Cafe at the Warehouse

Ben Mabbett – the Birmingham man who redrew the plan 20 times

As Birmingham Friends of the Earth opens the doors to its revamped HQ, architect Ben Mabbett tells me why he donated his skills – and lots of time – to the project.
Celeste Hicks
By Celeste Hicks     |     11 Jun 2018     |       3 minute read

“I really enjoy being able to use my skills to give something back,” says Ben. “The best projects always involve working with people who are doing great things. This has put us on the map for environmental activism in Birmingham."

Ben is a professional architect. He took on the challenging job of designing and project-managing a £250,000 refurbishment of Birmingham Friends of the Earth's headquarters.

Ben Mabbett
Ben Mabbett
Credit: Celeste Hicks - Friends of the Earth

The Birmingham group is one of the biggest in Friends of the Earth's national network of 157 grassroots environmental activism groups.

The group has used The Warehouse, near Moor Street station in Bimingham city centre, as headquarters since 1977. For some time the building was in a parlous state. It had steep stairs, no lift, a leaky roof and windows that didn't open. A community café was on the first floor and customers had to ring a bell to gain entry.

The Warehouse
The Warehouse
Credit: Birmingham Friends of the Earth

Ben has been instrumental in transforming the building into a community space fit for the 21st century, which officially opens today (11 June).

He undertook the project in his spare time, on top of his full-time job. If the group had paid an architect, it would have cost thousands of pounds. Ben had to re-draw the plans more than 20 times.

“It was an evolving process as we secured funding and worked out what we needed,” he says. “That happens a lot in architecture, but normally you’d only be designing for one client. We had about 20 stakeholders, so it took up quite a lot of time.”

Renovation work underway at the Warehouse
Renovation work underway at the Warehouse
Credit: Birmingham Friends of the Earth

The Warehouse is now well set up for the 21st century, boasting a number of environmentally-friendly features.

Ben's design included sealing up an empty space in the middle of the building, which helped to make the heating system more efficient. He also focused on making the building as accessible as possible, installing a new lift and ramps.

And it wasn't just his design skills that came into play. Ben spent countless hours painting the walls himself.

Ben Mabbett
Ben painting the walls
Credit: Birmingham Friends of the Earth

This project was something that really matters and makes a difference to people’s lives – it’s not just for someone making money from a building saleBen Mabbett

The building is fast becoming a well-known social justice and environmental hub in Birmingham city centre. Around 20 social enterprises and charity groups, such as the Muslim Women’s Network, rent space. A bike shop and a cycle courier business operate from the building. There's a vegetarian café and there are meeting rooms available for hire.

The Warehouse
New cafe at the Warehouse
Credit: Birmingham Friends of the Earth

Ben's extraordinary commitment and hard work were recognised when he was nominated as Exceptional Campaigner in the 2018 Friends of the Earth Earthmovers awards. The awards are supported by players of the People's Postcode Lottery.

Check if there's a local Friends of the Earth group near you.