If asked where the most innovative niche developer in Britain creates his ground-breaking properties, you might logically say London. Or maybe cutting-edge Manchester, Leeds or soon-to-be European cultural city of choice, Liverpool. It's unlikely you'd say Norfolk.
Although East Anglia is not normally regarded as the hub of cutting-edge design, it's where Rob Beattie lives and works, and he is rapidly changing that view. He is doing the unthinkable in a place better acquainted with crumbling rectories than high-tech havens. Owner of Roy Williamson Properties, he employs around 25 skilled craftsmen to convert old properties into fashionable spaces, and comes up with new-build projects that most urbanites would be desperate to buy.
Beattie knows what women want in a house - because he asks his wife. "I bring her in to the new properties with the shopping and the kids," he explains. "If she can get round the place OK and thinks it looks good and works well, then it has passed the test."
Sure enough, his wife said that every woman ideally wants an integral vacuum system - the kind where the inner workings are hidden under the floorboards, so you only have to connect the end of the hoover into plugs dotted round the house. So Beattie puts them in as standard into his houses. Top-of-the-range German bathroom fittings? State-of-the-art electronic Lutron lighting system? They're there, too.
Such common sense and attention to detail is rare. But for Beattie, it has paid off. His houses, in small enclaves mainly around Norwich, do cost more than the average Norfolk property, but his bespoke designs sell well - and fetch premium prices.
So how did Beattie, originally from south London, start building up-to-the-minute homes on the edge of the Broads? He came to East Anglia when his wife's family moved there to run some holiday cottages. He says that Norfolk is actually the perfect developer's market. "There aren't the highs and lows of London, where I worked for seven years. You might not make a huge profit here, but at least it is a steady profit. These houses are my babies. I've designed and placed every wall and I stand by what I do."
Beattie started out mainly converting older properties. Two years ago at Eaton Gate in the village of Keswick, just outside Norwich, he converted and restored five properties to an extremely high standard from the deteriorating remains of a barn and farm outbuildings. Although traditional on the outside and fitting into the surrounding countryside, the interiors were more akin to Hoxton than Hunstanton. Electronic gates, video-entry systems and remote-controlled lighting were part of an unusual package for the area.
Having seemingly broken all the boundaries, he moved on to Loddon Quay, 10 roomy New England-style wharf houses on the site of a derelict former boatyard on the edge of the Broads. Here he introduced notions about flexibility that are unsurpassed so far in Britain. The owners bought in shell form, then with Beattie decided how many bedrooms they wanted, where to put the study, whether to have a lift or spiral staircase. For an extra £6,000, they could have adaptable panels installed that connected the kitchen's workings to gas, electricity and water in a painless fashion. Simply by unscrewing a panel, they could unhook the modular kitchen and move it to another area of the house whenever they felt like a change.
So what is Beattie up to this time? Twelve miles out of Norwich on the A11 in Bunwell he is producing seven houses from traditional oak, brick and render. What you see on the outside, however, has very little to do with what is happening inside. "Open the door," says Beattie, "and it is extremely modern with the latest lighting, materials and ideas."
The kitchen in the conservatory? No problem. Or maybe at the back of the house? Fine. Beattie encourages owners to do their own house, but with his help, of course. By supplying one large flexible living space on the ground floor, Beattie is open to interesting suggestions. "Sometimes people are shy, but once they get into it, it is terrific."
At Loddon Quay, Beattie is chuffed that all the houses are totally different and everyone is proud of what they have designed. "They say, 'Mine's the best.' And their neighours say, 'No, mine is.' Basically, I let people choose how they want to live. It is no good shutting them up in a kitchen they don't like."
The selling agent for Beattie's developments, Les Walsh from FPDSavills in Norwich, says Beattie's approach is unusual in East Anglia. "That is why his property sells well. He is the only one in Norfolk selling integrated vacuum systems, and removable kitchens were unheard of until Loddon. At Bunwell, he is putting in computer screens in the kitchen where you can send e-mails and watch TV at the same time. We need a lot more Rons in Norfolk."
Two four-bedroom detached houses with double garages have been released at Bunwell for £295,000 and £325,000, and five more are due in the spring. More information from FPDSavills in Norwich (01603 229229) or Roy Williamson Properties (01508 528786)
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