As a part of our ongoing series of article about the career paths that Uk housebuilding can offer, we speak exclusively to Emma Barker of Home Group, who talks us through what she does and how she got to her current position.
Hi Emma, please tell us a bit about yourself and your role.
Hello! I’m a development manager in Home Group’s south team, based in our King’s Cross office. I’ve worked at Home Group for just over a year and not one day has been the same. My role deals with everything right at the beginning of development – looking for land opportunities and then working up planning applications for our in-house delivery team to take over and manage the build, as well as working with developers to purchase their affordable housing for us to manage.
How did your career path lead you to your current position?
I had a weird start to my career – I graduated in 2009 so there were very few opportunities around for people who had limited real-life development experience. I decided to find a supply teacher role – meaning no marking and paid holidays – where I could build up voluntary experience with local councils and private firms while my colleagues were drowning in exercise books!
My first job in property was with Islington Council in their new build and regeneration team. As development support officer, I supported the team with admin and then developed the role to shadow and take on responsibilities on certain projects. I moved from there to an assistant development manager role for a large housebuilder, working on a major regeneration scheme in north London. This diverse role saw me involved in a new masterplan for 5,500 homes and managing the consultant team, to resident liaison and even singing with the resident’s choir!
I was development manager at a small student housing developer before Home Group. Here I gained experience of the full process, from planning application to handing over the keys post-construction, on two multi-million pound projects of over 500 student beds combined. This was important for me as I gained invaluable ‘buildability’ experience that few traditional planners have.
What projects are you currently working on?
My two main projects at the moment are Home Group’s first foray into the regeneration of our own stock. These are homes identified as not up to our high standards, where there’s an opportunity to change this through wholescale redevelopment. Varying in size and complexity, they’re both in their early stages but we hope to progress to planning submissions within a year or so.
As these projects are the first of their kind, I work closely with the regeneration team to establish best practice for the group. This includes how we incorporate design principles from the outset, along with ensuring we involve our customers from the very beginning of the process.
I recently held a workshop with over 30 residents where we asked what they’d like to see in a new development and then got them into groups to put their ideas down on paper. We then took photos of all their ideas and it was amazing to see the interaction of our customers with our architects. We are going to be holding more workshops where we can focus on specific areas such as play and green space.
Below is an example of the customer feedback from the workshop session Emma held:
Home Group is incorporating design philosophy into the development manager role – how does this make your job different from that of development managers elsewhere?
It’s so great to have Liz as a resource in-house – there’s not many places where you can pick up the phone to a trained architect and ask their advice. Not without a fee anyway! As development managers, we’re encouraged to look at the development in the round – not just maximising the receipt and getting as much development on the site as possible. How would the customer – whether private or affordable in tenure – feel in this space? What would additional outdoor space do for the quality of the scheme as a whole and also the quality of life for the people living there?
It’s then our job to work out where we need to spend money, to be sensible, and where we could maybe cut back. It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach, we like to make every development special. It also comes back to our ethos of creating a place and a home, not just a ‘unit’ and a sales value.
What makes this an appealing way to work?
Not only do we create amazing places that people want to live (and thrive) in, we make sure that whoever you are, you get the best there could be. Tenure blind developments and looking after our customers first – particularly on our regeneration projects – means that sustainable development is a given as people feel an ownership right from the beginning. It’s such a great thing to work for a company that actively encourages you to push viability in order to get more affordable homes onto a scheme, really refreshing and quite rare in a time of rising build costs and long planning processes.
Does this need you to have particular background skills for this role, and would it likely appeal to someone with certain qualifications or experience?
I have a Masters in town planning and colleagues in my team come from land buying backgrounds, but we have the same attitude to design. The end product is as important as the first drawing, as we very rarely begin a scheme that someone in Home Group won’t end – our operations colleagues managing the affordable homes and our sale colleagues selling the private homes – so we have a vested interest in their success. Also, Liz has tasked us with winning design awards for each scheme we build so the pressure’s on!
What’s the best way for someone interested in having a career like yours to start?
I would say to try everything out and see where your best fit is. I’ve been lucky in that I’ve had experience in private and public sector companies before I came to Home Group and it really helped me to focus on what was important to me in my career. I also wouldn’t worry about moving around too much in your early career either – there’s not the same stigma around that as there used to be. It’s good to show knowledge and experience in different areas, particularly in project management, it helps you to understand where different stakeholders are coming from.