Whilst it may have nothing to do with what’s happened on the pitch, the announcement last week that influential designer Thomas Heatherwick has been commissioned to work on the Riverside Stand, is a significant one for Fulham.

The existing planned Riverside Stand

The current planned Riverside Stand

Why is this significant?

Fulham’s Riverside Stand plans were hatched in the period before Shahid Khan bought the club. By appointing a design and architectural practice of the stature of Heatherwick Studios to enhance the plans is a statement of intent. If Khan is to spend money developing the Riverside Stand, it appears he’s going to make it stand out.

Who is Thomas Heatherwick?

Heatherwick himself is arguably been one of the most influential figures in London’s recent design history. His rise to household name came when he was commissioned to design the London 2012 Olympic cauldron, but he is also responsible for the new Routemaster bus as well as the somewhat controversial “Garden Bridge” which is to be built over the Thames. Heatherwick Studio is his London based architectural and design company that do everything from design household objects to large scale architectural projects.

Why Heatherwick?

Khan has an existing relationship with global stadium architectural mega-firm Populous . That he has chosen Heatherwick for the Riverside Stand project at Craven Cottage suggests this isn’t simply a matter of stadium principal architecture. Heatherwick is a designer and his and Heatherwick Studio’s role will probably be a hybrid one, taking the existing plans and enhancing the design into something of higher creative value.

Do Heatherwick Studio have experience of Stadia?

No, but everyone has to start somewhere. As I’ve already said, this is unlikely to be a full scale architectural project. Planning permission is already in place and the club has applied to commence preliminary works this summer.

Olympic cauldron

What can we expect?

My guess is that this project will likely focus on the exterior of the stand in some capacity. Looking at Heatherwick Studio’s previous work and considering Craven Cottage’s unique Thames side location and I would imagine this project will see the exterior design and cladding of the new Riverside Stand evolve into something designed with a link to the natural environment in mind. For inspiration, a link to Heatherwick Studios current large scale projects can be found here.

Why does architecture and design matter here?

Architecture and design are subjective; one person’s gem is another’s carbuncle. However, buildings that are architecturally significant [be they gem or carbuncle] have immeasurably higher profiles than those buildings that sit in architectural anonymity. With a higher profile comes more opportunity. Part of any plan to develop the Riverside Stand is making it a 7 day a week, 365 days a year income generator. The gravitas attached to Thomas Heatherwick’s name and the potential for a statement piece of architecture or design means that the new stand may become anything from a high end events venue to tourist attraction. A few pounds spent now on improving and signifying the design of the stand may make the project more financially viable in the long term. With Archibald Leach on one side and Thomas Heatherwick on the other, Craven Cottage will be arguably the most architecturally significant stadium in the country.

Does Shahid Khan have a track record of doing things like this?

Yes. EverBankField, home of the Jacksonville Jaguars, is partway through a series of large scale alterations and developments across a range of functions all designed to increase revenue streams. These include those to improve the fan experience, such as building one of the largest video screens in the world at an estimated cost of $50m and developing the first swimming pool from which you can watch a live NFL game, major improvements to corporate facilities and a masterplan to develop an amphitheatre concert venue adjacent to the stadium. What the Jaguars and Fulham have in common is a lack of an overwhelming fan base, and Khan appears to believe in using the stadium itself as a way of getting people through the turnstiles.

What does this do for the development timetable of the Riverside Stand?

This is the ‘Million Pound Question’ and it’s hard to say as we really have no idea the extent of Heatherwick Studios involvement. Amending the design in any capacity is hardly going to speed up the process, so the question becomes one of how long will the project be delayed?

The first thing Fulham must do is commence the implementation works for the existing planning application. “Implementing” is the act of materially commencing the development stated in the actual planning permission. As soon as enough work has been done for the local authority to consider a development to have begun, and thus implemented, the planning permission can no longer expire.

If Fulham do not commence implementation works before the date 3 years after planning permission was granted, the permission would expire and the application process would have to start from scratch.

Will Fulham need to get a new planning permission?

Once a scheme is implemented, it is possible to amend the design of a development to a degree. There are two forms of amendment that Fulham could choose: a Non-Material amendment or a Minor Material amendment.

A Non-Material amendment is one that is “wholly acceptable, uncontroversial and of very little impact” and can include changes to the design of a building. These are essentially formalities to get approved via a simple form being submitted to the local authority. The timetable for a decision by the council is 28 days.

A Minor Material amendment is more significant than a Non-Material amendment but not significant enough that the description of the development changes as a result. A Minor Material amendment is treated as a new planning permission though and as such has a lengthier due diligence process.

If there are no ulterior motives from Shahid Khan (such as deliberately delaying the development) Fulham will likely hope to take the route of a Non-Material Amendment. However, given ambiguous nature of Fulham’s announcement of Heatherwick Studios involvement, anything is possible and a complete redesign and planning application can’t be ruled out.

Under either planning amendment route, the design of the Riverside Stand can be amended but the specific details such as the height, capacity and footprint must stay the same or close to the same or the matter will become far more complicated. In particular, the club will not want to alter anything which would fall under the Port of London Authority’s jurisdiction for river works given it has taken nearly 3 years to get the licences in place for the current planning permission.

So what are the key dates?

Fulham have been working towards performing implementation works this summer. That is unlikely to change as these need to be done to prevent the existing planning permission falling away.

The club’s previously stated timetable – to commence the full redevelopment in May 2017 – could still happen, although this may now be delayed depending on the scale of any design changes.

For now, fans will have to take the club at their word, both on intentions and timing. The lack of any clear detail in the club’s Heatherwick announcement does means that all we can do is speculate.

The Fulham Supporters Trust will be meeting with the club’s CEO Alistair Mackintosh on Tuesday 10th May, and subject to any further announcements in the interim, this should give fans the first opportunity to understand more. You can join the Fulham Supporters Trust here to receive minutes of the upcoming meeting with the club.