Spotlight Series: Interview with Arthur Kay, CEO and Founder of Skyroom

02 Dec 2021

Arthur Kay Spotlight

Arthur Kay is the CEO of Skyroom and an urban designer, who has spent his career building solutions to create sustainable cities.

Prior to founding Skyroom, Arthur founded the clean technology and manufacturing business Bio-bean, and the think-tank, Fast Forward 2030. He is an Entrepreneur-in-Residence at UCL and has co-published Skyroom’s white paper Rise Up with the Institute for Global Prosperity at the Bartlett. He is also the Chair the Key Worker Homes Fund, which Skyroom launched in January 2021 to accelerate the delivery of homes for key workers, close to where they work.

In your own words what is Skyroom? 

Skyroom is an award-winning technology, design, and development company based in London.

We help major landowners maximise the economic, social, and environmental value of their portfolio by originating, designing, and delivering airspace developments.

Our mission is to improve the lives of key workers by delivering affordable, sustainable, beautiful homes, near to where they work.

Engineering is all about solving problems. What problem is your innovation solving?

Skyroom was founded in response to the questions: how might we deliver homes for key workers, close to where they work?

We spotted the dilemma faced by key workers and the looming implications for our public services and in 2018, founded Skyroom to address the housing shortage for key workers. Why key workers? Because they represent the city’s invisible infrastructure. They also represent a substantial proportion of the working population, which incur a higher carbon cost for their commutes.

Skyroom’s solution is part of a system fix: deliver more sustainable, affordable homes for working Londoners, close to where they work. Each home has a ripple effect of positive impacts: improved wellbeing; greater resilience in communities; improved energy performance in existing buildings; green belt and other green field land preserved.

What makes your innovation ground-breaking? Can you explain to our readers/the public how it works?

We have identified a way to unlock the thousands of acres of underused space within our cities, by developing the airspace above existing buildings. We can create homes faster, more economically and sustainably than traditional methods.

Proprietary technologies make it possible for Skyroom to design and deliver airspace developments with equal or greater massing (number of storeys) above the existing roof than there are storeys below. Until recently, ‘rooftop development’ involved adding a one storey penthouse to an apartment block.

What was the moment that made you think “I can turn this into a commercial opportunity”?

When we understood that 10% of buildings in London, are suitable for this type for development. Adding multiple storeys above an existing building can maximise the residual land valuation tenfold.

Skyroom provides London’s landlords with the only airspace development service which saves them substantial investments in intrusive surveying, tenant management fees, land acquisition, and the resourcing of all these services.

Wading into unknown territory can be unsettling – what were you most excited by and what was most challenging for you when starting out?

The most exciting moment in year one was when we calculated that 10,000 Skyroom homes will collectively save over 15 million tonnes in CO2-equivalent emissions over their lifetime: this has the same effect as taking all of London's vehicles off the road for a year.

The greatest challenge was bringing regeneration managers round to the idea, which until Skyroom came around. seemed like a sci-fi concept and too complex to incorporate into capital works programmes.

How did you go about building your team and finding your first team members?

Through word of mouth and networking. Excellent people’s reputation often precedes them.

What motivates or inspires you to keep going with Skyroom?

Many reasons, but I’ll stick to three. Skyroom is a triple bottom line company, meaning we measure our impact on financial, social, and environmental metrics.

Social: The influence a small, pioneering company can have on city-level politics. For example, the mayor introduced new policy to prioritise new homes in London to key workers, following Skyroom’s Key Worker Homes campaign.

Environmental: The need to reduce demolition and refurbish faster. Fifty thousand buildings are demolished each year in the UK, wasting the energy that went into making that building (average 500-1000 kg CO2 equivalent/m2.) At the same time, we need to refurbish 5,000 homes every day, in order to meet the Government’s 2050 Net Zero target.

Economic: The commercial opportunity. Developing the airspace above suitable buildings could deliver 630,000 new homes in London alone, with a market value of up to £200bn. Skyroom offers both consultancy and development management services.

What has been the most surprising aspect about your entrepreneurial journey?

How long everything takes. It’s advice I have been told by a lot of seasoned entrepreneurs and business leaders, but the reality always surprises me.

What is your ultimate goal with Skyroom?

By 2030, we aim to have delivered 10,000 homes in the airspace above existing buildings. The scale needed to realise real impact in London comes from partnerships with major landlords – from NHS trusts to G15 housing associations, local authorities, and land-owning corporates.

Success is often subjective; it means and looks different to everyone. What do you pride as success so far for Skyroom?

The team we have built. We are a small team, but well-formed and I know that every member of it is as good as the person next to them.

Is there something you know now that you wish someone had told you when you started?

The importance of focus.

What impact has the Shott Scale Up Accelerator had on your business? What are the most valuable lessons you’ve learnt?

There were multiple benefits, but the most impactful lessons have been the soft skills learnt through workshops, mentoring and coaching. This has benefited the business from the team and management side of things.

And finally, have you got any tips for potential applicants?

Keep it simple. It’s a valuable and impactful programme, but you only get out what you put in.

 

Quick fire questions

Who is your role model?

Buckminster Fuller for his approach to design and thinking about the world as a system.

Tell us a random fact not many people know about you I really enjoy drawing.

What’s your guilty pleasure? Doughnuts.

When I was a child, I wanted to be… An artist.

What are you currently binging on Netflix/Prime? Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Best piece of advice you’ve ever received? “If you chase two rabbits you end up catching none”

Conversely, what has been the worst piece of advice? A version of, you need big brand names on the CVs of the people you hire/board you form.

I don’t understand why… People don’t realise the negative impacts of electric cars. They’re the biggest red herring of the climate crisis. Why?

  1. It takes a lot of energy to make a car. We’re missing an opportunity to relieve ourselves of our reliance on cars entirely.
  2. The way in which minerals for electric batteries are mined raises social and environmental alarm bells.
  3. As petrol and diesel cars are phased out, GHG emissions will reduce, but microplastics released from breaks and tyres will continue to have a detrimental impact on air quality and the natural environment.

Who would you invite to your dream dinner party? My parents and siblings.

What are your top three desert island items? Bathtub, pen, and paper.

If you were an investor, which Hub Member would you invest in? Mathew Holloway

If you had to start all over again, would you do anything differently? No


To follow Skyroom's progress, you can check out their website here. You can also learn more about the support we provide through our Shott Scale Up Accelerator programme and sign up for programme opening alerts.

The Royal Academy of Engineering Enterprise Hub supports the UK’s brightest technology and engineering entrepreneurs to realise their potential.

We run three programmes for entrepreneurial engineers at different career stages. Each one offers equity-free funding, an extended programme of mentorship and coaching, and a lifetime of support through connection to an exceptional community of engineers and innovators.

The Enterprise Hub focuses on supporting individuals and fostering their potential in the long term, taking nothing in return. This sets us apart from the usual ‘accelerator’ model. The Enterprise Hub’s programmes last between 6 and 12 months, and all programmes give entrepreneurs lifelong access to an unrivalled community of mentors and alumni.

Our goal is to encourage creativity and innovation in engineering for the benefit of all. By fostering lasting, exceptional connections between talent and expertise, we aim to create a virtuous cycle of innovation that can deliver on this ambition.

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