12 December 1998

Redundant buildings put to work

Outdated buildings can be big business as Sally Smith finds out in Cambridgeshire.

NINETY years ago, when the owners of Scotland Farm built some of the most advanced farm buildings of their time they were, unwittingly, investing in an asset which would be making a sound return today.

The farm is 356ha (880 acres) on the outskirts of Dry Drayton a few miles north of Cambridge and run by Adrian Peck with another 265ha (632 acres) in a variety of share-farm arrangements.

Producing all-combinable crops, his system is a far cry from the mixed farming practised back in 1907 when the model farm was constructed; not least of its elements was a 150-cow herd milked by hand. The parlour in which this mammoth task was accomplished twice-a-day formed one side of a square made up of four peripheral buildings around central courtyard. A dairy, pig and cattle housing, stabling, in short all the accommodation for such a comprehensive farm, was contained within these buildings and in ranges running across the central area.

Constructed in the style so admired today with distinctive red and black brick with Welsh slate roofs and terracotta ridge tiles, they are completely outdated for the modern farming, especially the kind practised by Mr Peck; but situated within minutes of the A14/M11 links, are ideal for some form of alternative use.

Or rather, that is the automatic conclusion now; 20 years ago when Mr Peck and his father Irwin contemplated what to do with them, commercial diversification was still a novel proposition.

"We could see their potential as starter workshop units, but had no idea what the market would be like nor the likely level of occupation," says Mr Peck. "This was one of the first such schemes and there was little information or experience to go by."

Having taken advice from chartered surveyors Bidwells, Mr Peck, who was taking over management of the farm decided to convert two of the exterior ranges into eight workshops as a first phase. Letting at £3.50/sq ft plus rates they took just four months to fill, and by then phases 2, 3 and 4 of the Drayton Industrial Estate were on the drawing board.

The original units were very simple, basic shells. The next phases were to be more sophisticated, in two cases done to specification for major occupiers, one the then MMBs eastern region AI centre. The entire scheme – conversion of the other two exterior buildings, demolition and re-build of the central ones, infrastructure and parking – was completed in three short years between 83 and 86 and totals 30,000sq ft. Let as soon as ready, they have been well nigh fully occupied ever since.

"Even during the recession we maintained 90% occupancy," says Mr Peck, running his hand over the row of blue files which represent the workshop lettings, and making it all sound a complete doddle though he is the kind of can-do personality for which hurdles seem to keel over at will.

Mr Peck stresses that luck played an important role. The scheme was up and running nicely to take advantage of the economic boom of the Thatcher years and has not looked back. The situation is ideal, not merely for communications with the rest of the country, but because the area surrounding Cambridge benefits from its strong economic base. "Dont imagine a venture like this would work so successfully in a much more isolated area," he warns.

The buildings favoured his luck too: sandblasting the original and rather grimy whitewash away revealed the appealing brick construction which is a natural draw to occupiers, as is the surrounding countryside seemingly without town or major road anywhere in the vicinity. The development has all been done to a high standard with materials from demolition saved and re-used in rebuild and new ones carefully matched in. The simple first phase has been upgraded as units become available. A bund planted with trees forms a discreet shield around the parking area and the whole site presents a neat, prosperous aspect.

Cost of the first phase, 8,500/sq ft was £32,000. "The farm was worth then around £550,000 so there was little problem borrowing that sum against it," says Mr Peck. "Borrowing the £550,000 I needed for the rest was another matter, but I already had a waiting list for units and the business projections stood up. The loan was over five years and we paid it off to schedule.

"Apart from providing the collateral the farm has never supported the industrial estate; it has been a stand-alone venture from the beginning."

He is convinced this should be the case with all such alternative ventures, and believes if they cannot stack up without farm support they shouldnt be embarked upon in the first place.

Enthusiastic

Originally Bidwells had handled both letting and management, but Mr Peck took over this role partly because he is on the spot anyway, partly because "I love farming, but couldnt just sit on a tractor all day." He estimates he spends around a quarter of his time on the management and it is obvious that he thoroughly enjoys doing so – he likes dealing with people and the people he has to deal with, enthusiastic self-motivators, are obviously his kind of people.

Rents have now risen to £7.50/sq ft and this is a flat rate charge which also covers insurance and security. "No service charges – no sudden shocks," he says, "tenants want to know where they stand."

As he does himself. For the conversion and subsequent building work he insisted upon one quote with no hidden extras – and got it.

Tenants fit out their premises themselves which leads to a very wide range of styles – from the colourful, elegant surroundings of an office stationery supplier to the workaday benches of television and video repair to the cool-stores of a cheese supplier.

It is Mr Pecks policy never to have two tenants in competition with one another to avoid the conflict of competition – this is a happy, neighbourly site and he intends to keep it so. He doesnt allow car repairers because of the inevitable grease, noise and decaying vehicles they produce.

"We could increase rents, but we feel we have something of a moral obligation to help people make a start; putting something back if you like."