The Assay Office in the heart of Birmingham's historic Jewellery Quarter is undergoing a massive transformation after almost 140 years. Tamlyn Jones speaks to the developer behind the exciting plans for the landmark building

It started with a bid on a warehouse in Digbeth and now, seven years later, developer TCN is finally getting its hands dirty on its first project in Birmingham.

After winning approval from city planners earlier last month, the Brixton-based firm is beginning the process of stripping out the Assay Office in Newhall Street as it embarks on a transformational project which will herald in a new era for the 138-year-old building.

Initially built in 1877 at a cost of £9,448, the office on the corner with Charlotte Street has only ever been home to one occupier but this time next year it could be teeming with life as small and growing companies seek out a new home in the city.

TCN bought the famous Assay Office last year since when it has been drawing up a vision for the building and its rear car park to create a new business hub and the latest block of apartments to come to the Jewellery Quarter.

Richard Pearce, who co-founded TCN with Toby Bidwell in 2006, admits he had cast a wistful eye towards the assay building but had never really thought its ownership would change hands.

"We had been looking at the Jewellery Quarter for a long time. It appeals as the younger generation want to live and work in the same area," he told the Post .

"Many years ago, before it was for sale, we stood outside the Assay Office and said to ourselves 'that's the dream'.

"We thought a tenant of so many years was not going to move out but then it became available.

"When a building like that comes along, it ticks a lot of boxes."

CGI of the new flats at the rear of the Assay Office
CGI of the new flats at the rear of the Assay Office

In its early year, TCN was focused only on London but a few years ago the directors decided to venture outside the capital and started targeting developments in interesting and historic buildings in regional cities.

Mr Pearce added: "Our initial business was in London and then in 2009 we started searching in Bristol and Birmingham.

"We looked at a lot buildings, often problem or difficult ones. We looked at the Kettleworks and also bid on a couple of buildings in the Jewellery Quarter and Digbeth where we tried to acquire a warehouse.

"It was all about finding the right location at the right price. In the Assay Office, there are beautiful rooms and stairs and we're being creative with the designs.

"There also nine safes on site which we'll be bringing into use and there will be a quiet room in the basement as you cannot get a mobile phone reception in there.

"We will play on the tradition and the juxtaposition of the old and the new."

The viewpoint was echoed by Dav Bansal, a director with city practice Glenn Howells Architects which designed the office conversion and apartment block.

"This opportunity is a truly mixed-use project offering interesting space for a working community and modern city living, all set within an historic and thriving environment," he said.

Rear car park of the Assay Office where the flats will be built
Rear car park of the Assay Office where the flats will be built

"Not only does it ensure the long-term future for the Grade II listed historic landmark but the new-build aspect also significantly improves the streetscape and an important approach to St. Paul's Square.

"The sensitive adaptation of the Assay building creates a different and alternative workplace offer to modern open plan floorplates, making it an invaluable addition to the quarter.

"It also adds to its attraction as a place to do business and address the growing demand from SMEs for flexible and affordable workspaces, as well as offering a base for start-up businesses which thrive in communities where support and facilities can be shared."

Following the original development, the Assay Office was extended over the years, including as recently as the 1970s, but in 2005 it was decided the Newhall Street complex was no longer fit for purpose.

After battling a massive decline in hallmarking between 2009 and 2013, the Assay Office pursued its mission to move to a more suitable new home and earlier this year relocated to a purpose-built complex on the corner of Moreton Street and Icknield Street.

The plan for TCN now is to start talking to potential occupiers by next spring with the office renovation complete during 2016 after which they may start on the residential element - a condition of being awarded planning permission - which should be finished in 2017.

The apartment block will be built on the rear car park of the office and accessed from Charlotte Street.

It will contain 18 one-bedroom and 14 two-bedroom flats, 13 parking spaces and a bike space per apartment.

Inside the Assay Office which is being stripped out
Inside the Assay Office which is being stripped out

Mr Pearce said: "Conservation people helped with the plans and we worked with Glenn Howells Architects to make sure the residential element at the rear fits in the with the Jewellery Quarter.

"I don't want to replicate what happened 200 years ago. The new building will clearly be a new building but it will also respect the Assay Office.

"This residential element is what's making the office renovation viable."

TCN is now well established in Bristol and a similar, long-term view is being taken for its presence in Birmingham.

Mr Pearce said the firm was keen to "create a community" so it made sense for the company to cement its relationships in Birmingham once the development work was completed.

"We will have people on site so it's like running a business and in Bristol we have four or five redevelopment projects which we still own," he added.

"There will be a centre host and a caretaker at the Assay Office who will not only run the building but also host networking events and be based there permanently.

"There will be common kitchen areas and a lot of what we do is about promoting integration with other people in the buildings.

"Ten or 15 years ago people were saying the office was dead but now we like to be around other people and that's what we want to encourage."

Historic façade of the Assay Office in Newhall Street
Historic façade of the Assay Office in Newhall Street