Lofty idea turns offices into homes: David Lawson discovers a new use for London's deserted business premises - flats

A summer of train strikes draws to a close, leaving the warming prospect of more stoppages, leaves on the line, the wrong kind of snow and the privilege of paying several thousand pounds a year to be treated like cattle.

The dream of strolling to work - or back home from some hot West End club at dawn - was never more haunting. Or more far away for most dreamers. A decent central London flat can set you back well over pounds 100,000 - far more than the average buyer can afford. It is all down to the laws of supply and demand; more buyers than buildings means sky-high prices.

Yet there are many empty places just waiting for occupiers. The property crash left London with a record number of empty buildings. 'Many will never see another tenant,' said Malcolm Beckett, who has spent long months tracking them down.

One small problem: they are all workshops, warehouses or office blocks. But that can be overcome, he says. To prove his point, he gave up counting the buildings and bought one.

Contractors will begin clearing out Pattern House in St John Street, Clerkenwell, in the next few weeks to create 20 flats, and one potential buyer has already been lined up.

'It will be a marvellous opportunity to get a place exactly the way I want it,' said Michael Jones. In other words, empty - very empty.

This kind of development involves stripping everything back to the bare necessities. New lifts, but bare brick walls. New windows and plumbing, but buyers provide their own kitchens, bathrooms, even the interior walls.

'It means I am not saddled with someone else's taste or dodgy fittings,' said Mr Jones. He also gets the near-unique chance to leave the whole flat open, rather than divided up into little rooms.

The idea is not new. New Yorkers began taking over old workshops or 'lofts' decades ago. Manhattan lofts, with their huge windows and high ceilings are now the ultimate in chic living.

London is now seeing the beginnings of a similar revolution. One company, which adopted the name Manhattan Loft, transformed a printing works off Farringdon Road before moving on to a former tin works in Wardour Street.

But these were for the elite. Prices started at pounds 180,000 and the largest penthouse is being offered by Strutt & Parker for more than pounds 1m. Pattern House has more modest aims. Agents Pilcher Hershman will be asking between pounds 62,000 and pounds 150,000 for the equivalent of one to three-bedroom flats.

Fitting out could cost between pounds 15,000 and pounds 30,000, although Mr Jones does not expect to see that sort of outlay. In fact it will be a busman's holiday, as he is employed by architect Norman Foster, and will come home each day to do a little practical work for himself.

There are alternatives to this ultimate DIY. Regalian Properties is beavering away under Jeffrey Archer's penthouse at Alembic House, on the South Bank, to transform the office block into fully-fitted flats.

Barratt is also showing that big builders can adjust to new challenges. A tatty office building in Wapping will be transformed into Royal Tower Lodge, a swish-looking block of more than 40 flats, expected to cost between pounds 80,000 and pounds 130,000.

But lofts are a different way of life, said Mr Beckett. The essence is to retain an industrial feel for people who want something different. He fell in love with the Clerkenwell building while working for a company hunting down commercial premises with a potential for conversion.

'In fact, it was the main reason I decided to leave, because I wanted to do the whole thing myself,' he said. It was not Pattern House then, but a former sewing machine factory most recently used by City University for administration and lectures. The name comes from a time it was a storage depot for patterns sent out by Vogue magazine.

It took a year to persuade the owner to sell, however. And that is the main problem with an estimated 250 buildings and sites in central London which could be switched to housing. Landlords sitting on thumping losses after buying them in the office boom still hope they will get their money back when the market revives.

'But that is not going to happen,' said Mr Beckett. 'They are either in the wrong place or too old-fashioned for modern offices.'

The Government has belatedly realised the potential of trimming the millions of square feet of empty offices in London by quietly slipping out a change in value-added tax regulations during the summer. This removes the tax burden from conversions like Pattern House.

'It means we can charge even less for flats,' said Mr Beckett. As buyers also realise the bonus -and landlords accept that their former office blocks and factories can make money as housing -the current trickle of schemes could increase.

'Perhaps not into a flood, but certainly a stream,' he says. The longer the rail dispute goes on, the more buyers will be attracted. 'People will question why they are paying pounds 3,000 for a season ticket when they can put the money into a flat and walk to work.'

This kind of life may not suite families, but young professionals are drawn to life in the heart of the city. 'I like the noise, the bustle and the vibrancy,' said Mr Jones who currently lives in West Kensington.

Mr Beckett, who now aims to find a bare site where he can build flats that buyers can fit out themselves, has a personal understanding of the attractions. While at university he lived on the 16th floor of a Hackney tower block. 'And loved every minute,' he said.

Details: David Jackson at Pilcher Hershman (071-486-5256)

(Photographs omitted)

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