Von Essen's dramatic five-star hotel is rising alongside the Thames in west London, and in the first of a series monitoring the life of this brand-new build, Gemma Sharkey looks at how the project began, with helicopters and high rises playing a major part
London's five-star hotel market has seen major changes recently, with iconic hotels such as the Savoy, the Four Seasons at Canary Wharf and the Langham all undergoing expensive redesigns to bring their interiors up to the elite standards.
But the construction of a new-build, five-star hotel in the cash-rich, space-poor capital of London, could arguably be called a defining moment in the city's hotel life. After all, the last luxury new build in the capital was the Four Seasons in the Docklands about a decade ago.
With this in mind, over the next 12 months, we plan to document the work, sweat and skill involved in the building, opening and operating of luxury hotel operator Von Essen's new five-star hotel and adjoining heliport, which will form part of the Bridges Wharf Development in Battersea.
In the next issue, we will look at the challenge of building a riverside property, as well as some of the dramatic designs taking shape from the planning boards. In the third in the series, we will look at how Von Essen is staffing its hotel and, in the final part, we aim to capture the excitement of the lead-up to opening day, and how the whole project has been marketed to the general public.
There's no doubt, at least, that the PR folk will have plenty of material to work with. Running over seven storeys, with 70 rooms and three subterranean floors, it's a slimline boutique property. There will also be all-day dining contained within, a destination bar, a rooftop restaurant, and business suites - links for which project co-ordinator Alison Chenery is setting up.
Von Essen's creative director and architect - and driving force of the project - Andrew Onraet, seems keen to get on with the things. His words come quickly, as if he's itching for the magnum opus-monolith of a new build to open.
Work in progress
The inside of Onraet's office is covered in mood boards with logos, patches of fabric and imagery, detailing thought processes that are intimidating in their scrutiny. There's a view of the imposing building's shell, which has recently reached the roof but essentially remains a work in progress. A bare, greyish husk stands in stark contrast to the rotary flurry of activity around the heliport. So my first question is, why Battersea?
"Well to be honest, if the heliport wasn't here, we wouldn't be here. It acts as a feeder, bringing people from London into our other hotels," he replies.
Davis bought the heliport in 2007, and has employed Surrey-based helicopter maintenance and charter company PremiAir to manage the site. You can imagine from the existence of a heliport the kind of clientele the hotel directors are looking to attract - wealthy west Londoners who also visit Von Essen hotels in the country, plus business people, for which the extensive conference facilities are being built.
"It's for the kind of individuals who go to our country hotels for dining, luncheon clubs, classes and cooking," says Onraet, "but also for the discerning corporates who fall outside the four-star box."
Ideally, some of these will stay during Ascot, the British Grand Prix at Silverstone or Cartier Polo, and fly to each from the helipad. The reverse is part of the plans, too - people using the hotel as a base to explore London. Von Essen marketing calls it "the vertical gateway into London".
However, the heliport has been the cause of some challenging issues, as well as giving the hotel its raison d'être. When Von Essen acquired the land in 2007 from Weston, planning approval had to be amended to incorporate the inclusion of a heliport terminal within the hotel building.
Discussions between Weston and Wandsworth planners went on throughout 2007. Onraet recalls the memory with the look of someone who is glad it's all over. "We decided to flip round the front of house and back of house, but because we didn't get planning through until before Christmas, we had to instruct our workers on two separate plans," he says.
This meant excavating two sets of foundations, drilling two lots of piling, and placing a mezzanine floor into the double-high space of the first floor, which involved moving floor plates up and down. The builders also had to continue the river walk around the heliport in order to connect the footpath which stretches from Wandsworth Bridge to Battersea Bridge.
Then, torrential rain came just as the builders were pouring the concrete. For David Palmeiri, the construction director of Weston Homes, and his team, there was plenty to deal with. As well as the Von Essen hotel, Weston is working on other parts of its Bridges Wharf development - 257 apartments, live-work units, landscaped grounds, underground parking and 8,000sq m of commercial space. There will also be an art gallery, deli, a high-branded food outlet - rumoured to be M&S - and a pâtisserie.
Yet, Battersea isn't renowned for its hive of cultural activity and culinary prowess - more for its abandoned power stations rather. "That's true," Onraet admits. "How do you create something from nothing? We have to overcome people's preconceptions."
It's clear Onraet and his employers at Von Essen would like to see a kind of South Bank emerging here, or even a development akin to Docklands. The fact that several other hotels are springing up along the Battersea stretch of water will help. There's a new Hyatt property planned in close proximity to Battersea Power Station, the Bastana Group's Chelsea Bridge hotel, and a 400-bedroom Marriott in Wandsworth. Onraet dubs this all "a healthy four-star offering".
Onraet admits that the London hotel market had hitherto eluded Von Essen's chief executive and founder Andrew Davis. Previously, Davis is rumoured to have bid for Como Hotel's Metropolitan, for one. But when the group acquired the heliport in 2007, Davis saw the opportunity for a new direction in which to take his business, one previously concerned with country hotels. Hence, the Battersea hotel will be the start of what Davis is calling his "metropolitan set".
"It marks the direction the company now wants to go in," says Onraet.
And what of the noise made by the helicopters once the hotel is finished and the guests move in? The group has hired acoustic consultants The Equus Partnership to ensure the helicopters don't disturb people.
However, the rest of the building, as we show in our next Von Essen focus, is being designed so that as many of the public as possible get to hear about it.
Davis trained as a commercial lawyer, specialising in antiques and fine arts. From 1986 to 1992, he worked as legal director and in-house counsel to a major fine art house and was involved in property development, property investment and farming. From 1993, his property and art trading activities became trans-national as he expanded to Monaco, southern France, Spain and the USA. He also founded and operated a small helicopter charter business, then established Von Essen Hotels and various subsidiaries in 1996, with the aid of a trust fund set up by his Austrian aunt, the Countess Von Essen. His personal interest in flying has been integrated into his hotels in the form of a flying service in Battersea - a fleet of helicopters that will fly guests to any of its hotels in south London.
Onraet studied at the Kent Institute of Art and Design and at Canterbury College of Art, School of Architecture. He then worked in Berlin, designing offices, before taking a role at Chassay Last Architects, redesigning the Grouch Club in London, then becoming director of a small practice, Urban Salon. He currently heads up Aeon Architects, specialising in combined residential and commercial projects, and works as a tutor at the Architectural Association and the Mackintosh Glasgow School of Art.
Von Essen snapshot
Von Essen was founded in 1996 with the aid of a trust fund set up by Davis's Austrian aunt, the Countess Von Essen. The group's first major purchases came in 2000 (Stone Easton Park hotel and Thornbury Castle hotel) adding to Mount Somerset, Congham Hall, and New Park Manor.
New project costings: