Oru Space follows an innovative, people-focused model – a positively energised workspace, cafe, wellness, and event space, balancing profit and purpose. Taking a holistic approach to the high street offer, Oru serves up community value, beautiful design and seriously scrumptious plant-based food and drink.

In this very first PXConversation, Rumi Bose, Property X-Change Lead speaks to the people who brought us Oru, a very special café, wellness and coworking space in East Dulwich. Vibushan Thirukumar is co-founder and CEO of Oru Space and is joined by his colleague Chloe Kimsey, local resident turned Operations Manager at Oru Space. Also with us is Matt Derry, Principal Project Manager at Southwark Council Sustainable Growth team.

We kick off with Matt who explains that the Council own the unit, 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 building was vacant for 6 months until it came back to the Council. The team was tasked with taking a different approach to doing just another commercial let – and being flexible, creative and open-minded.

The team followed a similar model to the one they used for Peckham Levels – seeking proposals for interim uses, remaining open to ideas from interested parties. Although the unit was run-down with many subdivisions, it was large (600sqm with basement) – presenting challenge and opportunity!

After shortlists and interviews, the successful candidates were business partners Paul Nelmes and Vibushan Thirukumar, former Second Home Development Director and Head of Finance respectively. Following a similar model to Second Home, workspace with a purpose, focussed on wellness – their approach stood out and came full circle, nicely tying back to the former use as a place offering community social care.

Ultimately the visions of both Oru and the Council aligned. Southwark wanted to make sure their asset stayed useful to people. Vibushan talks about the importance authenticity. The objective for Oru was to provide an amenity which was community and purpose-driven. Vibushan feels that oftentimes, market offerings which are labelled ‘community’ don’t live up to or compete with more corporate products. Oru takes this point very seriously in their individual products of wellness, hospitality and coworking.

We talk about the inherent risk involved in trying to make a local coworking space. “Is this a good enough high street to work on, all day every day?” Vibushan explains they didn’t have enough capital to pay large deposits or take on a hard lease. Constraints however, bred creativity and the opportunity to do something unique. There was no clear idea at the outset of look and brand. Oru Space was developed and designed by Paul and Vibushan organically, taking both the community and Southwark along on the journey with them. Luck, faith, and an organic process worked well!

The resulting ground floor has the public uses of hospitality and wellness – a bar/reception, a 60-cover café/restaurant, and two wellness studios. Upstairs is a series of quieter members coworking spaces.

Chloe, a local resident, talks to us about how she saw the community changing during lockdown. Paul and Vibushan had recently arrived and had thrown themselves into getting under the skin of the local area, opening Oru’s doors up and developing and testing their concept, talking and reaching out to anyone was interested. The atmosphere of bubbling creativity, drawing like-minded people in attracted Chloe, who wanted to be part of the energy. The holistic nature of the building is something many were looking for during lockdown, at a time when we were hemmed in at home, the culture of Oru – joining in with the sharing and building dialogue was very timely and, for Chloe, life-changing. Refreshed to have a space so ‘home-grown’ and open, she now is very happy to be working at Oru as the Operations Manager.

Lessons learned for high street operators – You don’t have to satisfy everyone – just a group of people who fully understand what it is your trying to achieve.

Lessons learned for landowners – Be organic, flexible, collaborative. Buy into a shared vision, accept a share of risk and be flexible about the approach – something great might happen!

“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

“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

“To live, breathe eat and drink in the area is so important to get to know people”- Vibushan Thirukumar, Oru Space

“It’s so refreshing to have a space so ‘home-grown’ and open” – Chloe Kimsey, local resident and Operations Manager, Oru Space

Contributors

  • Vibushan Thirukumar, Oru Space
  • Chloe Kimsey, local resident + Oru Space
  • Matt Derry, Southwark Council

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