The creator of an eco-friendly modular building system, favoured by prestigious British companies, is making Shaftesbury his research and development base.
James Towner Coston developed his prototype after the financial crash forced him to reinvent himself. “I came to Shaftesbury in 1981, at the tender age of 17, from Africa,” said James. He had lived in South Africa, mainly Johannesburg, and Shaftesbury seemed a very different place. “It still had this incredible sense of community but there were a lot of shops that don’t exist anymore. Hardings was just a brilliant shop. We had some furniture stores. There was a garage in town where you could buy cars,” James reminisced.
“My first job was as a chef at Ye Old Two Brewers and then I moved up and became a porter at the Grosvenor Arms Hotel,” he smiled. James moved on from town, travelling the world as a professional entertainer. His impressive vocal range and ability to croon the classics of Frank Sinatra and ‘The Rat Pack’ brought him regular bookings for 26 years, until the financial crisis of 2007. His corporate gigs, often with bank and financial institutions, quickly
“When the crash came, I went from hero to zero. All of my gigs dried up. I went from having a credit rating to nothing. All the cards were taken away. I had no income,” James recalled. “I had a reasonable career as a musician and it was only when the crash came that the type of work that I was doing disappeared and I thought, ‘What can I do?”
James hatched a ‘Plan B’. “I started off trying to build something for myself which a couple of people showed sufficient interest in. I went into production with a modular dome system. I started in the festival industry, providing accommodation.” Unidome was born.
I asked James to try and describe his successful product. “It’s an ash-framed structure using a laminated form to create petals, almost like cutting an orange in half. These frames have got pre-stretched material over them and work on a basic ‘tongue and groove’ system. The temporary domes are put together with cable ties,” he explained. The domes are quickly erected and that is part of their appeal. “They are structures which are put up and down quickly but have a real sense of permanency. They are semi-permanent.”
The domes started as clear structures but now James has started printing designs and logos on them. “We’ve just done two for Greenpeace which pleased me enormously. We’ve also printed one for The Bee Trust. The National Trust has just taken on some. These are great brands for me to be associated with because they represent a vision towards a sustainable future,” said James.
The variety of dome surfaces gives purchasers plenty of options and James says that adds to the Unidome appeal. “We’ve got a combination of fabric covers, clear covers, wooden covers. We often add the domes with cedar and oak, which gives the structure a greater sense of permanence. The clear ones offer a real integration between you and the outside. You are in this lovely womb-like environment. The canvas ones let you snuggle down and hide away from the world and yet you can still hear everything around you,” said James.
The Unidome was James’ own invention, created in our hilltop town. “I spoke about it for a hell of a long time. I must have seen it in my mind’s eye,” he said. James used the last remaining money from his music gigs, £400, to make the prototype. “I bought some wood. A friend of mine, Bryce Sweeney, who knew about wood, and another Shastonian, Trevor Toms, had a workshop and he assisted me with some of the more complicated cutting. Both of those chaps really assisted me in the early times because I’ve never done woodwork before my life. My parents kindly donated their Shaftesbury garage to me. I pottered away and came up with the first prototype but it seemed to take quite a long time. By the second version I had cracked what is essentially the product now,” James explained.
His first client was an Essex-based garden centre. James had moved on to Mere, where he had set up a workshop with a friend who worked the gardening industry there. That friend had contacts within the Gardening Show at the National Exhibition Centre.
“The NEC gave me free space. They thought they were fabulous. As a complete novice, I had just designed the things and I was being bombarded by B&Q and Heal’s. Everybody wanted this product and I had only built three and didn’t even know how long they lasted,” he said. “The visual element clearly appeals to everybody. We sold some to garden centres. I then tied in with a festival provider and they were soon at all the major festival sites. It’s gone through a tremendous development phase and it has been tested through conditions of wind and environment.”
James reckons sixty of his Unidomes are dotted around Europe currently. “I’ve had people being massaged in them. I’ve had Hollywood A-listers staying in one. Banksy stayed in one,” said James with pride.
“We have got a see-through dome in woodland in North Yorkshire. That was the first clear dome in Britain. People were camping in it, so it got tremendous press. There is a Kensington hotel that has five of them in the back garden in a secret location. They are usually used for dining and meetings but there is one Arab sheik who rents one for his own personal office in the centre of London.”
Moving from musicianship and performing to research, development and marketing wasn’t an easy transition for James, at first. “I don’t think I am a natural entrepreneur. I’m a natural creative person. I find the business of business to be tawdry. I don’t like it very much. I’m too flighty. I know that’s a strange word to use but I’m not stoic enough to implement certain strategies because to do them, I think you have to be quite mean in business. I find it difficult to do that. I’ve learnt it’s one of my weaknesses, so I’ve given the structure the people who are more capable.”
James is happiest when he’s being creative and coming up with ideas and that’s what he intends to do when he returns to Shaftesbury full time next year. “I’m setting up a research and development arm for the business. I’m very interested in developing green, modular houses. I have a couple of products that I’m putting into first phase production and I will probably erect one in the green fields at Glastonbury and do some publicity for them that way. I’ll see whether I can license them out or get manufacturers to make them for me,” he said.
James said Shaftesbury is the right place to base this business. “It’s a town a bit like Frome, but not quite as independent, with a real possibility to make a statement and I’d like to be part of it. We’ll see,” he said.
And for James personally, returning to this town is an important move. “Shaftesbury represents home. My parents live here, and I have a lot of friends here. I’m coming home,” James said.
He dismisses my suggestion that his reinvention and success constitute a ‘rags to riches’ story. “Over the next few years, I will see the benefit of the things you allude to. It’s not massively important to me. But I do like the idea of people sleeping in my imagination,” he smiled.