Property: Summer's Street and the living is easy: A development offering Manhattan-style lofts in central London has buyers flocking to it, writes David Lawson

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The Independent Online
LOUISE FINN wanted a mobile sculpture, something really big and modern that needed a really big and modern space in which to be displayed. She got the space - an airy, Manhattan-style loft; now all she needs is the money to buy the sculpture.

'Loft' is used by Americans to mean former workshops and storerooms in downtown New York. The workers were hardly out the doors before artists and students swarmed in, drawn by the light and the space. Then they, too, were priced out by business people who fancied modish inner-city living. But in Britain, loft living has existed more as an advertising dream than a real way of life. Ms Finn stumbled across hers by chance.

She told the British sculptor Peter Logan that she wanted to buy one of his mobiles but could not afford it as she also wanted a flat. He suggested she look at a conversion going on in a derelict printworks in Summer's Street, Clerkenwell, east London. Louise needed no second thoughts. She snapped up a penthouse site with spectacular views. Four big apartments, including hers, are being built on to the roof to complement 20 more in the huge echoing spaces below. Louise said: 'I always wanted to build a new home from scratch, and these are a marvellous compromise, as you can do almost anything when you start with a bare shell. I also wanted to live in the heart of the city, where you can walk to work or to see friends.'

The scheme's creator, Harry Handelsman, developed a passion for lofts in New York and saw the potential for reviving Britain's inner-city hulks. It was a long search. 'Then I saw this one. It was perfect. The huge windows, high ceilings and great location seemed just right.'

Piers Gough, the architect, agreed. He saw the decaying building as a glorious example of Thirties art deco going to waste. Handelsman and Gough teamed up with Blueprint architecture magazine to stage a competition for students and architects under 30 to design one of the interiors. The winner, Lucy Plumridge, divided her space into public (kitchen and living area) and private (bedroom and bathroom) areas with a free-standing wall with etched glass doors.

'This offers a way forward for inner-city architecture where old industrial buildings can be converted to provide alternative styles of living in which the emphasis is on the thrill of the space and the immediacy of the city's amenities,' said Mr Gough.

Buyers obviously agree. In the depths of the deepest property recession, all but a couple of the flats have been sold. Prices range from pounds 80,000 to pounds 245,000, but that is only for the bare shells. Finishing off with kitchens, bathrooms and so on could easily cost another pounds 25,000.

But that is the point of the scheme. Buyers can - and are - fitting out in different ways that would be impossible in conventional flats. They are bound to be different anyway, because of the variety of shapes and spaces the building allows, from split-level apartments with 16ft-high ceilings on the lower floors, through smaller ones higher up, to the four penthouses surrounded by glass and topped with a barrel-vaulted copper roof.

Buyers' enthusiasm for a relatively unfashionable backwater of central London raises the question of why so many similar buildings remain unconverted. One major reason is that developers shy away from housing in favour of commercial use. But London has enough offices to last into the next century. More than 30 million square feet lie empty - equivalent to one Canary Wharf tower being built every year for the next 30 years.

Mr Handelsman would convert many other offices if they offered the same potential. But he is looking for up-market sites. Further down the price ladder are hundreds of blocks suitable for conversion to homes. Islington, in north London, has almost 200 office sites where planned schemes are never likely to happen. Two-thirds could be turned over to housing. Universities are desperate for student accommodation and housing associations would also be interested in taking over property blocks.

Developers could make more profit out of creating homes than offices, according to an analysis by the property specialists Cluttons and Gardiner & Theobald. They are unlikely to bother, however, while the lunatic tax regime exists that requires VAT to be paid for work on old blocks, but not on new ones.

Louise Finn admits she is lucky to have spotted this exception where old and new have been mixed. She is now flying back and forth across the Atlantic to supervise plans for a modern apartment behind the venerable facade. Two walls will be all glass, while hundreds of books will line the others. A mezzanine platform provides space for her work, translating Sanskrit. Meanwhile, her husband will be able to stroll to his job instead of fighting the traffic.

So will her son, a City accountant. 'He's going to be living downstairs,' she said. 'He saw the brochure and went out to get one for himself.'

For information contact Manhattan Loft Corporation: 071-495 6707.

(Photograph omitted)