There's a lot you can do with a loft - as long as you avoid the Austrian blinds

From warehouses in Manchester to schools in South London, people want to live in `lofts'. William Raynor on a spaced-out way of living

It is, as Andrew Wong admits, a bit of a contradiction in terms. "But, especially in old school or industrial buildings, the ground floor often has the highest ceilings and the greatest potential."

A bit of a contradiction, because he's talking about "lofts"; and because, in its most common usage, a loft, singular, according to the Concise Oxford Dictionary, is "the space under the roof of a house, above the ceiling of the top floor" - ie, an attic.

But in flexible property-speak, such exactitude is clearly of minor concern: with connotations so much more romantic than the reality it often disguises, the word "loft" can now be applied to single-level living space in warehouses too low to swing a cat in, as in Manhattan, and even more euphemistically, as in major UK centres, to almost anything, whether empty "shell" or already boxed and broken up, which has been converted from non-residential use.

For developers and estate agents, still mainly in London but also in places like Liverpool, Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow - where the concept has recently been introduced, the word provides a nice, versatile marketing tool.

And when it's suffixed, as in "loft-style", then caveat emptor - let the buyer beware of what may well be no more than a metaphor for crude, over-priced fittings and rough, careless finishes.

This, though, is decidedly not the sort of space which interests Mr Wong, a London-based architect whose year-old company, arc, provides purchasers of loft shells with what he calls a "complete package" of design and build, costing on average an extra pounds 75,000-pounds 85,000.

Adhering to the idea that "lofty" implies high, he sees design as depending on space and space as being dictated by height - a basic rule which, regardless of differences in economics and clientele, ought presumably to apply as much elsewhere in the country as in London, the loft leader.

"Because the space in the empty shell can feel so huge, the first thing people often do wrong is to ask for too much accommodation, four or five bedrooms and three or four bathrooms, whereas with a floor area of 1,200- 1,600 square feet, it'll generally work better from the design point of view with two bedrooms and two bathrooms at the most.

"If the client wants accommodation which pushes the design limits, we try to use tricks, like bedrooms with sliding partitions which can become part of the main living and dining area, but still retain graceful lines and an effect which is more understated and subtle, less `in-your-face' than it was during the showing-off Eighties."

Which, in design terms, he argues, means anyone wanting to use "opulent" materials to recreate the feeling of by-gone eras should buy an older, traditional house. "To try and turn the shell into something which looks Regency or Victorian, or illustrates the era of the outside of converted building - that's another big mistake."

By some, this may be dismissed as a purist sentiment, but Julian de Metz, another London architect specialising in loft design, clearly agrees.

"It's vital," he says, "that anyone buying a loft shell gets a lot of space for the money, ideally very high and light, because if it's broken up, it loses its character and becomes `domestic'.

"As the problem is how, rationally, to preserve the space which has been bought and the buyer loves and retain as much of its original character as possible, while giving it a residential character as well, the solution is good design."

While keeping or exposing original features like fireplaces, carrying beams or wide-timbered floors, this means making use of modern materials and whatever allows light to penetrate and maximise the space - "for instance," he explains, "equipping the kitchen with free-standing catering units so it looks rugged and industrial, rather than using `residential' materials or resorting to the DIY aesthetic of B&Q or Ikea."

With this as the underlying theme, his firm has fitted out lofts for as much as pounds 100 a square foot and as little as pounds 29 - the lower figure being in London for a journalist who paid pounds 95,000 for the shell and pounds 30,000 for the conversion, and then had the result valued at pounds 170,000.

"In that case," says Mr de Metz, "we put a mezzanine in the middle of the space to provide a nice low entrance from which to emerge into something bigger and higher, and enhance through contrast. We try not to be too flippant, because the raw materials of good design are scale and proportion, and relating them to a space to make it calm is a serious business."

While effects of light and space are different and therefore impose different solutions, these - and calm - can often be achieved just by using white where necessary on walls, and old leather sofas or flat neutral fabrics which can be balanced, for instance, with the faded reds and yellows of the stocks in an exposed brick wall, or the brighter spots of colour in plants, paintings, kitchen utensils, or bowls of fruit.

So that we can come up with a simple, strong concept from the very beginning, he says, "we advise our clients that as they've bought the space for its character, they should not see it as a canvas on which to do anything they feel like, but be a bit reverential, and while altering it, try also to improve it.

"They need to keep a simple palette of materials, resolve all building and planning issues before work begins, especially if the building is listed, and if their space has fantastic high windows, for example, try not to ruin them or reduce the light they bring by sticking floor structures across the middle."

To advise buyers what not to do is probably easier than suggesting what they should, admits Phillip Jackson, of estate agents Stirling Ackroyd, with offices in Clerkenwell and some two-thirds of its sales involving lofts on the northern fringes of the City.

"Don't," he says, "overlook the quality of bathrooms and kitchens, compromise room-space, get carried away with bold colours, use too much of grandma's furniture, leave the project half-finished, carpet it throughout, or put Austrian blinds in windows."

In the old, mainly school buildings it is converting into residential shells in Battersea, Kennington and Bermondsey, one of the leading companies in the market, Sapcote Real Lofts, forbids Austrian blinds and net curtains completely. "The rest," the company claims, "is left to the creativity and imagination of future occupiers" - on occasion helped, it should be said, by architects like Julian Metz and Andrew Wong.

Presumably neither of whom would agree with Simon Harris, co-owner and director of Cityscope, a London estate agency specialising in lofts alone, who argues: "Lofts are so individual that, in terms of design, there are no rules. That's the beauty of them. But in terms of resalability, it's the slightly more conventional ones which do better."

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