Property: Room to spare for urban space men

Open-plan living is all the rage in cities, writes Robert Nurden
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The Independent Online
URBAN space man is on the march. He is on the lookout for any run-down, disused warehouse or loft area near you and he is desperate to get his hands on whatever is going. The supply of properties offering open-plan living is failing to keep up with the rising demand.

The race is on in London more than anywhere else, of course. But in any large city that had a thriving industrial base in the 19th century but whose wealth is now dependent on the services sector, the picture is the same. So Glasgow, Newcastle, Liverpool, Leeds, Manchester and scores of similar cities are seeing the rapid conversion of old factories and warehouses into large living areas for prosperous young single men and women.

Open-plan living suits the free-wheeling, all-hours lifestyle of the young, employed person in the late 1990s, yet there is only a finite number of such places, and they are running out fast. It is, perhaps, not too fanciful to imagine in the future a genuine building style of purpose- built open areas that shamefacedly copies the factory format. But for now, we have to make do with what there is.

In London the shortage has led to stunning price rises. In the classic loft conversion area of Clerkenwell, for example, prices have rocketed in recent months. This has had two main effects. First, say the estate agents, it has changed the kind of client they see coming through their doors. "Instead of artists, architects and photographers, we are now getting City dealers and traders," says Russell Chop of Urban Spaces. "A City- size salary is the only one these days that can afford the prices.

"The second effect is the move eastwards from Clerkenwell to Spitalfields and Shoreditch. Here, for the moment, it is a little cheaper, but I doubt if that will be the case for very much longer. There is a desperate search going on for real loft space," says Mr Chop.

Jon James bought his two floors of warehouse space in Bethnal Green for pounds 100,000 in 1996, before the movement became de rigueur among the chattering classes. Built at the turn of the century as a furniture store, the building later became a sushi kitchen and in the 1980s it became an art gallery before being put up for sale.

Mr James and his partner spent pounds 15,000 putting in a kitchen and bathroom and stripping the floors. According to a recent valuation, it is now worth pounds 240,000. "As a result of buying early, it looks as if we've made a killing," said Mr James. The 2,000 square foot Derbyshire Street warehouse looks out over a park and is tucked behind Bethnal Green Road. The huge kitchen/dining area and the first bedroom occupy the lower floor while upstairs is the lounge/study area, second bedroom and bathroom.

It is so roomy you could fit a practice cricket net or badminton court into the living area. The feeling of space is enhanced by the white walls and uncluttered wooden floor. The uniformity is spectacularly broken by an aquarium built into one of the walls, which is visible from both rooms. The thick walls help cut down what would otherwise be extremely high heating bills.

"It has a wonderful feeling of freedom and it is very calming," said Mr James. "Having bought such a space I can't see the point of partitioning it off as so many people seem to. Staying in never becomes boring; it is the kind of place you just want to spend a lot of time in. It is large enough for both of us to be here all day working and not get in each other's way."

Indeed, another attraction of the open space is the room it offers for taking some form of exercise, and many a DIY gym used by friends and neighbours has sprung up. Indeed, the space itself helps fitness. David Boyd and his girlfriend had moved into their second loft space the day before, and his feet were killing him. "You do get fit living somewhere like this as you have to walk so far to get anywhere," he said. "Some would see that as a disadvantage, but it saves me from having to go to the gym."

Mr Boyd, head of Artists and Repertoire at Virgin Records, took to the open-plan idea after visiting friends New York, Paris and Amsterdam. He bought an 1,800sq ft floor space in an old printing works in Spitalfields for pounds l49,000 and after about three years and pounds 12,000 of work, has just sold it for pounds 265,000. His new 2,600sq ft space in Shepherdess Walk, Shoreditch, cost pounds 395,000.

"We like the wide open space, but it also makes a difference to how friends behave when they come round. Instead of just sitting round the kitchen table and chatting, they take to the freedom, walk around and generally feel more relaxed. It seems a strange thing to say that you have more space to move around in your home than you do outside, but it is true."

Nevertheless, a lot of people do prefer to partition off their open spaces. "This is the great attraction of open plan living," said Mr Chop. "The purchaser can do what they like with it, rather than be constrained by a designer's or architect's ideas. Some will construct permanent walls, some will go for a halfway stage by putting in moveable screening, while others will keep it as one open area. The only restriction is your own mind and the building regulations officer."

Harry Downes, sales director of Manhattan Loft Corporation, puts his finger on some social aspects of why open living is all the rage. "These days many professional people work longer and harder than they used to. They want to return to an environment that is easy to live in and stress- free."

There is also the attraction of living somewhere with an interesting industrial past. Converted properties in London include the 1930s Scholl foot care premises - the Civic Trust award-winning Warner Loft development - and the old Ingersoll building in St John Street.

For all the draws of open-plan living, the end of the boom is probably in sight simply because there are not many more suitable properties left. Our urban space men may be forced to think again.