Loft conversions: For the minimalist, an old warehouse is an adventure in space

When is a loft not a loft? When it's in

a converted Victorian mansion in

the country is one answer. Audacious liberties with the word are not

unusual, but this recent example is bolder than most. Penny Jackson tastes the real thing.

When something sells well, then flog it even if the ubiquitous "loft" style, "loft" space and even "loft" studios have no connection with the regeneration of industrial buildings.

While purists will reject all but the genuine loft, does it matter that it has so many imitators? Who better to ask than Harry Handelsman, whose Manhattan Loft Corporation brought this American style of urban living to London. His first venture was in the then un-chic Clerkenwell of1993.

He says: "Loft has become a generic term for a space where one can create one's own thing. I think that's fine. The satisfaction people got from doing that was amazing; so far from being a passing fad it introduced a new opportunity for residential dwellings.

"In London, unlike New York, we have taken things a stage further by giving people the space they need but in new build."

Mr Handelsman does not underestimate the growing importance of London as a cultural centre in all this. Notably, the first to buy the original "shell" spaces were often from the world of design, fashion and art, but it soon became apparent that although there was a far wider demand for these conversions, many would-be buyers were daunted by the prospect of taking on the job themselves.

Manhattan itself offered an architectural service at Bankside and these days it is common for loft apartments to be offered fitted out with show flats. Where buyers have the advantage here is that the focus is inevitably on the quality of the fittings.

Lofts do not lend themselves to distracting flounces and show-house clutter. One of the most recent loft developments to be launched is at the Piper Building in west London where the architectural detail is impressive. There is a mixture of shell and fitted, but the show flat works as an inspiration.

Crispin Kelly, the owner and developer of Piper in partnership with Try Homes, believes purchasers of shells like to see the possibilities before employing their own architects. But with each apartment employing its own team of workmen, the potential for chaos is enormous.

"We have learnt from the mistakes of the pioneers," says Mr Kelly. Hoists for builders, the grouped supply of the services and acoustic gaps between units have all been given particular thought. The Fifties Piper Building in Fulham, once offices of North Thames Gas, provides genuine lofts. Ceilings are almost 14ft and a grown man can stand on the mezzanine floor. New- build lofts cannot aspire to this, believes Crispin Kelly. "They give the impression of space with a lot of glazing and by not using dividing walls. But it is not the same."

One loft developer, who started in Clerkenwell in 1994, is even taking pains to distance himself from the term. Daren Nathan of Warner Lofts says it is overused and often inaccurate. "I am tired of 600sq ft shoe boxes and anything with a modern minimalist finish being described as a loft," he says.

Although he is currently converting an old shoe factory in St John's Street, in London, into Paramount Buildings he will not be calling them lofts. "Apart from space what buyers are really interested in is the quality of the finish, from light fittings to door knobs," he adds.

Another development just completed by Westcity Properties and Wates in Bourchier Street, Soho, goes so far as to describe the new building as "a million miles away from the classic loft conversions ... it is time for property to move on."

But apart from getting British buyers used to square feet instead of numbers of bedrooms, one far-reaching effect of the loft trend has been the collapse of the notion that the wealthy only live in wealthy areas.

Alex Lifschutz, an architect with Lifschutz Davidson, who did the Piper Building apartments, finds this one of the most exciting elements. "We are not only reinvigorating old buildings but people are prepared to spend time and money in getting it right. Lofts are perfect for dividing into work and living areas."

"They are also offer a perfect view of how you live to the rest of the world and one of the challenges for architects and owners alike is what to do with the windows. Upside-down blinds, shutters, opaque glass can all be adapted, Lifschutz says.

"But then people who live in lofts can be quite stagey about their lives. They don't mind having their homes on show." As one couple who live in Leather Lane well know. They were treated to the full monty of their loft neighbours' lives every evening. While it was a great diversion during dinner parties, it became wearisome.

Nor is a film placed over glass always the answer. One architect tells of a man who placed it over his glass bathroom door which faced on to a corridor. "What he didn't realise was that it doesn't work when the lights are on. It was like sitting on an illuminated stage."

The Piper Building has sold 50 of its 77 units. Shells available start at pounds 275,000 for 1,250sq ft; fitted start at pounds 370,000 three bedroom, three bathroom. Agents Savills: 0171-736 2671. Manhattan Lofts has shell apartments for sale in Shepherdess Walk, off City Road from pounds 146,000 to pounds 400,000. Sales office 0171-490 3949. Warner Lofts 0171-713 1544. Bourchier Street: prices start at pounds 285,000. Agents Hamptons 0171-824 8822

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