Talking to Albert Hill and Matt Gibberd, The Modern House

A Life Well Lived

As part of our journey to re-define Wealth we are exploring what “A Life Well Lived” means: interviewing artists, entrepreneurs, explorers, and change-makers as they share their stories and ask “what is my life well lived?” Here, Albert Hill and Matt Gibberd, founding Directors of The Modern House, talk to us about their business and what living well means to them.

Founded in 2004 by old school friends Matt Gibberd and Albert Hill, The Modern House is an estate agency specialising in design led homes throughout the UK. In their own words, they “sell homes that inspire us.”

On The Modern House

“The great thing was we could build an estate agency without any preconceptions of how it should be done.”

“Matt and I are actually old school friends so we go back a long way and funnily enough, we both followed quite similar paths. We both studied History of Art at university and then we both went in to journalism, specialising in architecture, design and interiors. It was whilst I was working at Wallpaper Magazine that I got sent out to America to write a story about some specialist agencies that sold particularly interesting homes out there – The Case Study Houses in particular. At the time I was looking for something else to do, Matt and I just got chatting about it and we both agreed it sounded like a good idea.”

“Neither of us had any experience with estate agencies at that point. I hadn’t bought anything before and Matt had sold one flat, so the great thing was we could build an estate agency without any preconceptions of how it should be done. Of course we missed a lot of shortcuts doing it that way, but we got to create something that was unique and broke the mould.”

“Because we both had editorial backgrounds” says Matt “we were able to apply that to an industry that needed a bit of a shakeup, aesthetically. One of our key differentiators is that we have a filter. We don’t just take on any houses. If something is offered to us and we don’t think that our audience will engage with it on a design level or perhaps quite snootily, we don’t think it’s right for us – and by that we mean it won’t sit right on our website with all of the other design led spaces – then we won’t take it on.”

“For all intense and purposes The Modern House is an online magazine. Clearly the way we monetise it is by selling houses, but we have a journal online which brings in people from other lifestyle areas such as food or fashion, and engage design literate people with great living spaces. Some of whom might be looking to move, others just simply want to learn more. We are a commercial entity, but for us we get very excited about these spaces – showing them to people and teaching them about them.”

On Milestones

“The first instruction you get is always going to be the most difficult because you have no track record” says Albert “We knew of a very celebrated modernist house in Dulwich that had been on the market for a little while and had failed to sell. We managed to get hold of the number of the owner and called him and explained that we have an agency that specialised in architecturally, design led homes. He said “Oh fantastic, I’ve been waiting for a call from somebody like you for years, because none of the other agencies understand my home at all.” So that was obviously very affirming to us.”

“People loved the idea that an estate agency was trying to do something new and exciting.”

“Then of course we had to madly scrabble around to actually get this company together because we had our first client which was fantastic. We put together the website – all of that sort of thing – off the back of that phone call.”

“It was the ultimate calling card really that house ” agrees Matt “it’s called six pillars and it has six pilloti at the front of it that hold up the first floor. Its flat roofed, white render – it looks very much how you would expect an international style modernist house to look. And we got a huge amount of press coverage for this thing, it went everywhere, all around the world in a way.”

“People loved the idea that an estate agency was trying to do something new and exciting” says Albert “because they have quite a bad reputation, estate agents in general.”

On Success

“We wanted to prove to the buying public that design was valuable.”

“I think success is a really interesting question.” says Albert “When we started out there were obviously things that we wanted to achieve, beyond just a certain comfortable level of income. We wanted to prove to the buying public that design was valuable I suppose. We recently commissioned some research that shows on average, people will pay 12% more for these design led properties listed with The Modern House, we feel very happy that we have achieved that to some degree.”

“Back in 2004, the kinds of properties that we dealt with were treated as oddities. People were scared to invest in them because they were quirky or different. But now the view is that these places are aspirational, and people are willing to pay a little bit more for them. We can’t claim to have been completely responsible for that, but to be a part of that change has been a success I would say.”

“I totally agree” adds Matt “but I think I would also add that a measure of success for me is about engaging as many people as we can in what we’re doing. Because of that message that Albert was talking about, because we want to promote good design.”

“And there are small wins within that. We have over 100,000 followers on Instagram for example which is miles more than any other estate agent. But can we get that to 1millon? Those are some of the additional things that drive me. And this is not just about selling houses, but about the debate around what is modern living? What makes a great modern living space?”

“The building that we have just moved in to and finished refurbishing for example, is to start using this space for events, talks, screenings and even dinners. It’s about starting to bring the public into our world physically, so we start engaging with them directly and letting people get under the skin of it a bit more.”

On Advice

“If you can surround yourself with people who have the same values and mind-set as you you’re going to have a lot more success.”

“If you’re a young entrepreneur” says Albert “I think there is an amazing amount of good will out there. There are a lot of very experienced people who are happy to help, offer advice, especially if it something new and exciting and so I would encourage people to tap in to the wisdom of those people. We’ve done that to some extent, but looking back we really should have done more.”

“I totally agree with that and I would also just reiterate the importance of surrounding yourself with the right people, especially if those people reflect your own values. Albert and I spent a good few days writing down what was important to us, both personally and professionally and that’s the lens through which we look at everything we do, including who we decide to recruit. So if you can surround yourself with people who have the same values and mind-set as you you’re going to have a lot more success I would say.”

On Milestones

“We feel like now we’re on a fantastic trajectory” says Matt “and I think there’s genuine momentum there. In terms of battles we’d like to pick one does stand out in particular and that is making more inroads into the new build market because frankly, we think it’s quite a backwards industry at the moment in terms of design quality and the way developers approach their projects.”

“There might well be an educational piece around that where we can convince developers with this 12% premium we have developed, that by putting the right emphasis on design you can then address a different audience who probably wouldn’t have otherwise considered a new build. We’ve already doe that successfully down at Greenwich Peninsular and we’d like to do a lot more of that. We’ve got another 150 unit scheme coming up which is going to be really beautifully put together.”

On Fulfilment

“For me it would be about feeling fulfilled both personally and professionally.” says Matt. “Professionally I think it’s very clear that if you’re running your own business you have to have a huge amount of focus and there is always something to be getting on with. I think there is something really life affirming about that, about always feeling like you’re progressing. That’s a really big thing for me.”

“And then of course there is counterbalance to that is where my family fits in. Albert and I have both got young families and they are both probably a little more neglected than they should be! The great luxury in life is time and there’s just never enough of it. If I could devote more time to my family I would be happier, and if I could devote more time to exercising – both Albert and I love to run – I think I would be happier. Travel is a big thing for me as well, especially experiencing different cultures through architecture. I am always dragging my family around to see a monument or a building that they aren’t particularly interested in, but I get very excited by that; experiencing new cultures in the built environment, and would love to be able to do more of that.”

For Albert he says he says it’s about “that constant balance between exhilaration and relaxation. If you lounge around a beach for too long I certainly get very itchy, and want to start going out and doing something, but equally you do need that down time.”

On Retirement

“I certainly don’t think that retirement will be a line in the sand” says Albert “I imagine I will have projects going until my dying day I’m sure, but I guess retirement to me means being able to dictate the time table with which you do things a little bit more.”

“Yeah exactly” agrees Matt “I think it would be about being a little bit more footloose and again, travel for me would be a big thing. Not necessarily being beholden to school holidays or what your work schedules like, and just being able to go and do something exciting. Again I think it comes back to time being a great luxury. I don’t think ill ever stop ‘doing’ or working either, but to have a bit more time would be a great thing.”

You can find out more about Albert and Matt and The Modern House by visiting their website, or  by following their journey on Instagram .