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Dipping into History

5 Mar 2015

A former public reservoir has been given a new lease of life courtesy of Bewley Homes’ Bewley Park, close to Reading town centre.

Where the water once stood will be a development of 68 units (when complete) and ten conversions nestled within a nature reserve boasting mature trees. The past is nicely referenced with an original Grade II listed Water Tower and Pump House which greet the visitor as they enter the site. These have been sensitively transformed into now fully sold apartments.

The lion’s share of the site contains a rich blend of new build family homes, apartments, two-and three bedroom houses and townhouses, with different types of design at play. All sport classic elevations and many feature stone façades to mimic the grand Georgian squares of Reading. Bewley’s townhouses are a bit of an interloper when it comes to the local vernacular, but the reaction to them has been “good”, according to Bewley’s sales and marketing director Neil Simpson, a relief after a notable amount of initial resistance to the overall scheme.

A century ago the site on Bath Road was home to an active reservoir. The Water Tower, built in 1870, provided running water. This was key to Reading’s evolution, Bewley says. However, with one reservoir open and the other covered it eventually became unviable to use – more modern systems superseded it. The Water Tower was last used in the 1970s.

Spiritual home
“Reading is our spiritual home,” says Bewley’s md, Andrew Brooks. The company’s stomping ground is south east England. “We had a lot of local resistance [to the scheme] – you can understand people’s reservations as the site is a green bank. We engaged with residents and changed the scheme dramatically. People realised we were listening to them. We’ve not gone for standard house types and we’ve tried to respect the Water Tower. The whole scheme was built up with a lot of consultation.”

Bewley continues to engage with the local community on the burgeoning scheme. Its site-specific website gives progress updates, and residents have been invited to meetings tabling pivotal moments of the build, including the start of demolitions.

“The demolition stage took three months and we didn’t get a single complaint,” claims Brooks. “We kept the roads clear and didn’t put the machines on until a certain time. We demolished in a considerate way, crushing concrete offsite, and we developed a construction method statement.” During that period Bewley sifted 70,000 tonnes of concrete and spoil, all the while keeping on side a once deeply disapproving resident group.

Bewley also had to be sensitive to local wildlife. In another three month exercise, it moved a number of slow worms that had become part of the biodiversity which sprang up after the closure of the reservoir.

Converting the two historic buildings was something of a challenge too for the company. Bewley was anxious not to change their integrity; its predecessor had threatened this with its plans to demolish walls. Instead Bewley enhanced the Pump House, retaining the front wall, and worked within the confines of the Water Tower. This had a “cube” structure. Brooks talks of some other taxing elements: “It was difficult to do the internal plastering because of the height of the rooms in both the Pump House and Water Tower. We also dropped the ceiling in the Water Tower. You have to almost think of the room as the wrong way round which was a fun exercise.

“We also worked on the bits that you don’t see. We undertook leadwork which harks back to craftwork that was typical 40 or 50 years ago.”

All the hard graft has resulted in six contemporary apartments in the Water Tower and four in the Pump House. The two central abodes of the Water Tower boast an open plan living or dining area on the ground floor, with a roomy bedroom and a bathroom upstairs.

The four outer apartments span three floors with the two bedrooms enjoying the view at the top. In the predominantly one-storey Pump House (there is a two-floor plot at the back) the homes benefit from original picture windows and ornate brickwork.

Bewley’s painstaking attention to detail, inside and out, continues throughout the various house types. Some might say the scheme is “overdesigned,” comments Brooks. It is certainly all impressively elaborate, with family rooms, snug rooms and bay windows in some of the homes. The Crescent South Homes feature open-air terraces, and even the Corner House properties – the smallest ones – have plenty within, including bike and bin storage.

The smaller Corner House homes pack in plenty of features
(Pictured) The smaller Corner House homes pack in plenty of features

The faithful external finishes have generated a headache or two, mainly due to a lack of available materials. “The biggest issue with the build has been material supplies,” Brooks confirms. Some of the stone, scheduled for September last year, arrived in December. Bewley Park has remained “a very live building site” nevertheless, Brooks states happily.

Full build completion and occupation is slated for the end of this year, with the first flats due to be occupied by June. Residents of the Water Tower and Pump House have all settled in. “There’s a real range of clientele in the converted buildings,” Brooks says. “A single father lives with his child in the Water Tower. There’s also a single woman as well as families. It couldn’t be more diverse but that reflects Reading. And there’s diversity in what we’re building here – one bedroom flats to four bedroom houses.”

With Bewley Park located in a satellite town of London, the housebuilder wants to “tempt people out of London areas,” says sales and marketing director Neil Simpson. The combination of leafiness and proximity to shops could tempt a willing Londoner or two.

At the time of writing, 21 new build homes have been sold to date. Demand for the homes is evident – Bewley released 12 apartments in late November and saw them all claimed within two weeks. Residents are moving into three of the five townhouses, and the Terrace, comprising two bed-two storey homes, is fully reserved. Prices across the scheme range from £195,000 (for the one-bedroom apartments) to £575,000 for a four-bedroom townhouse.

On pricing, Simpson says: “We want to be sensible. We wish to maximise revenues, but as we want to be around for a long time, we don’t want to lynch people for their last penny.” Bewley has been around for 24 years so far, and larger schemes are in its sights (see box). At nearly 80 units, Bewley Park is one of them. But, sensibly, Brooks is not planning to deviate from the company’s core values. He says: “With our schemes, it is all about engaging with the public and putting a lot of thought into our design ethos.”

Bewley Homes
Bewley Homes was established in 1991 by founder Colin Brooks, now the company’s nonexecutive chairman. Brooks’ son Andrew – Bewley’s md – says that his father was “keen to have a point of difference between what he was doing and his competitors”.

“Bewley Homes is about building in value by design – it’s part of our DNA and a point of sale for our management team. This is really the only industry where you leave a footprint so we want something to be proud of, building in value in the design and specification.”

The company is a plc but not in the style of others, Brooks insists. Bewley builds a “whole range” of houses and is family oriented. “These roots inspire the team. We have fathers and sons and a mother and daughter team. We’re the Bewley family.”

Bewley is also “extremely well-funded,” not subsisting on bank funding. “This gave us an opportunity to buy sites during the recession; we bought a number of sites for detached houses. We’ve got an ambitious funding team who we know and trust.”

In the beginning, Bewley was a local company, concentrating on Hampshire and Berkshire and a small number of units per scheme. It forged a reputation for building spacious houses of 2,000 sq ft. But the unit numbers are now rising. In contrast to 2014 when it delivered schemes “with one-off luxury homes,” the housebuilder has the 78-unit Bewley Park in motion as well as the higher density developments of Highcross Place in Chertsey (44 units) and the 100-unit Cavendish Park in Wokingham. Its scheme in Hampshire – currently without a marketing name – sports 95 units.

Bewley is also opening a satellite office in Surrey. But it is anxious not to expand too widely, having learnt from the past. “You can lose the quality of schemes. We had sites off our normal path and that compromised the quality,” Brooks says. In the quest for larger sites, he wants that value to remain intact.

The overall plan for 2015 is to double the number of plots sold. Bewley has 18 sites under construction or with planning consent, and an additional 16 sites under its control.

Article first published 28th Feb 2015 in Housebuilder Magazine. Written by Suzie Mayes.