Second Home's founders have global ambitions for their office empire - but local councils have caused 'incredibly frustrating' delays
- Workspace company Second Home is expanding its office empire to include a new space for corporates in Clerkenwell, London.
- Second Home launched its first office space in east London in 2014 and made its name with colourful offices that feature glass walls and plants.
- The company has faced planning issues that have caused one set of plans to be voluntarily withdrawn, and another to be delayed by 18 months.
- Second Home is planning a US expansion with two offices in Los Angeles.
- Cofounder Rohan Silva, formerly an advisor to ex-Prime Minister David Cameron, said he's "much more optimistic" about Brexit now compared to one year ago.
Take a walk around the new floor that opened recently in trendy office space company Second Home's Spitalfields location and you'll see 11,000 coloured hats suspended from the ceiling. They are there to muffle sound, apparently. Step outside, and there's a body of water, complete with aquatic plants, which works its way around the balcony and the startups working inside the building.
Across the street, Second Home runs the Libreria book shop which features a mirrored wall and books organised by theme rather than whether they're fiction or non-fiction. The company also has an office in Holland Park in West London, a site in Lisbon, an inflatable building it calls "Second Dome," and it purchased the 2015 Serpentine Pavilion, which it plans to ship to Los Angeles to hold events in.
Second Home is an unusual place to work. According to its founders, its unconventional design attracted visits from architect Bjarke Ingels and designer Thomas Heatherwick before they began drawing up ideas for Google's new London office.
Second Home has ambitious plans to expand to two sites in Los Angeles, a new space for corporates in Clerkenwell, and a family-focused office in London Fields. The company has attracted investment from investors including Index Ventures, Bebo founder Michael Birch, LocalGlobe, and Russian billionaire Yuri Milner.
Founders Rohan Silva and Sam Aldenton have enviable career experience for establishing the business. Silva was a senior policy advisor working under then-Prime Minister David Cameron. And Aldenton helped to start a series of creative businesses including the Dalston Roof Park, the Rooftop Café, and Feast.
Yet the pair said they have faced "incredibly frustrating" planning delays, and also increasing competition from rival office company WeWork, which is expanding aggressively in London.
Second Home's new London office will be designed for corporates
Second Home has long been associated with startups. Sure, large corporates like Ernst & Young and Volkswagen have rented desk space, but the colourful office spaces always seemed better-suited to smaller companies.
That's all going to change with Second Home's new office space in Clerkenwell, which cofounders Silva and Aldenton announced in an interview with Business Insider.
"What excites us about Clerkenwell is it's the place in London where corporates are most comfortable working alongside startups," Silva said. "It's really one of those spaces in London for hundreds of years where, because it's outside of the City of London [and] the Square Mile, people who think differently have been able to live there and work there."
The new office, which is scheduled to open in the autumn, will have space for startups on the ground floor, Silva said, but the other six floors will be occupied by teams from corporates. Second Home plans to include features like biometric locks, a podcast studio, desks that can rise and fall as needed, and a series of talks designed to appeal to corporate customers.
Aldenton said that Second Home also plans to install "a mirror on a ceiling and a mirror on a floor and create an optical illusion that will give you an incredible sense of energy when you arrive" on the ground floor of the building.
But does expanding to a new building focused on corporates risk selling out, in a way? Silva disagreed: "The day we opened we had Cushman & Wakefield and Santander here."
"And we've always been banging on about this point that we want to try to bring together as many industries and organisations of different stages and sizes. The reason being that actually it's really hard to do business with people if you're all at the same stage."
Silva criticised competing office space companies like WeWork for focusing on startups and early stage companies. "Lots of workspaces are just full of startups," he said. "And that's fine and everything, and broadly a good thing, but it also just means that those startups can't really do business with each other."
Rohan Silva still wants to build homes - but the planning system 'makes it almost impossible'
Back in November 2016, Silva told Business Insider that he planned to look at ways to build affordable housing in London in 2018. But since then, he's found that London's planning systems have made it difficult to get the permission he needs to build living spaces.
"It just became clearer and clearer as we got through the planning system that actually the planning system makes it almost impossible to build [and] to really innovate when it comes to housing," Silva said.
"These rules are put in place for well-meaning reasons and they do stop bad things happening, but they can also stop good things happening. So the more we've looked at it, the more it's clear that's a real challenge."
That became more clear when Second Home had to back out of a plan to build a living space next to its office in Spitalfields. It changed its plans for the building from housing to office space, and eventually ended up dropping the proposal, as The Financial Times reported in February.
Silva complained that The Financial Times' reporting on Second Home was "deeply unbalanced," and he emphasised that Second Home voluntarily removed its application. "We didn't have to do it and we had seven successful planning applications and this will be the eighth," he said. "We'll probably have some other successful ones in between. But we chose to do it in order to work with the council, not against them."
Silva said that Second Home would resubmit its planning application "shortly." And as for his plan to build affordable homes, he said that the company now plans to build housing in a separate project in central London which he said would open "in a couple of years time."
Second Home has faced 'incredibly frustrating' delays in building another new office space in London Fields
Another Second Home project that has faced issues is the company's plan to build a family-focused office space and creche in London Fields. Aldenton said that Second Home has faced "incredibly frustrating" issues in getting planning permission for the project.
"The sad thing is actually that the local authority are supportive of Second Home," Aldenton said. "But because of the bureaucracy involved in this process, it's taken us introducing people in the same organisation to each other, which makes no sense when the will is there to do it but they get tangled in their own red tape."
Silva was also unhappy with the delays. "We've waited 18 months for council approval for that site," he said. "It's really frustrating because we get stuff built really fast. Second Home here, when we opened, that was 16 weeks of construction and we found the site in January, we signed the lease in March, we got planning permission in June, and we opened on the start of November. We work that fast, all of our projects have been that quick. Clerkenwell will be that fast, et cetera."
Silva said that construction work had just started on the future London Fields office space after 18 months of delays, and Second Home plans to open the office in September.
The company is preparing to open 2 new office spaces in Los Angeles
In contrast to the delays faced in London, Second Home's expansion in Los Angeles is on track, Aldenton said. "We've been working with some very experienced partners out there who are leading the construction work on our behalf. We're actually 90% permitted."
Construction on the Los Angeles office will start in several weeks, Aldenton said, and the company plans to open its first US location in either Spring or early Summer 2019. Silva also said that "we're actually working already on a second location in LA."
Getty Images Europe
Second Home plans to ship the 2015 Serpentine Pavilion, which the company purchased for "big six figures" in 2015, out to Los Angeles. "That'll be up in LA at the end of this year ... beginning of next year," Silva said, "and we're going to be hosting a great programme of art and film and music and everything."
Rohan Silva is 'much more optimistic' about Brexit
"I think the thing that will screw London and the UK is if we make it much harder for talented people to come here," Silva said. "I think the good news is that politicians seem to be pretty united right now in saying we don't want that to happen."
"I think entrepreneur visas, which I was responsible for getting set up, could be broadened out massively. I think we can make it much, much easier for small businesses to become sponsors."
"There is still a lot to do but I am actually much more optimistic than I was a year ago that things are heading in the right direction on that so I think, all being well, we'll be in good shape."
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