Now, suddenly, they are everywhere. Redundant offices, warehouses, hospitals and schools are having their insides ripped out and turned into flats. Small patches of land in prosperous suburbs such as Richmond and Hampstead are being bought up for new family houses. Savills expects 4,000 new homes to be built in London in the next 18 months.
New housing was once a byword for naff. It conjured up rows of poorly built, poorly designed boxes divided into tiny rooms. Buyers generally preferred older properties because of their elegance, their room sizes, ceiling heights and period features. In London they had no other choice.
Now, with people's lives dominated by long hours of work, the ritual of renovation is losing its charm. It's not that the love affair with old buildings is over, just that a new generation of buyers prefers them after they have had a face lift.
The fashion for modernity is in part a consequence of the over-supply of office space in fringe areas of the capital. Clerkenwell, the most active new-build zone, between Islington and the City, has seen office rents fall from pounds 30 to pounds 10 a square foot over the past six years. Just as commercial development became uneconomic, so residential development became more attractive.
Only those developers still solvent after the crash could take advantage of the price falls. One that did was the Manhattan Loft Corporation, whose conversion of an industrial building in Summer Street into loft shells was about the only successful development in a miserable 1992. It was one of the first schemes to offer large, urban spaces at a price the leather jacket crowd could afford, and it set the tone for the entire Clerkenwell/King's Cross rejuvenation which is now under way.
This is singles territory, with bikes rather than buggies on the streets and new restaurants opening up every month. Two major supermarkets are currently looking for premises in the neighbourhood and more than 300 new apartments are already in the pipeline for 1996.
The most concentrated redevelopment site is a seven and a half acre block owned by Bee Bee Developments, which is keen to recreate a New York village atmosphere. By controlling such a large area - it includes 48 buildings - the company hopes to maintain a balance between homes, shops, offices and restaurants. "We feel there is a certain logic to living in the City, close to work, in an environment which is a bit of fun and where you can buy a flat for pounds 50 a square foot less than in the west," said Craig Best of Bee Bee Developments. "There has got to be a bit of value in it for people. We don't want to see prices rising too fast."
The first apartments within their site were released last month in Northburgh Street, where five out of 12 have already sold. Customers can choose their own finishes and colours but the style is generic "loft" - wood floors and open plan living with simple, modern lines in the kitchens and bathrooms. There will be a gym on the ground floor.
The idea of customer choice is a growing trend in the new-build market. Instead of offering 20 flats all the same, a level of bespoke service is being introduced. Buyers can choose between an empty shell - very much a niche market for the purists - a partly fitted flat, or a place ready to move into. Such a scheme operates at the Banner Building, a red brick warehouse near the Barbican, where prices range from pounds 94,500 to pounds 175,000.
While demand for singles' homes is strong in the city, demand for family houses is pushing up prices in the "villages" which ring the capital. The most prominent companies in this market are Barratt and Berkeley Homes. Barratt has completed 2,000 homes in the capital over the past 12 months, the majority of them in Docklands. One of its latest projects is on the Thames at Chiswick, where the first show home on the Royal Thames Crescent development of apartments and large town houses opened last week.
Berkeley Homes, which operates as a series of regional companies, is a relatively new name to London buyers. Tony Pidgley, the head of the Berkeley group, said: "We took a conscious decision when everybody stopped building that we would make a drive into London. With prices having fallen from pounds 1,000 to pounds 200 a square foot, it did not seem to me to be a tremendous gamble."
Since then they have been putting up everything from one-bedroom flats to the large family houses which made Berkeley's name in the country. In the last 18 months Berkeley Thames Valley has built in Richmond, Barnes, Putney and Fulham. In Putney the company did a development of just two large five-bedroom semi-detached homes and sold them off-plan (before they were built) for pounds 550,000 each. In Richmond it sold 44 town houses and apartments in three months.
But by far their most spectacular development is at Barnes, where Berkeley is building 321 new homes around a nature reserve in a loop of the Thames. The reserve will be the largest urban wild fowl and wetlands site in Europe, with a sophisticated pumping system for raising and lowering water levels to attract different birds.
The properties range from four-storey apartment blocks to town houses, to semis to a couple of vast detached homes in an acre of garden. One has already been sold to a city solicitor for pounds 1.8m. With the first houses still two months from completion 46 have been sold.
The very first buyer was William Cave, who has bought a four-bedroom house by the pond at the centre of the development. He can watch it go up from the back of his present home a few hundred yards away. What had persuaded him to leave his elegant villa for a new home? "It was really the cold and inconvenience of an old house," said Mr Cave, a retired television producer. "I wanted double windows, insulated walls and more bathrooms per bedroom. And I did not want to leave Barnes. I have lived here for 35 years. Yet one does have the culture shock of going from huge rooms to little ones," he added.
Who to ask
For lofts/warehouse conversions Manhattan Loft Corporation 0171-631 1888; Northburgh Street from Hamptons in Islington 0171-226 4688 and Jarvis Keller 0171-251 9226; Banner Building from Urban Spaces 0171-251 6661; large shell lofts at York Central in King's Cross from pounds 155,000-450,000 from Pilcher Hershman 0171-486 5256 and Alan Selby 0171-613 3055; Warner Lofts, bright white block in Clerkenwell from 0171-713 1544; Bridge London Ltd, estate agents newly based in Clerkenwell Green, 0171-251 3636; converted Victorian school development in Battersea from Sapcote 0171-937 3878; converted tea warehouse by Metropolis at Dingley Place, London EC1 0171- 234 0288.
For family houses
Royal Thames Crescent by Barratt at Chiswick, priced from pounds 200,000-500,000, 0181-987 9032; Berkeley Homes' Barnes Waterside development 0181-748 1748, also from Knight Frank & Rutley (0171-824 8171) and Boileau Braxton (0181- 741 7400); Berkeley is also converting an old hospital site in the centre of Hampstead, providing apartments and houses from pounds 155,000-685,000, Knight Frank & Rutley (0171-431 8686); Pamlion Properties is building eight houses at Inverforth Close in Hampstead Garden Suburb, priced from pounds 375,000-1.3m, Savills (0171-431 4844) and Goldschmidt and Howland (0171-435 4404); Try Homes will have nine four/five-bedroom terraced houses ready in January at Plantation Wharf, Battersea, 0171-585 0041.