Office barges sail into Leith

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A unique office scheme soon to come onto the market in Edinburgh is set to bring a whole new meaning to the term, ‘waterfront development’.

For in this case the offices, rather than comprising the traditional combination of stone, mortar and steel frame and set on dry land, will, in fact, be barges moored in the Water of Leith.

The scheme is the brainchild of a three-man property consortia based in the East of Scotland which will carry out the development under the name of Water of Leith 2000 Ltd. While the triumvirate wishes to remain in the background, the detail is being handled by Ron Kitchin, who has been appointed managing director of the company and given the role of front man.

Kitchin (53) is a marketing expert who worked in several large cities around the world before selling his company and going into semi-retirement three years ago. However, he has been lured back to full time work by this scheme which, he says, adds a whole new dimension to office development.

The Water of Leith team received their inspiration from the Little Venice area of central London, so called because of the number of canal barges moored there. However, while these vessels are almost totally given over to mixed retail and leisure use (shops, restaurants, picture galleries, etc), the barges planned for Leith will be of a size and structure that will make then highly suitable for conventional office use.

Kitchin said: "The barges moored at Little Venice are very pretty, if a little garish, but the ones we intend to place at Edinburgh will be larger and more substantial. In fact, the internal accommodation will be no different from land-based offices, except that the base will be moored on water rather than cemented on dry land."

Water of Leith 2000 decided to embark on the project after it obtained ownership of the sides and bed of the river from the Victoria Bridge at Leith up as far as the tidal weir. It engaged the property agent, Ryden, to carry out a report on possible uses and this came up with three options: timeshare apartments, permanent residences or offices.

The company decided there was sufficient demand in the local market to justify the latter and so has decided to commission the building of six separate barges which will be built and fitted out as office accommodation and marketed under the name of Water of Leith Business Centre. Three of the barges will comprise 1,330 sq ft plus ancillary areas and another three will extend to 790 sq ft plus ancillary areas. All the moorings will be on the east side of the Water of Leith, split equally between the inner and outer basins.

The vessels will be fabricated "almost certainly" by a firm located on the Forth Estuary and will then be towed to Leith (the barges will not have engines fitted). While appearing to be barges from the outside, the vessels will provide the equivalent of grade A quality office space, Kitchin insisted. He said: "To all intents and purposes they will be no different, in terms of accommodation and services, from other modern, quality accommodation on dry land."

The company is so confident of the demand for letting space that the barges will be taken onto the market on a speculative basis.

And despite the untried nature of the product, Water of Leith is quoting a rental of 20 per sq ft which, if achieved, is likely to be a record for Leith. However, occupiers will not be liable to pay local authority rates.

"Looking at the London barges, we decided that improvements needed to be made if the concept was to be acceptable to the office market in Edinburgh," said Kitchin. "The feedback we received in London was that the barges were cold near the bottom in winter and hot near the top in summer."

To counter this effect, the barges moored at Leith would lie no more than 18 inches below the water line, the hulls would be given "phenomenal" levels of insulation and the glazing on top would be of a standard necessary to provide protection from excessive sunlight, said Kitchin. Meanwhile, with the hulls being given concrete basis, office occupiers would be unlikely to experience any swell.

Access to the barges would be via a fixed gangway. The deck would contain a reception area and access to the office space below. The vessels could be configured to accommodate more than one business, and up to 15 individual occupiers in the larger types.

The scheme also contains provision for 16 waterside car parking places; presumably those users not fortunate enough to quality for one could always arrive by speedboat.

Kitchin said that his colleagues on Water of Leith 2000 were not discouraged by the downmarket image associated with barges. "I accept that they are often perceived as being somewhat scruffy - lines of washing, that sort of thing - but Water of Leith Business Centre will be something completely different."

He added: "According to Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce, around 500 new businesses are created in the city every year with about 10 per cent of these going to Leith. The accommodation will particularly appeal to start up and small businesses, like those engaged in IT, design, advertising and so on."

The company is submitting a planning application to Edinburgh City Council this week and, if approved, the business centre could be in operation by the spring of next year.

The scheme has the support of Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce. Grahame Cunningham, director of business development, said: "We view the project as being particularly innovative and as complimenting the economic development strategy for the Leith/Granton area."