A London-based property developer who grew up in a tower block has called for more accountability within the “extremely dated” construction industry – we speak to him about how his company, the Property Shack, is taking action to bring about change.
Mojatu: First of all, could you talk us through your journey from growing up in a tower block to actually becoming a property developer?
Shack: I was always interested in property – I just never really understood how it worked or how to get into it, and assumed that it was for rich people. My parents never owned their own homes and we lived in blocks, so the way we grew up, there wasn’t a lot of understanding around how owning assets or generating wealth really worked. I think because of that, it drove me to learn more about it and to level up.
Mojatu: Now that you’re in this position, what steps do you take at the Property Shack to ensure that your properties are safe to live in?
Shack: When I look at housing, I look at it from a perspective of, “Would I live like that?”. I’m one of six children and we grew up in very tight conditions, so I’ve always got a humane and holistic approach to everything. At my company, everything we focus on is sustainable to begin with, and we always make sure that everything is built as safely as possible.
It’s a very competitive market and sometimes margins can be very tight, so I see where people try to save costs and maybe try to scrimp on materials. You get it with a lot of the volume householders – I feel with them, it’s very much all about profit and making money. But I think there’s a way to create a profitable company that still focuses on quality and giving people a decent home to live in.
“If you’re building something unsafe, you should be held accountable…It’s no different to dangerous driving”Shack Baker, The Property Shack
Mojatu: Of course, the reason that we’re talking today is because this year marks five years since the Grenfell Tower fire. Do you believe that the tragedy left as much of an impact on the construction industry and on policy as it should have?
Shack: If I’m being honest, I think more needs to be done. There’s definitely been a shift on the health and safety side and the fire side, but in regards to pre-existing buildings, I don’t think there’s been enough. Generally, when things don’t happen, it often comes down to sheer neglect or money. The only real way to make some people care in this world is for them to suffer loss themselves or for them to lose money or be held accountable in some way. If there was more accountability, then more would have been done.
Mojatu: How do we hold people accountable? Would you say that falls upon the government or is that within the industry?
Shack: It’d be good if it was both. Why would certain materials be allowed to be sold if they’re not safe? It doesn’t make sense. I don’t know if it’s black and white – i.e., that’s flammable, so it shouldn’t be sold – but on the construction side, these things need to be reviewed.
The construction industry is extremely dated. There are so many modern methods of construction and modern materials that we could use, but the giants within the industry aren’t necessarily motivated to change, even though change is inevitable and it affects us all. So I feel like the only way to make them change would be to hold them accountable – there’d have to be some sort of reprimand.
Our job is so important. We house people, and if people’s lives are potentially in danger, then there should be some risk of going to jail. If you don’t pay taxes, then you could go to jail, so if you’re building something that you’re made to know is unsafe, you should be held accountable. It’s no different to dangerous driving.
“Be the change that you want”Shack Baker, The Property Shack
Mojatu: It’s crazy, isn’t it? We don’t build houses out of paper mache because we know that isn’t safe. So why do we still use materials that we don’t know are safe?
Shack: That side of it blows my mind. There just needs to come a point where there’s a review every so often – hypothetically every few years – where some things are just no longer viable. In this day and age where we have access to so much research and we know how to make things as fire resistant as possible, you shouldn’t be able to buy or sell things that aren’t in line with that. To me, it has no business being on the market.
Mojatu: You’re a very socially-conscious company and we’re keen to hear more about your community outreach work in tackling issues such as unemployment, youth crime and homelessness. Could you tell us a bit more about those programmes?
Shack: About ten years ago, I was a residential care worker working with young people, and it was something that was quite dear to me. I did it as a sideline alongside running my own businesses, and I always felt that it was something we could run concurrently. If you have a business, you can always still give back. It’s easy to look at things and say that they should be different, so my thing is that you need to be the change that you want.
A few years ago, we started focusing more on off-site construction, which is where elements of the building are pre-assembled in another location before it’s moved to the site. That meant I could create jobs for people without them having to be highly skilled. I could hire somebody that’s maybe homeless or has been in prison. One of my abilities is to reach out to people that are similar to me – so maybe young, Black males that live in tower blocks that don’t necessarily see opportunities in construction.
Sometimes the government or local authorities don’t always move as fast as we would like them to. So as creators, as entrepreneurs, and as people, if we come together, we can make real change – and that’s essentially what we’re trying to do here at the Property Shack.