When you turn the property pages of any newspaper, you tend to find residential property discussed in terms of two main classes: domestic ( your own home or the homes of others) and investment (something rented from one person to another). I too tend to think of “resi” (as building surveyors will often refer to it) as falling neatly into one of these two categories.
But some years ago I had all my ideas challenged by coming into contact with someone who has a network of properties worldwide.
Originally from London, and now in his golden years, my friend David originally set off from the UK on a boat to Australia in the 1950s. He later lived in Canada and then for many years in Japan, where he became publisher of an English language magazine. He bought a rundown farmhouse in Japan, with fields around it, and restored its thatched roof giving work to local thatchers. He set up a pottery kiln, invited a local potter to work there and turned some outhouses into accommodation for artists and craft workers to use as a residency.
In Scotland, in a beautiful rural location, he bought four acres of land that had once belonged to a local grand house
From that beginning, he began buying rundown properties in locations around the world, restoring them, while renting out sections of them to produce a stream of self-supporting investment income, while keeping a small section for his own personal use and most crucially some spaces to encourage local community projects.
In Scotland, in a beautiful rural location, he bought four acres of land that had once belonged to a local grand house and which contained former stables and cottages, all in a very rundown condition. He refurbished the cottages and rented them out, kept a part of the converted stables for himself, but offered most of it for use by the local community. He created nature trails around the grounds and invited experts on local wildlife and traditions to come and give talks in the main hall of the former stables.
In Hong Kong, on Lantau Island, he also has a property part rented out and part privately used that promotes local projects and research on forgotten aspects of rural Hong Kong, away from the bustle of downtown Kowloon.
In addition there is a further property in Canada and a charitable project in Bangladesh, a country whose interior, right up to his 80th year he has been visiting regularly.
Taking inspiration from the poetry collection by Seamus Heaney, this network of properties and projects is called "Field Work". I personally find it a most intriguing and stimulating concept. Rather than see a property purchase as merely "domestic" or "investment", this model defines it as both but also something much more – as a major investment in the life of the local community.
You probably need a particular kind of open-hearted, persuasive personality to pull it off. Apart from an eye for the potential of an undervalued property, David also has a talent for coaxing local people to get involved and inspired by his projects, including sometimes looking after the properties.
My approach to property tends to be more hard nosed and business-like, with a strict division between private and commercial interests. I tend to feel uncomfortable asking people to do things out of goodwill, even if it is for the best of causes.
The buildings around us exist in powerful synergy with the greater business of life itself
Yet there is something to be admired in those who are able to meld a concept of “property development” alongside that of broader community involvement and lay down deeper artistic and cultural roots. Much as we might attempt to apply cold economic analysis to the world of property, we should never forget that the buildings around us exist in powerful synergy with the greater business of life itself and house all the activities that make life precious and valuable.
To invoke another Seamus Heaney analogy of “wheels within wheels”, the restoration of neglected buildings is a wheel which when set successfully spinning, can magically start much greater wheels to start spinning in harmony around it.
Damian Flanagan is a property developer, writer and critic. @DamianFlanagan