Founder of South Yorkshire housebuilders Sky House David Cross talks to Matt Holmes about reinventing the traditional back-to-back house, and how to make it work in an environmentally conscious 21st century.
If you are familiar with the Sheffield built-environment scene, then you will most definitely have heard of this month’s cover star.
When I sat down for a chat with David Cross, who has a career spanning over 20 years in the city, my aim of the conversation was to dig deeper into his mission of creating high-density houses within urban areas via his company Sky House Co and to find out who they are, what they stand for and what they have achieved so far.
“I grew up in a terrace house in Birdwell in Barnsley,” David tells me, “I loved living in that house. We had a piece of land we would play on called ‘The Triangle’ where we would climb trees, and we played squash against a house wall in the launderette car park. There were lanes behind the houses for the carts to drop off coal in the olden days, and they were all car-free zones. I have really fond memories of living in a terraced house.”
You can hear from the way David speaks about his childhood growing up in Birdwell that he believes in the romanticism of living in a close-knit community.
So, inspired by his own experiences and by the housing that used to be seen throughout the city he wanted to reinvent the back-to-back house and remove the stigma attached to them. At one stage the name “Backback” was being toyed with for the project, however, it didn’t evoke the same grandeur that “Sky House” does, which itself comes from the large floor to ceiling windows featured within the houses, bathing rooms in natural light.
It hasn’t been an easy journey, however. The idea of Sky House was born during the 2008 recession with the vision of creating quality, gentle urban density.
It took five years to buy the land for Sky House’s first development in Waverley before any diggers were even in the ground, and then disaster struck. David jokingly recites, “One of my friends has always said overnight successes usually take ten years.
“We make no excuses that our first project at Waverley was difficult because the builder went into administration halfway through the project. We had to pick up the pieces and finish the project causing delays. We learned a lot from that, which is when we decided to bring everything in-house.”
Not long after the builders went into administration did COVID-19 hit, and we all know the impact that had on businesses across the globe. However, it gave David and the Sky House Co team a lot of thinking time. Who did they want to be and where did they want to go?
I asked David if it gave him chance to consider his approach. He said: “I’m not the kind of person who believes in serendipity, things happen sometimes. We agreed as a board we wanted to be a housebuilder rather than a developer.
“Bring everything in-house, control the process, the inputs, the outputs, and if it wasn’t for COVID we probably never would have done that.”
Now they have their own in-house construction team, customer service and sales team and two architects within the business.
From the inception when it was just David and his partners Philip Prince and Ian Bower, they are now a 25 strong team with their own offices that when you come in you find jigsaws for your kids and independent bio-wines from Starmore Boss and beers from local independent breweries for the adults.
Of course, Sky House wouldn’t exist without David. So where did his journey as architect and housebuilder begin?
“I always wanted to be an architect from being a little boy,” he said. “My dad used to have a haulage business and I would sit in his cab driving up and down the country pointing at houses, and somehow along that journey I became fascinated with them.”
He became a residential architect working in various agencies in South and West Yorkshire when just two years after qualifying he knew he wanted to do it his way and set up his own practice in 2003.
However, there was still frustration with clients, and he was never interested in the signature showy architecture of luxury housing. His passion has always been with the idea of macro housing and how it can solve real housing problems, creating ‘Grand Designs’ style architecture for the average working person.
His vision has certainly become reality when he took the step to give Sky House Co his full attention. The figures make for impressive reading.
With 44 homes completed at their first Waverley site, a further 44 on their second, seven at Fox Valley due to be finished early in the new year, planning going in for 106 houses at Waverley Central and there is a further 40 at Oughtibridge Mill.
The latter includes the exciting conversion of the old mill into a foodhall to be operated by the Milestone Group, the geniuses behind Kelham Island’s Cutlery Works.
In the city centre, they are building Sky House Devonshire Quarter, which is what Sky House was always intended to do, bringing different types of housing into the city centre.
David tells me how they allow residents to echo the words of the famous Mars slogan: “Work, rest, play”, all without being car dependent.
This leads us onto the all-important green credentials of Sky House.
It’s easy to throw words around that give the impression of being an environmentally conscious business, but Sky House can back them up with solid evidence. All projects under construction and in the future are to be carbon neutral down to the materials that are used, the fuel and the labour which is all done to offset their carbon footprint.
Ahead of 2025 regulation changes, they are working on zero gas solutions, air source heat pumps and heat recovery, solar panels, sustainable urban drainage, and electric vehicle charging.
In line with their corporate social responsibility, David tells me how Sky House uses local materials where possible, not only supporting their eco goals but supporting local businesses too. The materials themselves are quality and robust and Sky House has achieved BOPAS accreditation, the self-governing industry body for modular builds.
He says that when it comes to durability, houses should be able to age as well as a traditional Victorian terrace would. He says how they should pass the ‘scooter test’, recalling how his son would ‘bomb’ around the garden, and if it were to dent the cladding on the outside and it was discontinued or discoloured etc. then it doesn’t pass the test.
The future of Sky House looks bright. With £69 million worth of sales on-site and a further £196 million of projects in the future, David says that as a Barnsley lad he would love to see Sky House take shape in his home town, as well as in Doncaster – completing South Yorkshire.
Then they could take it even further afield from there. He tells me how one day he hopes for there to be a Sky House factory, manufacturing all the modular builds themselves.
David said: “I think it would be lovely to see the brand become a national household name and I don’t see any reason why we can’t. I’m an architect, not a construction expert in the sense that what we are now is a construction firm or a housebuilder. So, we’ve managed to bring in some really great people.”
He is emphatic in how he speaks about the people that make up Sky House from staff to partners, and how without them the business simply wouldn’t be where it is right now. He mentions Duncan Armstrong-Payne from Harworth Group who sold the land for Waverley 1, 2 and the soon to be Waverley Central.
Homes England provided funding and are a great example of a government initiative. For the Oughtibridge deal Barratt, David Wilson Homes and CEG.
David mentions his former practice CODA as Sky House’s ‘favourite architects’, and their fantastic structural engineers Eastwood and Partners. He says that their chosen estate agents Redbrik have been great, and a shout out to Skratch Design and DED for all branding and web content.
The hard work of all involved is paying off in terms of recognition too, with awards and nominations rolling in. Sky House Co received nominations for Waverley Phase 1 in the Yorkshire Residential Property Awards and in the RTPI Awards for Planning Excellence.
Oughtibridge Mill went the whole way and won Deal of the Year alongside partners David Wilson Homes, Barratt Homes and CEG at the Yorkshire Residential Property Awards as well as winning Residential Development of the Year (fewer than 50 homes) at the Insider Property Industry Awards Yorkshire.
David tells me how everything they do within the business is with an award-winning mentality: “We want to win awards for everything we do, it’s the mindset of being brilliant at what we do. I say it to the team all the time, is it award-winning brickwork? Is it an award-winning roof? Is it award-winning customer service?”
Over the last 12 months, they have invested heavily in integrating technology to help run the business, making the process tech-driven from day one. There is an online customer service portal where buyers can report defects and issues, syncing with their CRM system and they use construction management software where teams can upload health and safety issues, progress photos and upload contracts.
When David began his career in 1999, it was a turning point in the residential revolution for the North as people returned to living in cities.
He likes to think Sky House is a continuation of that revolution: “We think we are revolutionising the mass housebuilder market. We’ve carved a place in the volume housebuilding sector by being a niche housebuilder, and that’s kind of our mantra.”
Sky House has gone from a start-up to a £35million per annum business, and from 2022 they look to grow to deliver 150-200 homes per year.
Take a look for yourself at Sky House: sky-house.co