True to the name, Assembly Bradford was a coming together of people and ideas. And like many great ideas, it began in the pub!
Haigh Simpson, Matt Lamont and Martyn Johnston were on the lookout for a new base, having spent a couple of years hopscotching between meanwhile spaces as Chapel Street Studio. Around the same time David Craig was sitting on a fresh brand, designed by friend and branding-supremo Lee Goater, a twitter account, and a semi-formed idea to create a city centre coworking space.
A few boozy chance meetings later and the idea of a collaboration became more and more appealing. With nothing else like that in existence in Bradford, we knew we’d be taking a risk, so strength in numbers approach was a good way to go. With backgrounds in interior design, marketing, design and project management we each brought something different to the table and we quickly set about planning our first space.
We considered a number or sites but were keen to set up base near Bradford’s ‘top of town’ area, which was experiencing a mini-boom in the wake of the council’s city centre regeneration scheme. Through his project work, David came across an ideal space above a new bakery on Rawson Place. It was industrial, affordable and ready to go. Ideal for the ‘prototype’ space we were looking for.
With a budget of £7,000, the idea behind Assembly V1 was to create an attractive, functional space on a bootstrap budget. It was a test of concept and a test of our skills.
In a play on the Assembly name, David used affordable materials to design and build temporary structures to break up the space and create a unique aesthetic that has lived with us to this day. An inspired salvage job by Martyn saw us inherit 50 office quality chairs and a table tennis table to complete the look.
Assembly Bradford opened its doors in July 2016, providing 24 coworking desks, a kitchenette, wc and meeting room/library. Early adopters were mostly friends and associates, but we quickly grew to a membership of around 30. These included people from a range of backgrounds and sectors including designers, writers, researchers, developers and marketeers.
In September 2016 we held a belated opening event, in the kind of party that seems unthinkable in the days of Covid, we invited over 50 people to come check out the space with proper Bradford curry, live DJs and a bar by The Triangle.
Not long after that Bradford Bakery opened in the floor below and we became accustomed to the smell of freshly baked bread each day. Another thing we were soon to become familiar with was the cold. As winter set in on our first year we felt the consequences of our bootstrapped approach. With no insulation, breeze block walls and a corrugated steel ceiling, hats and gloves became commonplace.
Despite its limitations, Assembly v1 was becoming a genuine hive of creative activity. In our first 18 months we saw dozens of projects originate and develop from Assembly. We built up a strong social media following and continued to attract new members. We also hosted a number of events including film screenings, architectural debates, print workshops, and urban planning sessions.
Early in 2018 Martyn announced his intention to step down from Assembly to establish a cooperative cafe and co-working space. While the announcement came as a shock it served as a perfect opportunity to reevaluate, and focus on the future of Assembly.
The lease on Rawson Place was due for renewal and we had become aware of an impressive space that might be available just around the corner on North Parade. We arranged a viewing and any doubt about what we were going to do next was quickly put to one side.
We were blown away with the character and potential of the building, instantly falling a little bit in love with the main hall. Taken in by the impressive arched ceiling, period windows and fantastic views, we were determined to make this building our new home. Crucially, the building also included several office spaces, toilets, a kitchen and space to expand. It needed some investment and plenty of work, but if we were going to do it, this was the place.
The building’s landlord Chris Bexton, who would go on to be a fantastic supporter of Assembly, impressed us with his passion for the building and enthusiasm for our plans. He also offered us a generous rent free period which helped to mitigate the risk we were taking.
With many of our members following Martyn to the new Bread + Roses space, we were more or less starting from scratch again. We were down to a handful of members and we also lost another director, as Matt decided it was a good time to step down and concentrate on his design work.
Despite these setbacks we were super excited to sign the lease and on a swelteringly hot day in July 2018 we made the short move over from Rawson Place to our new home. Once again we were operating on a tight budget. We took an £11,000 loan which covered the costs of decorating the main hall and office spaces, a new set of 16 custom built desks, the installation of six infrared wall heaters and a videx entry system. A city centre regeneration grant from the council helped cover our rent costs in the first year and gave us some much needed breathing space.
The coworking space slowly started to take shape and our members quickly settled in the new environment. The improved facilities, natural light and location made it a much better experience for us and our members and we began to rebuild our membership with renewed enthusiasm. We had a clearer idea of who we were and what we wanted to be, which enabled us to begin developing a culture and an atmosphere that reflected our vision.
Design agency Everyday Something became our first office tenants, moving into the attic studio in August 2018. We were really chuffed to be welcoming a top studio into Assembly and they would go on to create awesome designs for the likes of Oakley, Bundobust and the Science & Media Museum from the top floor of our building.
Later in the year Bradford BID picked Assembly as their operations HQ following their successful YES campaign. The campaign had been delivered with the support of several Assembly members and the opportunity to collaborate with our members was one of the key factors behind their decision to set up base here. The BID share our passion for improving the city centre and having them based in Assembly has provided many great opportunities to meet people, deliver great projects and give each other advice.
The new space gave us lots more opportunities to host events and open up Assembly to different organisations. Over the next 18 months we hosted Glug Bradford, The Bradford Print Fayre, weekly yoga sessions, board meetings, creative workshops, design sprints, rehearsals, gigs, filming of a music video and a whisky tasting event.
It was awesome to see space used in such a variety of ways and to be able to be bringing things to Bradford city centre that might not have happened otherwise. The downside to this was having to pack down the coworking each time, which was a disruption for our members and a pain in the arse for us!
Alongside this we also had heating issues again, as we discovered the main hall was difficult and expensive to heat consistently in the winter months.
Our solution was to expand again. We knew our landlord Chris was keen to find a tenant for the 1st floor, but the space was in need of some significant investment. Between us we agreed a deal which gave us both what we were looking for. Chris agreed to fit out the space to a ‘turn key’ standard and we agreed an extension on our lease agreement.
At this stage the floor was looking a bit sorry for itself, with a jumbled patchwork of previous fit outs doing their best job to disguise some stunning original features. Chris set about stripping out suspended ceilings, patching up skirting boards and putting up stud walls while we continued as normal upstairs.
The plan was to move coworking down to the new floor, where gas central heating was being reinstated. This would free up the main hall to be repurposed as a dedicated events space. The 1st floor also had space for three private offices, a meeting room, kitchenette and WC. Overall it would give us a much better balance and allow us to build a sizable community of coworkers and office residents.
We entered 2020 with work on the 1st floor nearing completion. It was exciting to see the space coming together and at every stage the fit out was exceeding our expectations. Chris’ attention for detail was remarkable and we were counting down the weeks to our move in date.
Covid-19 sent the UK into lockdown just a few weeks before we were set to sign our lease. It was a major blow but like everyone at the time we had no idea how serious or lasting the pandemic would turn out to be. The safe – and sensible – thing to do would have been to hold off until things were more stable. But we both felt the right thing to do was to honour our agreement with Chris.
We pushed back our move-in date to July and crossed our fingers that we’d be able to get people back in the building by then. A £10k Covid grant helped keep us stable as we went into hibernation mode. Keen to pass on this support to our members, we offered to pause coworking subscriptions indefinitely and reduced office rent by 50% for three months. It was a measure of the support we had from our members that several elected to continue paying their subscriptions despite having no access to the building.
We were finally able to open our doors again and complete the expansion into our shiny new space on 1 August. Although we were a lot quieter than usual, it was great to be open and see people using the space. We were particularly delighted to welcome back Bradford Producing HUB, who returned to set up base in one of our new first floor offices. Out of Place Studio, a collaboration between Haigh and former director Matt Lamont, also took up residence in a dedicated office space. Between them they have brought some fantastic energy and creativity to the building.
We also added the final part of the jigsaw to our new coworking space, commissioning the construction of three new ‘pod offices’. Designed by David in collaboration with Esgate & Keir, the pods combined the ‘assembled’ character of previous Assembly spaces with a higher end finish.
The remainder of 2020 has been a little stop start, a little uncertain but mostly it’s been incredibly positive. We have seen a spurt of new coworking memberships, we’ve welcomed two new office residents and we’ve made some exciting plans for 2021.
The main hall event space has been mothballed for the moment, a reminder of the potential still waiting to be unlocked. As social distancing hopefully becomes a thing of the past, we look forward to writing the next chapter in Assembly’s story!