The Big Interview: Peter Millican, chairman of development company Parabola

Peter Millican is the founder and chairman of property-development and investment company Parabola – which is behind the southern phase of Edinburgh Park, and the city’s recently opened Johnnie Walker Princes Street visitor attraction.

Described as a “visionary”, he established Parabola about two decades ago to build two office developments in Newcastle, where the firm has an office in addition to its presence in Edinburgh and London.

He and the firm also created arts-and-commerce development Kings Place that is described as the “cultural pulse” of King’s Cross in the UK capital –and which says it contains the first new public concert hall to be built in central London since the completion of the Barbican’s facility in 1982.

Mr Millican continues to chair the Music Foundation at Kings Place and the conference and catering company Green and Fortune.

'The team at Parabola has a deep attachment to place making, and a love of Edinburgh,' says Mr Millican, pictured at the firm's Edinburgh Park development. Picture: Lisa Ferguson.

Parabola first acquired planning permission for the southern phase of its Edinburgh Park development, an enormous zero-carbon development to the north of Edinburgh Park rail station “designed around the success and happiness of its people” – in December 2020.

The aim is for the site to be “a new urban quarter that will not only become an exciting place to live and work, but also a cultural destination and creative campus for Edinburgh” – housing the likes of up to a million square feet of commercial space, a maximum of 1,800 homes, and a 200-seat conference facility.

Parabola has been involved in several key projects in Scotland, such as Johnnie Walker Princes Street, and the southern phase of Edinburgh Park. Can you give more details on the firm’s involvement in these, and how they are driving forward the company – and, more broadly, Scotland’s economic prosperity?

The team at Parabola has a deep attachment to placemaking, and a love of Edinburgh. We acquired the undeveloped half of Edinburgh Park in 2013. Based on a masterplan from Richard Meier, the park was very successful until early 2000 when the market changed significantly and it needed a fresh start.

The executive also believes that culture 'is a major plank in building relationships with the local community'. Picture: Lisa Ferguson.

The coming of the tram and two heavy rail stations fundamentally altered what might be possible and we set out to create a mixed community based on outstanding public transport where people could live, work and play in a green and landscaped environment.

We worked for more than six years designing our masterplan, which consists of offices, housing, hotels, sports facilities and art. We started on site in 2019 with our first office building, restaurant, public square, tennis courts, and football pitches.

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In 2017, we acquired the House of Fraser department store at the west end of Princes Street. This was a tired but much-loved building in a key location in the city. Many people have told me fondly how they used to meet under the clock there. We felt that we could create something very special.

We went through several different iterations before we were approached by Diageo for Johnnie Walker Princes Street and the rest is history.

Scotland, as elsewhere, suffered greatly from the financial crash, losing much of its heft in this regard, and it has taken time for this to be reversed. However, Edinburgh now feels more buoyant than it has been for some considerable time.

The strong growth in population and business optimism is driving demand for quality housing and sustainable office space, which we hope Parabola can, in a small way, support.

You founded Parabola to build two office developments in Newcastle. Can you explain more about why you set up the business, and some of its key milestones/projects along the way such as Kings Place in London?

Designing a building from scratch is one of the most exciting things I can imagine doing. You start with a blank sheet of paper and you end up with a sculpture that people inhabit. I started with a retail business and after I sold it I bought a derelict sorting office in Newcastle that was built very substantially in the 1930s.

We stripped it back to the frame and rethought it as an office building that won awards for the best refurbishment from the British Council of Offices. We built another office building next door, and then I looked in London for a site around King’s Cross, which I considered the best transport hub in London.

King’s Cross had a reputation for things other than shops and offices and it was generally considered that the idea of creating offices with a concert hall underneath was simply nuts. Despite that, I wanted to construct a building that had very good office space but which also offered something back to the local community.

Kings Place has proved extremely successful, winning numerous awards both for office space and its cultural offering. We run concerts for children and have a broad outreach programme. We have a sculpture gallery and a popular restaurant. I believe this is what placemaking is all about. There is no silver bullet but somehow you have to sprinkle magic dust over the project and involve the broadest range of people in the enterprise.

Parabola says it has sustainability at its “core” – and is a funding partner for The NetZeroToolkit by Edinburgh Science, for example, while the aim for Edinburgh Park is for it to operate with no carbon emissions. Can you summarise the firm’s approach to sustainability, in the wake of COP26?

From my very first building in the ‘90s, I have been focused on environmental issues, and Central Square in Newcastle was a leader in many ways. We specified displacement air conditioning, which uses 100 per cent fresh air and free cooling when the outside temperature is below 18°C. This reduced the electrical demand to 60 per cent of a standard office as well as giving a much bigger volume of fresh air per person

We have designed Edinburgh Park as a 100 per cent green electric community with no gas. We are monitoring the embedded carbon in our buildings and constantly examining ideas to reduce this further. Our first office is heated using heat pumps which give an average of 2 kilowatts (kw) of heat for every 1kw of electricity used. We are installing solar panels on all the green rooftops and using recycled material wherever we can.

You are passionate about the arts, and this is central to your vision for Edinburgh Park, demonstrated by, say, commissioning a major new tapestry… In what way does culture “help places thrive”, as Parabola has said?

I have always believed that culture is a fundamental component of placemaking. In my very first building in Newcastle I commissioned Sir Eduardo Paolozzi to create a sculpture. Eduardo produced a plaster maquette of Vulcan, which is now a seven-metre bronze statue.

Almost every week we had children coming to sketch it as part of their curriculum. Vulcan is now on its way to Edinburgh Park and over the years we have commissioned other major sculpture works that we are bringing together in Edinburgh. This will form the backbone for the sculpture shows that we are planning as the park is gradually developed.

Culture is a major plank in building relationships with the local community around us. We have engaged with local schools in poetry workshops and drawing sessions, and we are supporting [music programme] Big Noise as they make their new home as our neighbour in West Edinburgh.

I have always loved tapestry, which used to be the most valued art form in days gone by, and I am a great fan of Leon Kossoff. I asked Dovecot Studios to weave an interpretation of one of his many drawings of Minerva protects Pax from Mars by Rubens. The Rubens painting is an allegory of war and peace, which was given by the Spanish king to Charles I as a peace offering, and in this time of global unrest it feels particularly appropriate to celebrate.

To what extent was the firm’s activity affected by the pandemic – both positive and negative?

The pandemic affected everyone. The construction on site has been delayed by around six months, and whilst we have coped well, I can think of no positives. What has become very clear, however, is that people want to work in well-designed and well-ventilated offices and that they value green space around them.

Can you give more details on your career before Parabola – you were an optician…?

I trained as an optician and built a small group that I sold before moving into property.

Who do you admire in business?

Elon Musk.

Parabola also has The Parabola Foundation, which works with projects in Scotland but also in the likes of Uganda and Tanzania. How would you characterise the aim of the Foundation, and how do you select projects?

I believe we should try to do what we can to help others who are less fortunate. I have travelled frequently in Africa and 20 years ago set up a charity with two friends to dig two wells in Tanzania.

Each well supports around 2,500 people and we now have around 300 wells that we monitor to check they are properly maintained.

The sculpture foundry that we set up in Uganda as a charity with Pangolin Editions provides a facility for Ugandan artists to fabricate and sell their work. It has grown from a very small enterprise to a significant employer that is highly valued by the local community. In the UK we support several arts and music groups that we have selected on the basis that we admired the people and we felt we could make a difference.

What would you like Parabola to achieve in the next, say, five years?

I am looking forward to seeing the developing community at Edinburgh Park as people embrace what we are creating.

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