Tyler Goodwin is a developer with a social conscience, who prefers refit and upcycling to demolish and rebuild. And he’s nurturing the future generation too
Arriving at the Farringdon office of Seaforth Land takes me back to that time in the 1980s when young firms of architects were setting up shop there as the printers and watchmakers moved out. The same kind of Crittall-windowed light industrial walk-up building. The same steep, narrow stairs passing other companies on the way up; I note that John McAslan’s London office is here, so it’s established-names territory these days.
On the top floor, Tyler Goodwin’s eyrie, the 80s feel continues. There’s a dartboard, and a ping-pong table doubling today as a temporary desk for paid interns. There’s space in here for around a dozen people. The office is lined with salvaged, untreated Victorian floorboards. You could see this as a wealthy man indulging in poverty chic, but this is more an expression of values: his company upcycles buildings, extending their lives, adding or enhancing character.
As Goodwin – fifties, casually dressed in blue open-neck shirt – arrives in the meeting room, I’m taken by the change of scale of our surroundings since we last met in early summer. That was at Richard Seifert/George Marsh’s 1968 Space House off London’s Kingsway with its tremendous facetted modular precast concrete drum, from the same team (client, architect, engineer) and aesthetic mindset as the earlier Centre Point. Sizewise (there’s a large linked rectangular block as well) it’s the most significant retrofit project yet for Seaforth Land, the company Canadian-born Goodwin established in 2015 as the latest phase of an international career in finance and real estate: Vancouver, Jakarta, Los Angeles, New York, Hong Kong, now London. He’s achieved his goal of running his own company rather than working in senior positions for others such as former employers JP Morgan and Deutsche Bank.
At Space House he cut an unusual figure, booming out details of the project in the street over the noise of traffic and construction. Here, it was obvious, was an enthusiast for buildings, especially the act of building, the difficult, physical, rewarding stuff. He is restoring and extending the grade II-listed Space House. This has included dismantling the cornice level of the building, adding a floor of new precast elements designed by Squire & Partners in consultation with original structural engineer Pell Frischmann, and putting back the cornice and set-back drum on top, with previous ad-hoc rooftop plant clutter removed. So the complex is now that bit taller, it will contain 3,700m² of net extra space, but I’m betting most people will hardly notice.
Seaforth’s earlier projects were relatively conventional light-touch refurbs. Several once-boutique development firms started out doing that kind of thing, not least Derwent London in the 1980s, a name which crops up several times during our conversation and which Goodwin much admires. He has a 1980s corner building in Spitalfields to show, spruced and opened up, its unfashionably PoMo brickwork painted over in mid-grey, which is a very early-Derwent sort of property. But unlike such developers, Seaforth is not publicly listed, and does not raise its own finance: it acts as the operating partner alongside investors. As it found its feet and found those investment partners, the level of ambition and scale of projects rose.
A prime example – a building that Goodwin waxes almost evangelical over – is The Wingate (previously Wingate House) on Shaftesbury Avenue, Soho, an accomplished 1958 curtain-wall building by Sir John Burnet, Tait and Partners with a high-level Museum of Modern Art-influenced canopy. Finely detailed, this looks bang up to date today in its renovated, faithfully reglazed state – still with the famous Curzon Soho cinema and a casino in it, and seven floors of offices above. Goodwin remarks: ‘Most people saw this as a knock-down’. The usual arguments about mean floor-to-ceiling heights were given. Partly saved by celebs such as Stephen Fry and Benedict Cumberbatch getting behind a campaign to save the Curzon from demolition, it seemed to Goodwin a prime refurb opportunity, something he did (in a joint venture partnership) with tenants such as Bank of China and the Curzon still in occupation. Stripped back internally, it has become a vogueish kind of place, commanding good rents.
If Space House is ambitious, it has what might be regarded as a conventional commercially-savvy firm of architects, Squires, at the helm. Things got rather more outré at Seaforth’s just-completed 8 Bleeding Heart Yard in Hatton Garden. There, a nondescript 1970s office building has been encased in a perforated bronze-aluminium rigid veil that mimics the mouldings of an earlier Victorian commercial building on the site. Rooftop extensions are in cross-laminated timber and the whole place is massively insulated and BREEAM-accredited ‘very good’.
The architect is the always adventurous and sustainability-minded Amin Taha of Groupwork (who originally designed the facade in brass). Quirky is king, it seems: the block has all been let to the Swiss finance firm Julius Baer
Goodwin sees all this as proof that the rising generation is not interested in working in featureless new glass-box workspaces. They’re into conversions in the same way they are into vintage clothes, he says, it’s the same attitude. Would he do a newbuild himself? ‘I don’t feel good about building commodity offices,’ he says, but mentions that there was one decommissioned police station that he once had plans to demolish and rebuild/extend, salvaging its materials. That was a Thomas Heatherwick project that didn’t happen. It’s re-use that drives him, and he’s now got enough projects under his belt to prove his contention that upcycled existing buildings can be ‘core’, in real estate jargon, as much as new ones.
He chose London for his start-up because, he says, with New York it’s still one of the world’s two leading ‘global gateways’, and because his method of financial-partnering is unusual here. And London has the stock. ‘We’re tracking 170 assets, all available to buy: we’re 30 minutes from any of them.’ Two – one a life sciences building, the other a potential conversion of an office block into serviced apartments – are looking likely.
The name Seaforth? It comes from the Canadian Seaforth Highlanders, a regiment with whom Goodwin did a military cadetship in his youth. ‘The name’s about integrity, esprit de corps.'
This son of an Irish immigrant to Canada is keen on something else: social mobility. ‘This industry is 88% old white guys. So we decided to engage with local sixth-formers to increase engagement, especially with youngsters of colour. Every quarter, 15 to 20 kids come in, and we give a teach-in. Those who want work experience here, we pay the London Living Wage.’ Beyond that, there’s the ‘Seaforth Scholar Programme’ which essentially gives a one-off grant to young individuals wanting to take things further, with an eye on entering the industry. His is only a small firm, says Goodwin, but this approach is ‘eminently scaleable’ across the development industry.
So here’s a finance guy who cares about improving existing buildings sustainably, and walks the walk when it comes to getting that done, with an eye to the future. ‘It’s a legacy business, not a lifestyle business. In 20 years’ time it’s important for people to be able to look back and see that you meant what you said at the outset.’