Looking upwards would have been a waste of time a year or two ago. There were plenty of flats and houses scattered around the site at Plantation Wharf, which overlooks the Thames at Battersea, but the 12-storey Trade Tower was set to become another monument to London's seemingly insatiable demand for offices. Then came the crash.
When Arthur Andersen, the receivers, stepped in to salvage the scheme, the company realised the last thing anyone wanted was yet another office block. But the tower was already half-built. Like scores of others it looked set to stand empty for years, an elegant relic of the over-optimistic Eighties. There was an alternative, however: convert it into homes.
Home owners might find it hard to believe, but commercial property has been even harder hit than housing. It can make sense to switch buildings because demand for housing will drift back long before companies start looking for new space, particularly on sites such as this, so far from city-centre business ghettos.
'The big decision was to spend money finishing the outside of the tower as it was blighting the buildings around it,' says the joint receiver, Murdoch McKillup. After that it was a simple question of leaving it empty or finding a new use for it.
Converting offices is no simple task, says Mike Moxley, of the architects Moxley & Frankl, who designed the block. 'We were lucky because this is a tower,' he adds. Most modern buildings have huge floors, leaving much of the space a long way from the windows and making them difficult to carve up into homes. Working under strip lights may be acceptable but natural light is an important part of home life.
This tower already had enormous windows, matching the elaborate designs of the flats and houses below. Now it has even more. One advantage of homes is that they do not need all the electrical and air-conditioning paraphernalia of a commercial building, so a whole top-storey of machinery was thrown away and the roof opened up with floor-to- ceiling glazing.
Other problems were also turned to advantage. Open floors mean office blocks need two staircases because fire can spread easily. 'When the space is divided into flats a second means of escape is not necessary, so we took one out,' says Mr Moxley. This provided a gap for unusual oval- shaped kitchens matching the shape of the stairwell.
More space came from removing one of the three lift shafts, while the two bottom floors, originally designated as showrooms, have become a health club.
The end result is more than 50 apartments ranging from a pounds 95,000 studio to a couple of pounds 350,000 penthouses - one of which has its own rooftop conservatory. Most have stunning views, enhanced by the huge windows. Another big advantage of living in an office block is that rooms have high ceilings, as each storey needs space for under-floor wiring and ceiling lights or ventilation ducts.
Scores of similar office blocks could be given the same treatment, not just in London but right across the country. Geoff Marsh of Applied Property Research has been telling developers and bankers for almost two years that many buildings planned during the boom will never attract tenants.
'London, in particular, needs homes far more than offices,' he says. Thousands of young professionals who are the lifeblood of any business centre would rather walk to work than fight the rush hour each day. Many already live locally, but in cramped conversions that are frankly not worth the price.
A huge swath of commercial development spilled out from London's traditional West End and City office areas during the boom, much of which will never be occupied. This is ideal for turning into homes, says Mr Marsh. Vast numbers of glass matchbox buildings and even more empty sites should also be converted. 'The land is now worthless, so it makes economic sense to build homes,' he adds.
Imagination is more of a stumbling block than economics. Planners who fought tooth-and-nail to prevent office blocks going up over the last 20 years now often cling to them like grim death. 'It was no problem for us, as Wandsworth was happy to see the switch at Plantation Wharf,' says Mr Moxley. But he admits that other projects his firm is looking at are being blocked because councils refuse to accept changes.
About 80 per cent of feasible conversions are being blocked, not because of construction problems, but because councils refuse to alter their approach. They now see office blocks as job generators - much as they used to protect obsolete factories against demolition by office builders - despite the fact that the jobs will not be forthcoming if the buildings remain empty. 'They always seem to be running behind the times,' says Mr Moxley.
A few mould-breakers are beginning to emerge, although these are mainly old blocks, useless for today's hi-tech offices. Owners can be just as nervous as planners about taking the plunge, particularly banks that have taken over the assets of collapsed developers.
'But then bankers were never known for their imagination, were they?' adds Mr Moxley wryly, although he naturally excludes the consortium of banks that now calls the shots on Plantation Wharf. Most appear more willing to sit back and wait for tenants to reappear so some of the money can be recovered. Mr Marsh believes they could have a long wait.
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