SET – bringing disused space back into positive use for an interim period.

October 10, 2022

While the team is hoping to benefit from issues such as increasing developer costs, this is a creative workspace at risk, and so are the additional positive community infrastructures and networks built around it.

Last week as part of our team day we toured the studios at SET Woolwich. SET is a multifaceted arts and community organisation based across London, one of the second largest providers of affordable workspace, after Space Studios.

SET Woolwich is one of their largest buildings, home to many emerging and established creative practices the team has created an inspiring community. Making up 50% of their portfolio it spans 140,000 sq ft of the former Greenwich Council and HMRC offices and is home to 250 artist workspaces, two project spaces, and a dedicated performance space.

Amongst the various models of affordable creative workspace provision, there is always an emphasis on building community. This extends past artists’ tenants to inviting local businesses to collaborate where possible. SET run open studios and exhibitions, as well as offering a small amount of funding to support member coordinated projects, residencies, and pop-up spaces. SET also provides project spaces for free for members & local community proposals. Just after the lockdown SET awarded 19 free studios to artists and 15 to charity and community groups to help them through the financial strains of covid.

Each SET centre is hosted in what would be an otherwise vacant property, some temporary and some long term. Often referred to as meanwhile space; the model uses vacant or under-used buildings, let on a temporary basis at below-market rates to generate social or environmental benefits for the local community.

In fact ‘Councils own at least 442 dead spaces across London – with a huge variety of facilities currently out of use.’ The large number of empty spaces across London offers huge potential both for buildings to be transformed into a hybrid workspace delivering business space, jobs, community uses and event space. Studies show; ‘50% of adults would like to see more cultural experiences on their high streets’.

This vast and unique building allows the team to provide affordability at £0.9 per square feet per calendar month, all inclusive of rates utilities, Wi-Fi and cleaning. However, after an 18 month contract, the minimum lease SET take on, the studios are now on a two month rolling contract. While the team is hoping to benefit from issues such as increasing construction costs and economic instability and stay at the site for many more years, this is a creative workspace at risk of being lost, and the additional positive community infrastructures and networks being built and supported are dispersed.

With 16,000 students graduating from arts school every year, affordable workspace is integral to support an emerging career. Just down the road from University of East London the studios have become somewhere students can continue the community and support of peers once leaving education.

In addition to post-graduates and emerging artists, SET is seeing an increase in mid-career artists now becoming a growing user of space main tenant due changes in income as a result of covid, demonstrating an increased need across creative practices. However, the risk of closure and instability is not conducive to a sustainable creative business or practice, and there is less chance for the burgeoning community networks to remain engaged and connected.

Organisations across the sector have been successful in securing long-term affordable workspace sites, but the costs associated with this mean that workspaces are necessarily priced at the higher end of affordable. Though the prices on these sites may not rise in the long term and therefore be very affordable in 20 years or so, SET has developed a model which addresses the need for affordable workspace now.

London’s creative landscape is made up of many unique models and structures that Creative Land Trust continues to explore and understand. Many aspects come into play when looking to provide affordability, in an environment of rising rents. While we continue to work with and learn from each other across the sector, it is evident that to put the artist first, as an industry we need to improve the security of space in order to support sustainable practice.