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Onwards and upwards

Office development in London's former docklands is quietly continuing to expand. Antony Oliver visits the glamorous home to a growing number of city firms.

Looking east from central London it is possible to catch a glimpse of Cesar Pelli's famous No 1 Canada Square tower at Canary Wharf. But even from this 10km range changes are noticeable.

Two sister towers are growing alongside - one also designed by Pelli for Citigroup and the other by the ubiquitous Sir Norman Foster for HSBC. Both are slightly smaller at 42 storeys but will be no less imposing in their steel and glass cladding.

But while from a distance these are the obvious signs of expansion at Canary Wharf, the truth close up is a great deal more dramatic. Some 576,000m 2of office space is now under construction which will add to the current 539,000m 2already let. By around 2005 the owner, Canary Wharf Group, hopes to have 1.3Mm 2and a working population of 90,000.

Unusually all this construction activity is planned and project managed in-house by the client. Canary Wharf's business development vice president Tony Jordan is adamant that this is the best way to ensure that buildings are developed and built on time, ready to start collecting rental income.

'We find it more effective to control the process this way, ' explains civil engineer Jordan.

'We do not believe it is more expensive but then we are looking at the whole life costs. We are not just focused on putting up the building as cheaply as possible.'

Apart from the two towers, work is pressing ahead in preparation for around a dozen other new buildings and underground shopping malls in the area.

These include buildings alongside and connected to the new towers, but also new developments on Heron Quay to the south and at Churchill Place to the east of Canada Square. All are designed by different groups of architects and engineers, but will retain Canary Wharf's trademark quality to provide the tenants - most of whom are already signed up - with some of the best office space available in London.

'We take a very hands on approach to the construction process, ' says Jordan, who has a 300 strong team of engineering staff to back him up. He firmly believes that the strength of the developments come from having engineering excellence very high on the agenda at all times.

'The large foreseeable workload allows us to develop relationships and to build up trust in companies and people, ' he adds.

'They know that they are always dealing with the client. We don't set out to screw anyone down on price - we want to get the job done properly for a reasonable price. If there are disagreements then we deal with them immediately face to face. Employing someone that is about to go bust is no good to us.'

Jordan estimates that Canary Wharf will have to expand its teams even more to cope with the workload expected over the next five years. Employing all consultants and contractors directly takes a great deal of managing and if commercial targets are to be met, the buildings have to go up fast.

The construction explosion at Canary Wharf comes in stark contrast to events a decade ago when the property crash forced then owner Olympia & York into administration with debts of over £1bn. But Paul Reichmann - the force behind the American style development - managed to buy back the company from the banks in 1995 and started the area's rebirth.

Key to Canary Wharf's current success of course is the arrival of the Jubilee Line Extension which has revolutionised links to the West End and means that people now have a realistic journey to work from all parts of London.

Add to this the extension of the Docklands Light Railway south of the Thames to Greenwich and Lewisham which opened last year and the commuter times drop dramatically.

What was once considered as a 'toy train' for five times too many passengers in the peak hours and a few tourists during the day, is now benefiting from improved technology and more diverse routes.

Some 35,000 people now work in the area during the week. But a new shopping mall which opened this year along with new bars and restaurants mean that, outside working hours, the area is no longer the ghost town of five years ago.

Jordan underlines that the speed of construction cannot undermine the build quality for which Canary Wharf is renowned.

'We never set out to spend more money on a building than necessary but we do try to achieve better quality as we go on, ' he says. 'We are delivering 21st century office buildings of a size and quality that would be difficult to achieve elsewhere.

But we are also delivering them in a time scale that you could not achieve anywhere else.'

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