As a pretty regular traveler over Sydney’s Anzac Bridge I’ve watched the Edwin Davey Flour Mill site with interest over many years. Although abandoned since the late 90’s it’s remained an eye-catching building; a handsome Georgian facade with the perfect intervention of a corrugated iron shed penetrating and rising above the brickwork in its top right hand corner. I often wondered what was to become of this piece of Sydney with its century long history of flour milling, particularly given its difficult location between a freeway ramp and the Fish Market. And in recent times, that question has been partially answered as, whizzing by, I’ve seen its conversion into apartments.

A recent article in the property section of the Weekend Australian newspaper (Feb 20 – 21) about the Harbour Mill development fleshed out the story. As Samantha Hutchinson explains in the article and of special interest to Cultural Capital; paying attention to ideas-based cultural content cleverly woven through the development has led to strong financial returns to the developer. Off-the-plan investors would also be delighted with their results.

In her article Hutchinson explains how Eddie Doueih, Managing Director of developer Ceerose ran an architectural competition. Maintenance of the original fascade was an important part of the brief. Winners of the ultimate commission were Grimshaw architects.

Last year I was in Grimshaw’s London offices, talking with a cultural consultancy which operates from those same premises and consults on a number of Grimshaw projects. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was that cultural consultancy, with a recently opened small office in Sydney, that had a hand in the Harbour Mill Project.

No matter who generated the cultural strategy, it makes a good case study for the benefits of creating cultural capital within urban development.

Two contrasting architectural forms now co-exist within the development. One is set behind the mill’s facade and complements its Georgian architecture. The second; a more contemporary, cubist building rises above. The two are connected with atriums that allow light and air into both buildings. The light reaches every floor and corridor, minimising artificial lighting.

As well as the original fascade, the weighbridge that sat within the corrugated iron shed has been retained, and the shed itself re-clad and emphasized.

A public art strategy has been implemented that draws from the building’s heritage and is supported with internal photographs and information panels that build out the story of the place.

Pyrmont has been the scene of a vast quantity of residential development over 15 years so competitive advantage is important to drive sales in new buildings. Hutchinson quotes Doueihi saying “Blending the old with the new has given us an architectural point of difference over most other residential developments”.

This is borne out by sales results. Off-plan sales opened in May 2012 and buyers literally queued up at the door for the 136 apartments. Prices ranged from $395,000 for studios up to $925,000 for 3 bedders. Penthouses started at just over $1 million, and ran up to $1.95m.

Since Harbour Mill’s opening in November last year, Doueihi has been told that several apartments have been valued at nearly twice those sales prices, with some of the penthouses now worth $3m.

Hard to get hold of one though, only nine of the 136 were traded last year.

For an apartment building in such an unprepossessing position, these are extraordinary results. And they’re brought about by a visionary developer prepared to go a little further in his efforts to create something truly memorable. Was Doueihi driven by a profit motive? I don’t know. But I suspect his respect for the site, which dates from childhood trips accompanying his father, a baker, on flour buying missions to the mill, and a desire to deliver something of that experience to his market, had as least as much influence on his work as commercial considerations.

And guess what – he achieved both. A great, newsworthy development that people don’t want to leave with outstanding financial returns.

At Cultural Capital, this is exactly what we advocate for. Culturally resonant ideas in which people find meaning, layered and textured throughout the project. The result? Better quality development outcomes delivering quality of life to residents, making a positive contribution to the urban life of the city and increased profitability for the developer and investors.

Developers wield massive influence in the shaping of our planet – and therefore how we live. So it’s very important how they go about their work. This is a wonderful study of a job well done.

Mark McClelland, Creative Director