Something old, something new

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AGE does not wither English houses. In fact, the older they are, the greater their pavement appeal.

English buyers queue to view homes that look good from the outside, even if they have been warned of the work which lies beyond. As a nation we positively relish the prospect of doing up somewhere old.

The rest of the world does not share our delight in living with builders' dust for months. They would rather buy homes 'to go', with the right number of bathrooms and telephone lines. The busier they are, the less time and patience they have to wait in for the plumber.

When those foreign buyers come to London they find it difficult to uncover the kind of home they have become accustomed to in New York, Frankfurt or Tokyo. They love the idea of living in one of the capital's elegant terraces, but want a shower that works and somewhere to park their car.

These people are willing to pay up to pounds 400,000 for a two-bedroom flat in a development such as Observatory Gardens in Kensington. Observatory Gardens epitomises the trend for retaining the old outside of buildings while giving them a new inside. It is being built by Northacre, a small-but-bold developer, which has made its name specialising in this kind of work.

John Hunter, a former estate agent, is one of the company's two directors - the other is a Swedish architect. He explains their approach to redevelopment. 'The concept we have is that within the centre of London there will be a number of opportunities to acquire old buildings and put some new guts into them.

'The result gives you all the benefits of a new home with the character of something which is old. It is also very technical, very complicated and very expensive,' he adds.

The only place to put parking spaces at Observatory Gardens was underground, which meant holding up the front wall while digging behind and below. The spaces cost more to build than the flats - reflected in the pounds 25,000 price for each slot.

At Observatory Gardens the company had a partly derelict building, the end of which had been bombed. English Heritage proposed leaving the rubble 'for the nostalgic value of it being a bombsite'.

John Hunter understands the desire to preserve beautiful buildings but he thought this was ludicrous, He persuaded English Heritage that the best way of preserving the appearance of the terrace, which is in a conservation area, was to build a replica wall. He is convinced no one will be able to see the join.

Inside, the terrace has been converted into flats ranging from one-bedroom to four bedrooms, with a couple of penthouses. Prices go from pounds 175,000 to pounds 2m.

So far, his nerve has paid off. With four months to go until completion the development is 50 per cent sold, with all the buyers coming from abroad.

Most inquiries have come from Britain, but those who finally buy are primarily from Hong Kong and the Far East, much as Northacre expected.

'The thing which is important to these buyers is the quality of the build and the amenities,' Mr Hunter said.

'These are international people accustomed to high standards. We have become accustomed to old buildings with doors which don't close properly and poor insulation. They will not accept that.'

Northacre did not decide to go down that route for purely aesthetic or even business reasons. It was partly forced to adopt such a development strategy by the restrictions of the area.

There are very few new sites in prime central London - which for the international market is the only place to be. If you want to build, you have got to look to replace something old, rather than start from scratch.

The same strategy was adopted at 48/49 Cadogan Place, one of London's smartest addresses, in between Harrod's and Sloane Square. The Cadogan Estate redeveloped two houses in the terrace to form four new apartments.

They sold through Cluttons London Residential for up to pounds 600 a sq ft - some of the highest prices paid in the capital. The buyers were one Swiss, one Dane, one Hong Kong Chinese and one Russian.

The same agents are now working on a similar project in Collingham Gardens, just north of the Old Brompton Road. Here the developer has bought three ornate Victorian red brick buildings, listed Grade II, built by architects Ernest George and Peto.

Though the facades are quite different, all three houses have a strong Flemish feel, with deep gabled roofs and intricate stone mullioned windows. Two are being converted into nine apartments, while the third,

No 17 Collingham Gardens, is being reinstated as a single, enormous family house.

At Collingham Gardens, parts of the interior such as the cornicing, are listed, which makes rebuilding bureaucratically more fraught. The developer will not be able to knock down and build back up; it will have to work around the features that are to stay.

John Hunter thinks councils and bodies such as English Heritage must be careful not to make it financially impossible for developers to carry out this kind of work. Otherwise we will be back to concrete boxes.

'In the Sixties and Seventies so much rubbish was allowed to be built when they could have worked within existing old buildings. But now we have swung too far in the other direction. Everyone is neurotic about the removal of anything more than 20 or 30 years old.

'It has become very poli-tical. Councillors know there are votes to be won in preserving character buildings.'

John Hunter's next project will come up against the same obstacles.

He has just bought Earls Terrace, an entire row off Kensington High Street, which he plans to restore to its original 1811 appearance, complete with cobblestones, gas lamps and gatehouses at either end. Such is the complexity of the operation that those flats will not be on the market for a further four years.

(Photograph omitted)