Salvus House: Setting sail on bright future at start of Aykley Heads' 6000 jobs mission

The bow-shaped entrance hall, port hole-peppered doors and sloping sides give away Salvus House’ original purpose as a base for a marine insurer. Now, however, this impressive building is sailing into fresh waters, having been acquired by Business Durham to become a brand new hub for startups, hotdeskers, virtual deskers and fast-growing firms in a range of sectors. It is also proving to be a successful testbed for wider, longer term ambitions for Aykley Heads which could see 6,000 new jobs and a GBP400m boost to the local economy through development of the wider Aykley Heads site.

Durham County Council plans to demolish its headquarters and develop the site as a centre for high-tech and high-paying jobs through several phases of development which will eventually see it become a vibrant hub for fintech, professional services and IT firms.

Salvus HouseSalvus House

Those plans are a way off, but change is already in the air. Atom Bank, which started with just two people, now has around 300 people at the Rivergreen Centre, where the business is redfining what it means to have a business bank account. Atom, the UK’s first purely digital bank, could have easily been built up in Leeds, yet it now attracts top talent from across the region, with superstar advisor Will.i.am known to call in for brainstorming sessions, a ringing endorsement for the area as a whole.

New firms keen to make sure they’re in place ahead of the area’s exciting future are also arriving all the time, with Waterstons IT solutions business being the latest to sign up to a new base, investing heavily on a cool refit for its new base at Northumbria House. Salvus House itself is racking up impressive occupancy rates, just 18 months after it was acquired in the first stage of the grand plans for Aykley Heads.

Inside Building Design (Northern) Ltd's office at Salvus HouseInside Building Design (Northern) Ltd’s office at Salvus House

The 32,561 sqft building is now around 75% full, and new businesses are coming on board all the time. There are currently 15 companies of varying sizes in the building, alongside 11 hotdeskers.

There is also a growing number of virtual tenants, who have registered Salvus House as their business address, capitalising on the DH1 postcode. And since opening, outside organisations – including Durham Constabulary, the NHS and Nepic – have also been tapping into its facilities to host meetings there. Food Truck Friday, a phenomenon popular at workplaces across the region, is also growing, with several foodie firms rocking up in vans each Friday and more being sought to visit.

Plans are also under way for an operator to come in and turn the building’s bistro area – which is a meeting space at the moment – into a proper restaurant where members of the public will be able to visit. Salvus House was originally built by Whalen Construction and designed by Nicholson Nairn to be the HQ for Sunderland Marine, seeing off competition from around the North East to win best office development in The Journal’s Landmark Awards in 2005. It became available when Sunderland Marine merged with North of England P&I Association North (NEPIA) to create the North P&I Club a few years back.

Business Durham saw an opportunity when it came up for sale, billed as ‘the best HQ in the land”, snapping it up on behalf of the council. A fair amount has been invested into creating new workspaces and offices in the building. Set on the outskirts of the city centre, on the A1 corridor, the building and could make a Homemaker Dream Office special, set in a leafy area surrounded by trees and enveloped by a bank of greenery, abundant with birds.

Dean Crampton, director of DRC Consulting LimitedDean Crampton, director of DRC Consulting Limited

Almost all of the offices face out onto this calming, peaceful sight, more akin with a botanical garden than building set a 10-min walk from the train station.

Dean Crampton, director of DRC Consulting Limited has only been in the building since the start of this year, when he launched his business, but has already found the need to expand into a bigger office on the back of success. Until recently he worked for a Chester-le-Street firm but, keen to go it alone, set up his own business as a chartered quantity surveyor, construction cost consultant and project manager. He started from a hotdesk but quickly picked up work from the likes of major motor retailers and manufacturers and needed extra space – one of the printers he uses is almost as big as the hotdesks alone.

So he now has an office looking out at the trees and shrubs, and will soon welcome in a business partner to help with the growing workload, as well as an apprentice, giving someone the chance to follow his same path into the industry, gaining experience and a salary while carrying out a part-time degree. The location isn’t the only upside. Since moving into Salvus House, Dean has been able to gain some valuable information and connections thanks to networking breakfast events held by other tenants

He said: “It was the setting that attracted me here really – that and the DH1 postcode. And there’s a tedious link too in that the company I worked for built it. “I had looked at other areas but spoke to the manager about how Business Durham will push you and promote you, and that was a real selling point.

Oh – and Food Truck Friday is good too.” Building Design (Northern) Ltd was based at the nearby Rivergreen Centre, a project they worked on, until it was taken over by Atom Bank, and the firm was lucky enough to snap up the top floor office which used to be Sunderland Marine’s boardroom. The structural and civil engineering consultants, which has a growing architecture business, has all manner of clients from private clients to retail and student housing customers.

With a floor-to-ceiling glass window covering an entire side of the room, the huge curved room feels more like the bridge of a ship.

Richard Marsden, director of architecture at BDN LtdRichard Marsden, director of architecture at BDN Ltd

BDN has even managed to make use of the enormous boardroom table, splitting it into six sections and turning each part into work stations for the growing workforce, which currently stands at 10 in County Durham, with room for several more, and one person based in a satellite office in Barrow, Cumbria. Richard Marsden, director of architecture, said: “We were that used to this area – it’s convenient for access and predominatly our staff are from the North East; some from Newcastle, some from Gateshead and the managing director’s from Framwellgate, so it’s convenient in terms of accessibility. We’re not smack bang in the centre but it still gives us the appeal of being close to the city centre.

“The area itself in Aykey Heads, we’d never really been anywhere else. Obviously now it’s getting a lot more popular in terms of business. “We chose Salvus House and this room because of the direction the business is going – we’re trying to increase our architectural side of the business, so this is a showpiece office, with full glazing.

And because it was the old boardroom you can expect it to be one of the best rooms in the building. “What it doesn’t really show you is the birds flying into the glazing. You get the shock of your life – you should see the size of some of the wingspans splattered on the windows.”

Meanwhile, the company behind a new app designed to slash car insurance costs has switched from Newcastle to Durham, where it is creating new jobs. Honcho is an app which allows insurers to bid for consumers’ business, competing with each other to offer the best value package in real time. Insurers pay honcho GBP1 for the right to bid, enabling them to reduce premiums for consumers.

Gavin Sewell, CEO of honcoGavin Sewell, CEO of honco

CEO Gavin Sewell has three other team members at the moment – but he is fully confident that this first “reverse auction” marketplace app will take on the likes of Confused.com and Comparethemarket, giving it the potential to become just as successful with just as many employees.

And that growth, he says, will come to fruition in Salvus House. The business moved from Newcastle after receiving investment from the Finance Durham Fund, managed by Maven Capital Partners, which stipulated it must be based in Durham – but he is more than happy to have made the switch in March this year. He said: “We were in Milburn House in Newcastle, which is an interesting building but it also got far too hot and far too cold sometimes.

When we took an investment from Business Durham we had to come to Durham, and fantastically for us they had space here in Salvus House.” The firm’s basement office has glass doors opening out to the surrounding gardens and while it may have a few empty desks at the moment, they will soon be filled. “We will hit six by the end of the year and the firm has big ambitions.

And it’s brilliant that there are options to move within the building,” he said. “Plus we can access people from Northumbria, Newcastle and Durham University and it’s literally an eight-minute train journey from Newcastle.” Gavin is also pleased to be based in Aykley Heads at the start of what could be an exciting time.

“It’s not here yet, but I like the aspirations for Durham and down the road at Milburngate which will bring lots of entertainment and restaurants. It’s a few years away but that will be brilliant.” CGIs of potential new developments at Aykley Heads in Durham are clealry stirring up excitement in the area, and Durham County Council leader Simon Henig says the Salvus House success is giving the authority a lot of confidence.

He said: “The first part of those plans, the Northern part of Aykley Heads, is around this part of the site. “For the council, for Business Durham and Durham, this is a very important site. We certainly believe that it has a lot of advantages – certainly the success of this building in the fact that when we took it over it was empty and it’s gone very quickly to being around three quarters occupied.

That’s a good sign, not just in terms of this building but in terms of the wider plans for Aykley Heads. “It’s not an out-and-out urban environment, as you can see looking out of these windows and all you can see is trees, and it’s very quiet. You’ve got that transport connectivity, you’re close to all the amenities that a city provides but also you feel like you’re out in the rural areas.

The combination of those advantages is the attraction. “Another positive for facilities like this is that it’s attractive to graduates coming out of universty who want to set up their own businesses but don’t have the options or business accommodation that was necessary – maybe we need to look at how we continue making such accommodation available in the future. “A lot of students come to Durham from the South and I think there’s a risk we then lose them as a region straight back down to the South, so anything we can do to hold those people is good for Durham and the whole of the North East.

“We had already identified a need for good quality business accommodaton in and around Durham City – that’s why this building has been successful.

“It’s one of the things that has spurred us on to the decisions on Aykley Heads to have a lot more floor space available in a series of phases in the future – we believe that demand will be there for that high-end good quality accommodation that businesses need, to set up and expand.”

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