Forget country piles, affluent Brits prefer penthouses these days. By Robert Liebman
ARISTOCRATS OF Britain, relax! Your daughters are safe, and so are your houses. Barrow boys and the thrusting middle classes are making independent romantic choices and buying their own luxury properties.

And luxury is increasingly being defined in Yankee, and specifically New York, terms. The movement that began with warehouse lofts a decade ago has, along with Britain's economy, moved into a new phase, and up a notch or three.

"High living has come to Britain - and the pun is intended," says Madsen Pirie, president of the Adam Smith Institute. "High life is literal in that no expenses are spared in their life styles, and people are living in penthouses.

"In previous generations, people who made money would have tried to integrate with the landed classes. They would have bought old manors in the middle of the country. They might have aspired to marry into the junior ranks of aristocracy. Nowadays, at the top end they want a penthouse with a riverside view in the middle of the city. Even in the middle market, buyers now routinely expect properties to be kitted out to American standards."

In percentage terms as well as sheer numbers, substantial wealth has reached more people, and more penthouses have been built. The latter are sprouting atop office conversions in Kensington and throughout Docklands, and in the waterside developments in cities such as Birmingham and Cardiff.

In the family-home middle market, developers including Crosby, Laing and Bryant are using lofts to provide bonus rooms and basement rooms large enough to accommodate snooker tables.

Developers boast of features - secure underground parking, closed-circuit TV, doormen, and iron gates - which are really the flip-side of the less savoury aspects of New York. As in America, heightened security means insulation and isolation from outsiders, friend and foe alike. Neighbourhoods give way to enclaves.

"Costly living space in big properties in prime locations with excellent views was not previously part of the British tradition of residential property. It is relatively new over here," says Dr Pirie. "Current demand for luxury property is not just British, it is foreign, and you can detect some elements of a specifically New York lifestyle in young people who made it economically and are prepared to spend it on such things as luxury housing."

One penthouse dweller lives in a converted warehouse in an area which has "a mixture of poor and wealthy, a buzz, and something is always happening". This admirably succinct description of New York comes courtesy of inventor Sir Clive Sinclair, whose canalside penthouse is in Battlebridge Basin, in North London. Almost literally in the shadow of King's Cross station, this is an area better known for drugs and prostitution than for designer clothes and pesto.

The building was designed by architects Harper Mackay, a firm which currently has a joint venture with New York architects. David Harper notes that, in creating massive 4,000 square foot apartments, "our intention was to create the kind of magnificent spaciousness that stems from the opening up of the SoHo area of New York".

The building's developer is Colin Serlin who, along with Harry Handelsman of Manhattan Lofts, were pioneers in bringing New York's warehouse lifestyle to London. Mr Handelsman notes that his impulse to bring New York loft living to Britain had less to do with the ambience of mid-1980's easy money than with its aftermath: "Our concept was a direct consequence of the recession. No one would be interested in the ordinary. Some of the creativity started in the midst of the recession, not after it."

Colin Serlin, London Buildings 0171 278 4868; Manhattan Lofts 0171 6311888; Harper Mackay 0171 600 5151