The loft generation

Childless media types love converted warehouses, and have kept them recession-proof, says Anne Spackman
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The Independent Online
If Ab Fab's Edina and Patsy were looking for a new home right now, they would probably choose a loft. They might consider the Manhattan Loft Corporation's development in Soho - until they discovered that Terence Conran was opening a new restaurant downstairs. "Oh Christ, darling, not more of that bloody Conran Shop terracotta, bleached wood, darling."

For most other buyers, however, the promise of a Conran restaurant on the ground floor of the site in Wardour Street has proved an irresistible bonus. It rounds off perfectly the lifestyle package which people feel they are buying when they spend thousands of pounds on a large, bare space.

Everyone loves lofts. Planners love them because they make use of redundant industrial buildings. Buyers love them because they offer the freedom to create an individual home. Developers and estate agents love them because they sell.

Lofts appeal to a niche market which may not be feeling absolutely fabulous about the future, but which is certainly more confident than most. Most loft buyers belong to childless thirtysomethings. They tend to work in media-related industries - photography, design, television, the rock business - and to be self-employed. They have the imagination and the know-how to tackle a large empty space which less design-conscious buyers might find daunting.

There are at least six new loft projects underway in London, with plans for more in Liverpool and Manchester. The couture versions consist of old warehouses and factories where the brick walls have been sandblasted, the windows cleaned up and the building divided into sections, each supplied with basic services. The off-the-peg lofts come complete with mezzanines, kitchens, bathrooms and wood floors, and are more warehouse apartments than lofts.

The first couture development was at Summer's Street in Clerkenwell, just north of the City of London, where the Manhattan Loft Corporation converted an old printing works. The lofts came on to the market in 1992, the very worst year of the property recession, and were snapped up immediately.

The first buyer at Summer's Street was 42-year-old Bob Baldwin, a film- maker who had lived in lofts in New York and pre-Docklands Wapping. He got a flat of 1,500 square feet - the size of one and half average semis - for just over £150,000, including fitting-out costs. "What was amazing was the amount of space you could buy for the money," he said. "Anybody could see it was a good deal."

His neighbours include a couple of photographers and illustrators, a few bankers and members of the Pet Shop Boys in one of the penthouses. Only one of the original buyers has sold up - the singer Tanita Tikaram - and she never really moved in. Children are a rarity. It would be impossible to manage toddlers with open-plan stairs, glass partitions and windows without walls. "These are perfect bachelor pads," Bob Baldwin said.

From Summer's Street he can look one block north to the Warner Lofts building. What was a brown, brick warehouse has been turned into a bright white cantilevered block of the kind you might find in the Art Deco area of Miami. Slabs of Italian granite are stacked on the ground floor waiting to be laid on the balconies. The Architect's Journal held its centenary party there this year.

The Warner building does not look as raw or authentic as Summer's Street, but the spaces inside are similarly large. Lofts range from 1,000 square feet to twice that size. But the prices are no longer at 1992 levels. Warner Lofts has sold eight of the 23 shells, mainly the cheaper ones. Prices now start at £162,500 and go up to £345,000.

About a mile away, just off City Road, is one of the off-the-peg schemes done by Metropolis Developments, in a 19th-century tea warehouse. The apartments at Dingley Place have the bare-brick walls, wooden floors and warehouse windows that characterise lofts, but they have been fitted out with contemporary interiors. All 14 apartments have large living spaces, one or two bedrooms, two bathrooms and a parking space on the ground floor. Prices start at £149,500.

Luke Alvarez has bought one of the top-floor, double-height apartments at Dingley Place, with a huge roof terrace, for £175,000. He has decided to leave the entire ground floor open plan. Mr Alvarez, 27, who works in information technology, wanted somewhere central but quiet, and with space. He was particularly taken with the maple floors. "The other fittings are not The Conran Shop, but they are very nice," he said.

Metropolis was very successful with an earlier development in the south London district of Bermondsey. Prices in The Schoolhouse began at £55,000. Thanks to the clever interiors and the low prices the development sold very quickly.

Around the corner from The Schoolhouse, London Buildings is about to launch the second phase of its Alaska scheme, centred around a white Thirties building. This includes 44 new apartments in a nearby Victorian warehouse and the start of a new building by the fashionable architectural practice of Munkenbeck & Marshall, which should prove a real draw for the design crowd.

But the biggest scheme for the cognoscenti is likely to be Bankside Lofts, the latest project from the Manhattan Loft Corporation. At present it is a series of dilapidated Victorian and Fifties buildings overlooking the redundant Bankside power station, south of the river in Battersea. In five years' time it should be a trendy urban neighbourhood of lofts, cafs and offices, topped off with a gleaming curved tower of terraced apartments. The power station will be the new Tate Gallery, the new Jubilee tube line will be just down the road and the Globe Theatre should be into its fourth season.

The properties will vary from £80,000 loft shells, to penthouses with river views. Two show flats, in the £130,000 to £145,000 bracket, are being created. The company will offer buyers a £6,000 fit-out which puts in walls, bathroom and kitchen fittings, heating and floors.

Much of what is happening now in Bermondsey, Clerkenwell and Bankside is what was destined for Docklands 10 years ago. Because of the recession, it never really happened. Now it seems that Bermondsey and Clerkenwell will become the Islingtons and Camdens of the 1990s and Bankside looks set to become London's Left Bank.

Where to find lofts:

Bankside Lofts and Soho Lofts, sold mostly as shells, priced from £80,000 to £1m, from the Manhattan Loft Corporation 0171-495 6707

The Warner Loft Building: lofts from £162,500 to £345,000, from Warner Lofts, 0171-713 1544

Dingley Place, fully fitted warehouse apartments by Metropolis Developments: from £149,500 to £225,000 from Cluttons London Residential 0171-407 3669. The same firm is planning a site in Liverpool

Alaska Lofts, warehouse apartments, and Albert Dock on the King's Cross Marina: huge John Pawson designed lofts by London Buildings, from Pilcher

Hershman 0171-486 5256 and Alan Selby & Partners

0171-613 3055

Right: Bob Baldwin's

'perfect bachelor pad' in

Summer's Street