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Karma, Building Skyscrapers And The Eternal

Buildings don’t just appear out of thin air: They are conceived, designed, funded and built by people who bring with them their lives, experiences, backstories and influences, both in their careers and in the world outside real estate.

For this series, Bisnow undertook highly personal interviews with a range of developers, famous and less well-known, to dig into those experiences and influences to find out how they shaped the people that shaped our world. 

Young men are mostly in a hurry. They want results now, fast, in a world that has no past or future, just a permanent, exhilarating, never-ending present. 

Spend some time with young Birmingham property developer Tani Dulay and you glimpse another way.

Woodbourne Group Chief Executive Tani Dulay

Dulay is talking from his office at Birmingham's Harborne Road. It is smart, businesslike and contemporary, and so is he. The subject of conversation: The 53-storey build-to-rent residential tower at Curzon Wharf proposed by Woodbourne Group, the family business of which Dulay is chief executive.

But within five minutes, somewhere between the complicated choreography of site assembly and the mathematics of speculative funding, the eternal pops up in the conversation. The moment soon evaporates. Yet in the course of the next hour it keeps returning. This is not mysticism, it's just a sense that things connect — past, present and future — and they always will.

It is too easy, too lazy, to wrap people up into convenient group identities. Yes, Tani Dulay is Sikh and proud of it, but he's also a computer science graduate, and a Birmingham resident, and he would love to have children just like most people. He's methodical and ambitious, and he's absolutely nobody's fool. But he's also got his eye on things many people in property never look for or cannot see.

“Sihkism is based on karma — you do good deeds, and you get good things back, do bad and you pay for it. It’s about honesty, integrity, good karma; those are the values we get from Sikh heritage,” Dulay said.

“Which is why this development will be Passivhaus and about net-zero carbon, because climate change is a real thing. If we don’t do something about it, Mother Earth will do something to us. I’m asking, what are we doing for future generations?"

To make sense of this you need to see where Dulay is coming from, where he is going, and what he is doing now at Curzon Wharf.

Vision of the future: Curzon Wharf at dusk

Curzon Wharf is the present, from which past and future radiate, and so we must start there, on a building plot next to an intersection, on the north-easterly fringe of Birmingham city centre.

Woodbourne Group, a developer Dulay happily admits nobody has heard of, is boldly proposing 1M SF of new floorspace, and a world first. The £360M development designed by Associated Architects promises to include the first ever Passivhaus skyscraper.

Passivhaus is a niche enthusiasm in the UK. The Swiss/German standard insists on high levels of insulation (and therefore super low energy consumption) and has largely been confined to domestic houses where it has a small but dedicated architect fanbase. But a 53-storey Passivhaus is a novelty and a potentially expensive one.

The 498-unit Birmingham scheme, to be called Boulton Tower, could be the world’s first net-zero carbon skyscraper thanks to a super-insulated ‘optimised thermal envelope’ of the kind Passivhaus recommends. There will also be super insulated walls, floor and roof; minimisation of thermal bridging; triple glazing; maximisation of daylight; LED lighting; and smart controls. This will enable fossil fuels to be eliminated from the site, with heat pumps satisfying all heat demands.

The tower is one of four trialling the insulation technology at the city centre scheme. A second 41-storey tower will provide student housing, and a 14-storey block will provide co-living space. A fourth building will offer 120K SF of office floorspace.

Building on earlier family efforts, Dulay has been piecing together the site since 2016. Whilst still at university, Dulay hammered on the doors of the Nuffield College, Oxford, owners of one slice of the Curzon Wharf site. Then he moved on to the local landlord who controlled the patch next door, and he finally got to grips with big-time developers Downing, which was thinking of a student housing and coworking scheme on the remaining portion. Woodbourne bought them out. By 2019 he had four contiguous chunks.

So what’s eternal about this? Surely all site assembly takes time? Well, yes, true. But Dulay sees this as part of a process, a sequence of good decisions that began in the 1960s and will end at some distant point, generations ahead.

“Real estate is all about legacy, it is an opportunity to truly shape the future. What we create today has an impact tomorrow, and we could, if we get it right, do something with value for many years. That thought gives me the energy to get the scheme through today," Dulay said.

The big picture: Curzon Wharf, envisioned from above the main plaza

The Curzon site is not just a site. It is the site, one already wrapped up in family history.

The process begins when Dulay’s grandfather emigrated from the Punjab to the UK in the 1960s. Post-partition religious tensions in India and Pakistan made them uncomfortable places to be, and Britain needed labour to fuel its economic growth. He planned a temporary move, but a series of jobs — in a foundry, in the rag trade and in retail — kept him away. “He saved and saved, and one thing led to another, and he ended up investing in property,” Dulay said.

Eventually Dulay’s father took over, and when he began to pull back, Dulay moved in. “I did a degree in computer science, then a master's in real estate, which wasn’t really prudent, it set me back a couple of years, but I wanted to get into property because that’s the only way to really shape environments. Property is fascinating and I always wanted to be part of it,” he said.

“This site is very precious to us. I’ve literally put my life into this. There’s emotional commitment, so I don’t want to get it wrong.

“Everything I’ve been doing for the last seven years has been about getting us into a position when we can handle projects like this, because the first thing people ask is ‘Who the hell is Woodbourne Group to do a 1M SF development, we don’t know you from Adam?’"

By dipping toes into a series of residential markets, Dulay hopes he’s put himself in a strong business. “The result is we’re at a stage where we have experience, but still have a startup mentality,” he said.

Curzon Wharf in the setting sun

The family heritage also points into the future, and it has shaped the Curzon Street plan.

“This is a Sikh family, it's imperative and part of where we came from, it's our philosophy and our ethic,” Dulay said. “The central part of this is that our word is our biggest asset. We have never broken it, nor do I intend to. We want to do business with a good conscience.”

Today Dulay is exploring funding options and partnerships, though he insists the resources are in place to go ahead without partners if that's what the family decides to do. As soon as Birmingham City Council planners have approved development the scheme will progress, with five phases over five years.

What comes after Curzon Wharf?

“God willing, we get this out of the way, and do more on this scale, not necessarily meaning this kind of size, but meaning this level of ambition,” Dulay said. “But it all depends on Curzon Wharf, because it has taken seven years to get here, and completing this project is what matters now.”

Then the cycle begins again: past pushing present into the future, all the time with an eye to the eternal karma. It's not how most developers see their job, but inside one very sleek, sharply contemporary office on Birmingham's Harborne Road it is how they do business. And probably always will.

Catch up with the first interview in this series, How Tattoos, Eastern Philosophy And A Wandering Childhood Shaped One Of The UK's Most Successful Developers