Martyn Evans: On animating a place like Dartington

This article is part of the People Make Dartington series, meeting a wide range of the brilliantly diverse individuals and businesses who contribute to Dartington estate life. View the full collection here

Martyn Evans, our new Estate Development Director, is nothing if not definitive.

‘When I left my job last year I had a list of things I wanted to do. I hadn’t found out how to do it in the private sector. But when I met Rhodri here at Dartington I realised that everything I care about and everything I wanted to do is right here.’

Martyn Evans

And what’s that? ‘To make good homes for life that people can afford, and that create jobs and economic prosperity; and make Dartington a more beautiful and fulfilling place to visit.’ Specifically, Martyn’s role is to find sustainable uses for our existing buildings, some of which have been underused and under-maintained for 40 years; and to work with local people and innovative building specialists to create new homes on our estate land over the next five years.

He has a property development background, but with a difference. Martyn goes where traditional property developers fear to tread. He worked on the development of the former Truman Brewery in Brick Lane, Spitalfields in the late ‘90s which he describes as ‘a million square feet of empty buildings that no one really knew about or wanted to go to’ that fast became the one of the most exciting places to live, work and visit in London. ‘What we were doing was property development but we wouldn’t have called it that,’ he says. ‘We opened shops, bars, cafes, art shows…we learned how to animate a place…it was totally about collaboration’.

He believes the key to bringing such unloved places back to life is to bring together ‘entrepreneurs and community groups, who take on stone cold dead places and by sheer hard work and risk sharing make them work. Through this process these places became distinctive. If you go too fast it will fail – there’s a lesson there for architects and planners.’ He’s also found that ‘an awful lot of property development in places that are unloved is about changing perception’.

Despite working in the private property development sector, most recently on renovating the Old Vinyl Factory in West London – formerly EMI’s record pressing factory, he’s an ardent critic of much of this sector. ‘Most developers’ buildings are there simply to make money, because demand exceeds supply. As everything will sell there is no motivation to be innovative. This is a shocking state of affairs that we should be ashamed of. Most development companies don’t recognise that we have an extra responsibility – that we are building places for people and for the future. We’re only on this planet for a short period of time, but land is constant. The buildings we build will definitely outlive us. What a responsibility we have to our kids and grandkids to create places that don’t harm the planet and don’t have to be pulled down before we die.’

Before he started here in January 2017, he read as much as he could about the Elmhirsts, seeing many parallels between today’s world and the one that Dorothy and Leonard inhabited in the 20th century. ‘There are the same stresses, strains and opportunities,’ he says. ‘Refugees came from Germany in the 30s, they come from Syria now. In the 20s there was a back to the land agenda, today there is a really strong sustainability agenda. Dartington found answers to some of those problems, and I think that’s a role we can play again today. I’m excited to see what part property development at Dartington can play in our 21st century vision just as it did for the 20th century.’

Martyn was born in Merthyr Tydfil, South Wales, but this job enables him to return to a county where he spent his formative years, from 7 to 14, in Crediton, and that he’s never lost his love for. He says he’s astounded by the breadth of people working here doing very different things: social justice, arts, property, hoteliers, restaurateurs, foresters, farmers. ‘It’s a truly extraordinary place – there’s nothing like it anywhere else which is why it’s so important that it has a truly vibrant future’.

You can read Martin’s bio on our Trustees and Management page