We Made That wants to deliver public good and hold itself to high ethical standards. We talk to the founders about land ownership, “stacked” commercial development and the role of architects.
Holly Lewis and Oliver Goodhall set up We Made That as an LLP, determined to make a positive impact on society and the environment.
The practice achieved B-Corp status in 2021 when there were only about 500 certified companies in the UK. Making the grade requires a detailed evaluation of an organisation’s social, environmental and governance standards.
“As a B Corp, there’s another layer of actively thinking about people, skills, talent, diversity and inclusion,” says Oliver. “We see Future of London pushing on those things too so that’s a significant factor in our decision to join.”
Public sector-focused urban designers
These values underpin the kind of projects that We Made That has taken on since it launched in 2006.
“One thing that is perhaps unique about what we do is that we work exclusively for the public sector and some charities, which is driven by our desire to deliver public good,” adds Oliver.
Scanning the projects section of We Make That’s website reveals a long list of London boroughs, regional local authorities and councils outside the capital. Three specialisms stand out: local industrial strategy; culture and cultural production, and high street renewal.
Making the case for new commercial spaces
Making the social, economic and placemaking case for increasing commercial space has been a particular focus.
“Ten years ago, local authorities with unattractive industrial areas might have been dismissive of the value of their industrial areas. Now they’re thinking about not giving up on the original commercial purpose.
“We worked on a study for the Greater London Authority in 2015 that showed industrial space was being lost three times faster than was planned,” says Holly. “Now policies have changed.
“You won’t find many industrial spaces that are being underused now. We hope our work makes people look at those industrial spaces and think about business and jobs, and the fantastic neighbourhoods they could build around them.”
Increasing commercial space with “stacked” development
We Made That advocated the creation of “stacked” commercial spaces in a follow-up strategy for the Greater London Authority.
Their report includes designs for large-scale industrial buildings that look like inside-out multi-storey car parks with ramps taking lorries up to upper levels. Be First’s Industria in Barking is a striking example of this idea put into practice. We Made That worked alongside architects Howarth Tompkins during the early design stages.
In the GLA report, they show models of small industrial units beside housing in a reversal of previous trends for converting industrial buildings into apartments, or demolishing them altogether.
Data-driven vision and strategy
The practice has grown steadily and now employs around 20 people with a familiar built environment mix of architects, planners and urban designers.
As We Made That operates from the vision and strategy end of the development cycle all the way through to delivery, they also employ economists and policy experts within a dedicated Urban Research Unit.
“There is a whole bunch of architects sitting out there,” says Oliver. “They think they are architects and I think they think they’re architects! But, also, what is the role of an architect?
“There are architects elsewhere who absolutely engaged with the craft of four walls and a roof. That’s not what we dedicate most of our time to here.
“A lot of our work is upstream of where architects and designers might normally engage. We’re trying to define the policy thinking about topics such as industrial intensification or social value in high streets.”
Can public land ever be used equitably?
We Made That is based in a very un-corporate workspace in Bermondsey owned by Southwark Council, which is both their landlord and a client.
After the council launched London’s first Land Commission in 2022, We Made That was asked to develop insights through community engagement.
“Land is what connects place to economy and where value (whether this is commercial, economic or social) is realised,” they write. “The problem is that we have lost sight of how we ascribe value to land.”
“Problems around wealth and power are implicit”
The Commission’s final report is called Land for Good, and the project closely aligns with the public good motives of We Made That.
“This is land owned by the council and the question is how more of it can be released for public good,” says Holly. “So that takes you into lofty aspirations around equitable access and problems around wealth and power that are implicit in how land is used.
“But someone’s experience of living in a place means they won’t care about your corporate structures if the hot water in their home isn’t working.
“The place-based lens can take you from the policies in the London Plan all the way through to a community organisation that is trying to find space to run a roller-skating group for young girls.
“It’s important that your high-level aspirations are right, but if it doesn’t deliver on the ground, it doesn’t mean that much.”
Holly says their involvement in the Land Commission is a good example of the kind of debates that brought them to Future of London.
“There are a limited number of rooms where you can consider the question of what it means to be working for the public good. I think Future of London offers that.”
Find out more about becoming an organisational member of Future of London here.