How do you balance commercial requirements with community needs? In this PX Conversation, the team behind Oru Space – a cafe, wellness and co-working space in East Dulwich – share their insights.
In this very first PX Conversation, Rumi Bose, GLA Project Officer, speaks to the people who brought us Oru, a very special café, wellness and co-working space in East Dulwich. Her guests are Vibushan Thirukumar, Co-Founder and CEO of Oru Space, his colleague Chloe Kimsey, local resident turned Operations Manager, and Matt Derry, Principal Project Manager at Southwark Council Sustainable Growth team.
The conversation kick off with Matt outlining the project’s background. Oru Space occupies a double-fronted space on Lordship Lane, at the top of a busy high street in East Dulwich. Formerly an NHS community mental health unit, the 600 sqm run-down building had been vacant for six months when it fell to Matt’s team to revive it. Building on experiences gained through the creation of Peckham Levels, the Council approached the project with an ambition to look beyond traditional commercial uses. In the first instance, they launched a call for proposals for more creative and innovative interim uses.
“Tell us what you want to do with the building, and we’ll have a conversation about how we might make that work.”Matt Derry, Southwark Council
After shortlists and interviews, the successful candidates were business partners Paul Nelmes and Vibushan Thirukumar, former Development Director and Head of Finance at Second Home, respectively. In essence, the pair proposed to develop Second Home’s already successful concept – creating purposeful workspace focussed on wellness – specifically for the space on Lordship Lane. This approach was appealing to the Council for a number of reasons, including for the opportunity to align with the site’s former use as a place offering community social care.
This alignment of visions was ultimately key to the project’s further development.
Touching on the challenges of setting up Oru Space, Vibushan highlights the importance of creating a competitive offer, regardless of your purpose. Taking this point very seriously, Oru aims to deliver a high-quality product across wellness, hospitality, and co-working, which maintains its competitiveness even when compared to more corporate or commercially driven offers.
Towards the end of the conversation, we talk about the inherent risk involved in trying to make a local co-working space.
“There is an oversupply in Central London of this product, it felt crazy that coworking doesn’t exist on local high streets and local areas.”Vibushan Thirukumar, Oru Space
It was important for the project team to ask themselves the question: “Is this a good enough high street to work on, all day every day?” Vibushan explains that they didn’t have enough capital to pay large deposits or take on a hard lease. Constraints bred creativity however, and the opportunity to do something unique. There was no clear idea at the outset about the look and brand. Oru Space was developed and designed by Paul and Vibushan organically, taking both the community and Southwark along the journey with them. Luck, faith, and an organic process worked well.
The resulting ground floor serves the public uses of hospitality and wellness: a bar/reception, 60-cover café/restaurant, and two wellness studios. Upstairs is a series of quieter members co-working spaces.
Chloe, a local resident, shares how she saw the community change during lockdown. Paul and Vibushan had recently arrived and had thrown themselves into getting under the skin of the local community, opening Oru’s doors to develop and test their concept, talking and reaching out to anyone who was interested. The atmosphere of bubbling creativity attracted Chloe, who wanted to be part of the project’s energy. She believes that the holistic nature of the building is something many were looking for during lockdown, at a time when people were hemmed in at home. The culture of Oru – that of joining in, of building dialogue – was very timely and, for Chloe, life-changing. Refreshed to have a space so ‘home-grown’ and open, she is now very happy to be working at Oru as the Operations Manager.
“It’s so refreshing to have a space so ‘home-grown’ and open.”Chloe Kimsey, local resident and Operations Manager, Oru Space
Lessons learned for high street operators: You don’t have to satisfy everyone, just a group of people who fully understand what it is you are trying to achieve.
Lessons learned for landowners: Be organic, flexible, collaborative. Buy into a shared vision, accept a share of the risk, and be flexible about the approach – something great might happen!
- Vibushan Thirukumar, Oru Space
- Chloe Kimsey, local resident + Oru Space
- Matt Derry, Southwark Council
- Rumi Bose, GLA