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Interview with Alan Waxman of Landmass

October 2019

Listen to Alex Goldstein’s interview with award-winning designer and property developer Alan Waxman of Landmass, who is one of the most sought after designers in London, credited with transforming properties with the most desirable London postcodes. He specialises in lower ground floors and basements, turning former dark and dingy areas into stunning interior spaces. Here he shares his tops tips on developing property.

Interview with Alan Waxman of Landmass

Full transcript below:

Alex: We’re honoured indeed to have property royalty here in the studio over the phone. This is Alan Waxman from Landmass in London. Just to give people an understanding Alan is one of London’s most high-profile property designers and developers and actually has been credited with transforming the lower ground floors of prime central London, especially in Belgravia and Knightsbridge and dare I say you’ve even been nicknamed the mole as well. Alan, great to have you on. On the back of this how has Landmass come into being, what’s your background and why this sort of angle, what you’ve been known for more recently in terms of the low ground floor side of things?

Alan: Good morning Alex and thank you very much for the very kind introduction. I think when anybody starts any career they never really know how its going to end up and the same with my journey through property because when I started my only ambition was to buy a few rental properties starting in Fulham then Woolwich and Brixton, Clapham etc. and had nothing to do with actually doing anything about design or indeed building any basements. But what happened was I started as I said to build up this portfolio and I couldn’t get the rental incomes I wanted on one or two of them so I thought well maybe I can sell them for a profit, managed to do that having just give them a little lick of paint and a clean up and then I thought well why not buy something in order to redevelop and see if I can do that as well, and I bought a couple of floors above an off licence in Fulham on a very busy road called Wandsworth Bridge Road and during the design process because I wasn’t sure how it would pan out I actually moved the kitchen three times which obviously cost me a lot of money with the builder but the end result was the flow was good and I got it checked by a feng shui lady too because I was curious to see what you know professionals would think and she liked it and it was the first time I got a higher than expected price from the agents because of what we did. Then following on from that I bought a couple of flats in Notting Hill which were existing two bed flats and most developers would have perhaps tried to convert them into three bed flats, but I really had a big look at the space and I really thought that once again how we use the space is so important and decided to make them into one bed flats.

Alex: Wow so you went completely in the other direction of most people?

Alan: Absolutely yes, and then Sienna Miller the actress bought one of them, somebody else bought the other and again we beat the market expectations because I started to understand that the people really appreciated good space, good planning and I got a feeling of a thing called emotional purchase where people walk in and go yep I like that.

Alex: Yeah and they fall in love with it and I mean you’re very much renowned for transforming in particular lower ground floors and going down I think a number of stories going underground. How do you go about transforming what is effectively what is a windowless lower ground floor dark basement into something that actually sets the property apart and make it excel and obviously get that end result and that end buyer?

Alan: Well the interesting thing about the lower ground is if you just look at the floor plate, what’s interesting you only have the steps going down, you don’t have any obviously steps going further down because they don’t exist so as against the other floors of the staircase takes up less room and so that in turn gives you a much bigger space to work with and also greater opportunity for having the whole space open plan, so that’s just talking about the floor plate. The second thing is crucial to these types of floors is ceiling height and we’ve done anything from 2.75 in my latest project in Notting Hill to 3.4, and interestingly in Notting Hill because we’ve done the plans some time ago I didn’t realise during the construction phase that the ceiling heights were only two and a half metres, and so we actually had to go back to planning to get that extra 25cm and also that meant another parting wall and it also obviously meant digging down further and costing more, taking more time but that extra 25cm the floor actually made a massive difference and I’m a great believer in turning the negatives to a positive. The next thing obviously is how you can introduce natural light. In one project where it was a mews house and it just had windows at the front and so really who looked at it thought well how dark and dingy it was because it had houses on the other three sides. But what I did is I took out one of the back corners of the property, put in the glass retractable roof and then a 10 metre copper waterfall going all the way down into a Zen garden and again that transformed a negative to a positive, people walked in and thought wow I wasn’t expecting to see that and then amongst the space in the lower ground floor we also had additional voids so in essence double height ceilings to create that special atmosphere. I don’t know if that gives you a flavour. In another property I put up a floor to ceiling copper fireplace in the lower ground floor. So, you know lots of things you can do so when people go down they think wow I wasn’t expecting to see that and different ways to turn a negative into a positive.

Alex: And as you said just coming in from a completely different angle and as you said doing something that is unexpected I think that’s what really propels your property expertise into another level, I think that’s a fair comment. And what are people having in these lower ground floors and what is the space normally or is it if you can think of it you can put it down or design it all or not?

Alan: Obviously, every property is different and in when I did in Belgravia where we won best interior design in the country, we had a bedroom suite which had a steam room on it, we had a TV area, we had the Zen garden and then we had sort of a laundry and a wine cellar. In another one I did in Belgravia it was just open plan kitchen dining and a bit of a snug with a TV. The one which I’ve just done in Notting Hill on the lower ground floor what I done is I dropped the patio garden from ground to lower ground, so you could walk straight out from the kitchen dining snug out onto the terrace so if you wanted to have al fresco dining it was easy to sort out and then the floor below in the basement we had a TV room, we had 2 bedrooms, both with en suites, both looking out onto the patio and we had a laundry room.

Alex: So, a huge range of things. Now I suppose you’re an extremely experienced chap and I mean when you look to develop a property, what would you say are your top tips in terms of just an insight on that angle.

Alan: I think the thing people forget when they do the numbers on the property is at the end of the day the numbers only work if the end product is tip top, and my company Landmass has sort of made a point of making sure that each and every property that we bring to the market, for where it is and what it is, ticks all the boxes because if it doesn’t, the initial financial appraisal you do, you might as well put it in the bin. It’s very binary in the higher end of the market because if people don’t like it they don’t then negotiate on the price they just say you know thanks but not for us and it’s a little like in Little Britain where they go into the travel agents and they want to go away somewhere and the person behind the desk says sorry computer says no, it’s as simple as that. So, you’ve got to get the product right and on that there is nothing to do with the finishes it’s all to do with how you create the space. But the three main things on your appraisal are obviously your sales price, working out what your deed can sell it for, secondly is your construction and professional fees which will obviously vary from project to project and to get realistic numbers for that the contingency is always a red herring because it’s always used so up so you may want to add a little bit on top of that and then of course the timeline because obviously each projects different and timeline obviously affects the financials in so far as the interest costs. Once you determine those you then work out what your profit margin wants to be because you know everybody has their own formula for that and if it’s all cash then that’s all straight forward, if you can use bank debt put those numbers in and then what that in turn does it then spits out what you can afford to pay for it.

Alex: Yeah quite, so it’s a lot more methodical and calculated?

Alan: Yeah exactly, say in essence what you’re doing is working backwards from the end price, you cast your timeline, and your financial cost, put in your margin and then work out what you can afford to pay for it.

Alex: All makes sense on paper of course doesn’t it? Yeah, I guess in the real world it may be sometimes slightly different in you just need to make a very precise judgement call. I think you’re very good indeed on the interior design side of things and I think very often when you talk about these sort of things, about the light wells and the Zen gardens, it’s very much of interior design led, and the final touch and the feel of it.

Alan: If it’s done properly, especially complemented with the same flooring throughout, it does give that feeling of space. Now it’s not as easy as it sounds because the way we go about it depending on the property each one has different light, will look at different shades of white, different times of the day, different rooms in the house and then different textures of paint. So, what we then can come up with is some of what works best for the property in that location.

Alex: What do you feel currently defines luxury in homes at the moment? There’s sort of a lot of specialist in inverted commas out there, but what is it you’re at the forefront of it but what actually defines it? Is it that sort of bespoke touch to everything?

Alan: I think the main thing is if you’re doing a ploy to sell is as a developer when I look at my role it’s like being a conductor of the orchestra and the challenge is putting the team together and different designers have different egos and different views and different architects the same, and so the skill of the developer is having the vision and then getting the team to follow that vision and in every case I’ve always had discussions, disagreements with the design team about what they want to do and what I want to have, and sometimes I’ve gone along with their ideas and sometimes they’ve come along with my ideas. So it’s something which you’ve got to lead from the front and this really comes from either having the right eye or having the right eye and also experience but I don’t think there’s a secret formula, it’s just some people either have it or they don’t and the main thing is that the dog wags the tail not the tail wags the dog so you have to you know sometimes designers will come up with ideas which you know they’re super passionate about but you have to say well I don’t think that’s what the clients going to want or the buyers going to want.

Alex: No absolutely.

Alan: In essence all we’re doing is we’re creating a widget to sell, and it happens to be a super luxury product but if people walk in and don’t like it then they’ll just walk out the door.

Alex: What are the actual rules I suppose? Do you have any rules dare I say in your role when it actually comes to the interior and the actual finish of a particular project or property that you handle?

Alan: Yeah, I mean Alex, at Landmass we do follow a very strict process and that is if we’re doing work for a client obviously step one is to take the brief, understand what they want to achieve out of it. Then the second part is then coming up with design, layout solutions, architectural design which will hopefully give them things which they had never thought about and looking at a property in a way which they didn’t think was.

Alex: Now I’ve got to say there is some fantastic tips and insights into your world, really fascinating stuff. If anyone wanted to sort of see a bit more, I know you briefly mentioned the website and to get in touch with you what are the best ways?

Alan: The easiest ways through the website which is landmass.co.uk If they want to email me directly alan@landmass.co.uk

Alex: Fantastic. Can’t thank you enough again Alan, really appreciate your time.