The creative hub: Inside St Albans’ new co-working space
- Credit: Archant
It’s at the heart of St Albans’ creative community, and BubbleHUB is also helping put the city on the global design map. Jane Howdle found out more.
We all know St Albans' reputation as a middle class bubble full of wealthy lawyers and bankers - but what of the creatives who also call the city home?
Scratch beneath the white collar surface and there are plenty of authors, composers and film industry types hard at work here according to Benn Latham - and many of them are his clients.
Benn launched St Albans co-working space BubbleHUB with friend and business partner Harry Dougall three months ago, and its slick, on-trend interior looks straight out of Shoreditch.
The pair bought the The Old Pumphouse on Stonecross in 2018 and, following a six-month renovation by interior architecture and design firm, align, it launched in July.
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Its highly Instagrammable interiors include two private phone booths, a bar area, coffee machines, kitchen, a bookable meeting room, 17 permanent workstations and 20 hot desks, as well as "the best Wi-Fi in the area".
Born in South Africa and raised in the Midlands, Benn originally trained as an accountant and followed the traditional route to St Albans via the capital: "You do well in London, you have kids, you move here. A well-trodden path."
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The 'having kids' part is what brought Benn and Harry - who runs a tech data firm - together: they met at a parents' social at Prae Wood school.
Then, when Benn stopped working in London and started meeting more creative people locally, he found there was a gap in the market for a co-working space- all he needed was the right building, something "with a lot of character in a good location". The Old Pumphouse was perfect - but it needed work.
"We had an absolute refusal to compromise. The folk we want to attract here, it had to be something that they'd usually go to London for. Something aspirational. The nature of the members we're getting reflects that."
Benn reels off a list of their current clients: an animator, a design agency, property consultancies, an international watch-making business, an author (MJ Arlidge, who's also a friend of Benn's).
"There's a chap who's running a global environmental charity, he's doing stuff with Greta Thunberg at the moment," he adds. "One of our guys is in LA all the time working for film producers over there. It's really diverse."
Benn or one of his team is on site from 9am-5pm on weekdays, but the building is accessible to fixed desk users 24/7. A range of packages is available, from £375 per month for a permanent desk upstairs to £100 for four days in the downstairs hot desk area.
They're trying to be "as flexible as possible to get the right members", Benn adds. This means sticking firmly to their original vision of a "creative, cooperative community where everyone supports each other while building their own businesses and ideas, sometimes working with each other".
Pursuit of this ideal has meant turning away potential members with staff jobs: "That's great but it's not what we're trying to do here."
Benn, who lives in central St Albans with his wife Heather and their two children, aged 12 and 10, describes a city centre full of creatives who choose characterful terraced houses on the likes of Sopwell Lane, Albert Street and Culver Road over bigger, less charming places further out.
"A lot of the creatives live in those sort of pockets - they've done time in London and they want to be close to the station. They've got money, they can choose bigger stock elsewhere but they choose to live [where they do] because of the community."
And many of these self-employed creatives need somewhere with super-fast WiFi, high end interiors and tea and coffee on tap - and that's BubbleHUB. "We don't want to miss a trick by taking a shortcut," Benn says. "We want to make folk proud of being in St Albans."
Indeed, BubbleHUB has been doing its bit to elevate the city's status, not only as a creative centre but also as a centre for great design. It's been featured in Russian, French and American design magazines, and has been nominated for an interiors prize at the 2019 London Design Awards.
It is "absolutely" Benn's intention to put St Albans on the map. "I think it should be celebrated."
And BubbleHUB? "It's a community hub full of great ideas. It's creating something - I'm biased - quite beautiful."