Office living: the new work-life balance

Faced with rising rents and a lack of supply, cost-conscious tenants are taking advantage of empty office space to escape the rental race and embrace loft-style living. Holly Williams reports
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The Independent Online

For anyone who spends all day in an office building – with carpets like scouring pads and walls the colour of dishcloths – the idea of going home to more of the same might sound like a nightmare. But in times when finding affordable property can be tricky, office living offers a creative solution.

The demand for rental properties continues to outstrip supply – enquiries for rental properties increased by 94 per cent in the last month, according to research from letting agent Countrywide. "As buyers outweigh the number of properties on the market, househunters looking for flexible solutions are being driven to the rental sector to bridge the gap," says John Hards, the company's co-managing director.

The estate agent Douglas & Gordon has also registered more renting applications in January than at any time in the company's history. "It goes without saying that rents are going to be increasing," warns a spokesman.

So can converted offices provide affordable new spaces to rent? It's a trend that has been emerging slowly, with clever landlords (as well as canny squatters) snapping up big buildings standing empty and putting them to good use. There are similarities with the history of the loft apartment. Abandoned, cheap industrial buildings were turned first into arty, bohemian spaces, then became yuppified real estate, before finally winding up as luxe living choices for the seriously rich.

Offices are proving versatile, too. The oversupply of office buildings (10 per cent of office space in central London alone is currently vacant, according to commercial property agency NB Real Estate) has led to squatters and artsy students, as well as high-end developers, moving in – even if they do take rather different approaches.

Like warehouses before them, there are some slightly dubious deals going on, as converted offices that are very rough-and-ready spaces and may not be fully fire-and-safety tested, or even legal. If you're considering office living, be aware of legal issues: a building may need a change of tax status, from business rates to residential; and with more than five people in one property, a licence for a "house in multiple occupation" will be needed.

Alex Marx, 25, and a group of seven friends were looking for a large warehouse-style space to rent, when they found a partially converted office in Walthamstow, north-east London. "I moved in at the start of October 2008," he explains. "We were doing a lot of the conversion ourselves in terms of the building and painting. The landlord put in showers and the electric boiler for the water, but that was about it. They gave us a small budget and we bought the fridge, dishwasher and cooker, and wired the rest of the flat in ourselves."

His flatmate Willie Singerman, 24, adds: "We built one room, split another into two, and spent a week or two painting and putting up pictures. We got lots of furniture from our housemate's family, other stuff was second-hand or just off the street."

They put in a lot of time, energy and creativity into making the office into a home. "When we first moved in, the whole place was painted one uniform colour, which was magnolia," says Marx, who is an actor. "It actually felt a bit like a hospital or something – a long white corridor, with all the doors off it – it was very, very institutional. A few people when we first looked around said 'I can't live here'; they couldn't make the leap."

Now the bedrooms are colourful, there's a huge communal space for parties and dinners. They've even set up a home cinema – three salvaged sofas raised on wooden palettes and a ceiling-mounted projector makes for a very cosy film-watching den.

There are some big drawbacks however, which became apparent during the recent cold snaps. "The downside is the heating issue – we don't have central heating, so we've been using electrical heaters," says Marx. "Our bills are included, so it's not too hard on the pocket, but it does make you feel a bit guilty about the environment."

"Live/work spaces and warehouses are generally cheaper, but our place isn't extraordinarily cheap – it's about £460 a month when there's eight of us," says Singerman. For a place this size though, it's pretty good value: there are eight bedrooms, a kitchen, bathroom, large artists' studio, a vast living room and a laundry room – which used to be the men's lavatory.

However, accommodation that started life as an office is no guarantee of affordability. High-end property developers have been getting in on the act, and throughout the last decade there were some classy developments in spaces that had formerly been home to nine-to-fivers. One swish new property, 4 Connaught Place, is a conversion of a Grade II-listed building, which was the London headquarters of Cadbury until 1993. Located in the West End (round the corner from the Tony Blair's post-Downing Street lodgings), the flats offer serious luxury, without an office feature in sight – instead you can expect underfloor heating, en suite bathrooms, views of Hyde Park and prices starting from £995,000.

But there's a middle ground. Ruth Evans, 24, rents a converted office flat in east London. Many of her neighbours are still businesses – there are offices belonging to an architect, a clothing company and magazine in the block. And having neighbours who are only around during working hours has its benefits: "It's brilliant – there isn't anyone to complain if you have a party," says Evans.

The flat, which Evans shares with three others, is clearly a home space but retains office features. "The conversion was complete when we moved in, but they haven't really done a huge amount," explains Evans, who works as a press officer. "They put a bathroom in, but left the gross ceiling. The lighting is horrendous; it hums, so we use a lot of lamps. There's also still a green fire exit sign."

While the flat still shows its office past, there are some big advantages that make a few dodgy features worth living with. "It's really cheap, I only pay £385 a month," says Evans.

Converted offices also offer a chance for renters to live in a well-sized building in a good location, and Evans is a fan of being in the East End and close to Bethnal Green Tube. She explains it's hardly an industrial wasteland either: "The location is good, there's a mix of industrial buildings, offices and flats."

Like Marx and Singerman, Evans acknowledges the downsides of the original office fixtures and is happy to use a bit of creativity to fix them. And with just a few rugs, lamps, and a lick of paint, she and her housemates have found that a little imagination can make a work environment feel like home.