Developer removed stairwell from office-to-flats conversion

A property speculator has removed the staircase from a residential block as part of its conversion from offices to flats, halving the available fire escapes in the building for the residents of its 119 homes.

Green Dragon House: 119 flats, but only a single fire escape

The 1960s office block Green Dragon House on Croydon High Street had its “luxury executive apartments” go on the property market after conversion work was completed in 2015.

This was not long after its developers, Inspired Homes, had plastered “Vote Barwell” posters on all its windows before that year’s General Election. Two-bed flats in Green Dragon House now sell for around £350,000. One-bed flats are rented out for more than £1,000 per month.

But despite the “luxury” amenities provided by the developers, including concierge service and roof garden, in the event of a fire or other emergency, residents in the building have just a single staircase from the upper floors.

The lack of an alternative, second stairwell in Grenfell Tower has been noted by firefighters and victims as an important factor in the scale of that tragedy in north Kensington earlier this summer, when more than 80 people lost their lives and hundreds of others lost their homes.

Green Dragon House is not as tall a building as Grenfell. But when it was built as offices 50 years ago, it was designed to provide alternative escape routes for its occupants. Since the building’s conversion, under controversial permitted development rules which avoid too much interference from planning committees, one staircase has been removed so that the developer could squeeze in extra living accommodation on each floor.

Croydon town centre has more than 1,000 flats that have been converted from former office blocks. Few of those have been subjected to scrutiny by the local authority’s planning department because of the permitted development rules introduced under the former Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles. Labour councillors in Croydon have labelled some of the permitted development flats “the slums of the future”. The Labour-run council has tried to put a block on permitted developments since 2015.

Impact House will offer its residents wonderful views of the Flyover once conversion work is completed next year

What Inspired Homes has not removed from some of the former office blocks during its conversions has been those buildings’ original sprinkler systems: these were mandatory in commercial blocks, but not in taller residential buildings until 2007.

Two years ago, Inspired Homes threatened never to invest in Croydon again if it was not allowed to create more of its £300,000 rabbit hutches. That appears to have been an empty threat.

Inspired Homes is now working on two more office conversions near the town centre: Central Cross, by a busy crossroads in South End, and Impact House, which offers marvellous views of the Croydon Flyover and is likely to be completed in 2018.

At Central Cross, Inspired Homes say that they “have delivered a comprehensive redevelopment of the building to provide luxurious new one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments to Croydon”.

Flats in Central Cross are likely to be flogged off later this year with a three-bed apartment on the top floor being marketed at £600,000.

Inspired say: “We strive to deliver the highest quality finish across all our developments, therefore you can expect superb, top of the range specifications including, Bosch kitchen appliances, engineered hardwood flooring, granite worktops, beautiful Bathrooms with Villeroy & Boch Sanitary ware, NEST Smart Thermostat, Concierge Service and 1GB Superfast Hyperoptic Broadband.”

Just not a second staircase and emergency exit if you live in Green Dragon House.

Inspired Homes’ chief executive is Martin Skinner, who describes himself in Companies House documents as an “Entreprenure”. Presumably pronounced to rhyme with “manure”.

Skinner has gone on the record as saying that permitted development has “no effect on fire safety”.

In 2015, Inspired Homes plastered the windows of Green Dragon House with Vote Barwell posters

“Grenfell Tower went through planning and was not safe. Ours went through permitted development rules and are safe,” he said. Which must be most reassuring to the residents of Green Dragon House.

As well as removing fire escapes from buildings, Tory-supporting Skinner – he plastered the windows of Impact House with “Vote Conservative” posters before this year’s General Election, too –  appears to hold even his own “executive apartment” customers in contempt.

In March this year, his company was granted planning permission for a new, 11-storey residential tower to be built in a car park within a few metres of the windows of the Green Dragon House flats. The scheme even attracted complaints from Conservative councillors.

This building on Scarbrook Road is to be “single core”: that is, it will have just one stairwell serving its 11 floors.

While the Grenfell Tower tragedy has focused much attention on fire precautions and building standards, it is becoming increasingly clear that many property developers are intent on doing only the bare minimum on safety standards in an attempt to reduce their construction costs.

There is no suggestion that Inspired Homes have not complied fully with the relevant fire and building regulations in Green Dragon House or their other office-to-residential conversions. But the regulations for residential properties tend to be less demanding than for commercial buildings, and in this case, the developer has exploited that loophole to squeeze extra flats or residential space on to each floor at the expense of a potential fire exit.

Other loopholes have also been used by developers. Last month, Inside Croydon reported how the borough’s tallest building, 43-storey Saffron Tower at West Croydon, had been  built without any sprinklers fitted, even though construction work did not commence until four years after building regulations made such sprinkler systems mandatory in all residential blocks above 30 metres in height. The developer was able to do so because they had registered their ownership of the site before the law change, some five years before construction started.

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3 Responses to Developer removed stairwell from office-to-flats conversion

  1. derekthrower says:

    Wonder if Gav’s contacts here would have had a bearing on his actions as Housing Minister? Not an iota of a conflict of interest at all is there ?

  2. As the CEO of Inspired Homes, I would like to take the opportunity to respond to this article as it is, in my opinion, unfair.
    Green Dragon House comprises two elements, a nine-storey section and a six-storey section. You are correct that in the nine-storey section we have removed one of the two stairwells.
    However, the two stairwells used to run side-by-side, and not at opposite ends of each floor, so the distance to the escape routes has not been increased. Also, commercial buildings have many more occupants than residential, so there was no need to have the double stairwell, which was only designed that way because of the high volume of office workers. The number of office workers would have been somewhere between 40 and 60 people per floor. We now have eight flats per floor on this part of the development, so the number of occupiers is less than half the number previously (between 10 and 20 people). We also removed one of the two fire escapes at the front of the building for the same reason.
    So that leaves two fire escapes in the building. One for the nine-storey element and one in the front six-storey element. Therefore, floors one to six actually have two means of escape.
    The above was designed by our architects and fire safety consultants who have complied with the latest building control standards. They measure distances between apartment entrance doors and fire escapes, and this must be under a minimum distance in metres. Furthermore, I repeat, these distances have not been impacted by the removal of the second stairwell as the two stairwells were located side-by-side.
    In addition to the escape routes, we have Mechanical Smoke Ventilators in the corridors to draw smoke out of the building, plus fire detection and a ‘mist’ sprinkler in every habitable room throughout the development. This was all installed by us at an additional cost. In fact, we are one of the few residential developers who provide sprinklers as standard in all of our developments. Central Cross, Surrey House, Canius House and Green Dragon House all have sprinkler systems that were installed by us and did not previously exist in the office buildings we purchased.
    So that’s me done. If anyone wants to know more about fire safety at any of our developments, please email with your query and we endeavour to respond as soon as we can.

    • For the record: Inside Croydon contacted Inspired Homes with a request to speak to Martin Skinner before publication of our report. The developers were also offered a right of reply, as is our standard editorial practice. This, after nine days, is what has been submitted.

      We would suggest that the head of a multi-million-pound property business is being a little selective in the way he portarys his business here.

      Skinner says:
      “However, the two stairwells used to run side-by-side, and not at opposite ends of each floor, so the distance to the escape routes has not been increased.”

      Which really is not the point at all. And he knows it. There were two staircases, now there is one. The fire safety regulations for commercial and office accommodation are more demanding than for residential blocks.
      All reports from firefighters who attended the Grenfell Tower tragedy relate the difficulty in emergency services accessing the upper floors while residents were using the block’s only staircase as an emergency exit. Having more than one staircase in a block, however sited, would have avoided this and probably saved lives. Skinner’s company removed a staircase from part of its development and, as Skinner does not deny it here, that was done to increase the number or size of the housing units, and therefore his company’s profit margins.

      Skinner says:
      “The above was designed by our architects and fire safety consultants who have complied with the latest building control standards.”

      Developer complies with the law. Hooray. Give him a biscuit.

      Skinner says:
      “In addition… we have … a ‘mist’ sprinkler in every habitable room throughout the development. This was all installed by us at an additional cost. In fact, we are one of the few residential developers who provide sprinklers as standard in all of our developments.”

      This is not strictly true. Fire regulations since 2007 have required sprinklers in all new-build blocks taller than 30 metres. So all residential developers working on new blocks (not Green Dragon House) have to do this. It is not usually an “optional extra” installed out of the kindness of a developer’s heart.

      Skinner says:
      “… and Green Dragon House all have sprinkler systems that were installed by us and did not previously exist in the office buildings we purchased.”

      Which contradicts what has been reported in previous Skinner interviews, where it was stated that existing sprinkler systems (which had to be installed by law in office blocks) had been retained and reutilised in some of Inspired’s permitted developments, as we have reported.

      We are happy to put Skinner on the record, and look forward to visiting one of Inspired’s latest developments, accompanied by a housing specialist and a fire safety inspector.

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