard] session,” says Richards. “We asked ‘what do you like about this place?’, ‘What are the main things you want to see?’ etc, etc. The community then produced a 50-page report, with five principles that people wanted us to follow.”

The five principles or “essential qualities” of the area, according to Architekton’s website, are “its rich variety of architectural scale, historic connections, industrial heritage, the high-quality lanes and yards – ‘a walkable place’ – and the River Wensum, which both separates and connects the neighbourhood to the heart of the city.”

Among the key features are: the new area will be pedestrianised, the unlisted Edwardian shoe factory building facing St Mary’s Plain will not be demolished, and overall the mixed-use site will include residential, employment and leisure premises, with a hotel on the north-east corner of the site, overlooking St Crispin’s roundabout.

“The regeneration of St Mary’s Works aims to celebrate the existing context and diverse quarter in what was once the industrial stronghold of Norwich.”

Chic lofts or a brand signifier?

Many developers, Richards suggests, would turn the factory building into apartments, seeking to sell a chic loft lifestyle in a building that can’t really deliver it. By contrast, Architekton’s proposal is to make the factory a home for small-scale, creative and tech businesses, even though the return on investment for that building would be greater if it they converted it to residential.

“I happen to believe,” says Richards, “that if I have [the factory] as the brand signifier for this place, full of creativity … and that’s the theme for the site, then the site will be more desirable and I will make money elsewhere on the site. But you’ve got to invest in that concept.”

As well as the converted factory building and a new hotel, the development will include Georgian terraces (but containing apartments, not houses) facing the church of St Mary Coslany, mews houses more suited to families, and spaces that evoke the Norwich yards of the 18th and 19th centuries.

St Mary’s Works will be the first of the the two Norwich sites to be redeveloped, with St George’s Works following later, and the headline cost of the two phases combined will be around £100 million. For a man who arrived with just £40 in his pocket, that’s not a bad progression.

Event photos: Joe Lenton Photography