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The trend for living in converted warehouse and factory spaces began in midtown Manhattan in the 1950s and 1960s. Artists took up residence in empty industrial buildings for which they paid as little as $100 a year. Andy Warhol moved into a studio in East 47th street, which became known as the Factory, and artists and musicians flocked there. These days apartments in the same buildings change hands for millions.
This pattern has been replicated in cities around the world: artists are attracted by low rents, large spaces and historic but neglected architecture, and property developers follow in their footsteps. The redevelopment process often begins during economic slumps, when disused commercial buildings can be bought at reasonable prices, and then flourishes when the market picks up.
In the early 1990s developers including Harry Handelsman, of Manhattan Loft Corporation, expanded on the idea in London. They created residential properties in old sugar and cocoa warehouses in Docklands and introduced a new type of housing to the market. Warehouse homes have since become popular, and exposed brickwork, scrubbed wooden floors, cast-iron columns and giant windows have inspired a new design aesthetic.
Ashley Nicholson worked with Sapcote Real Lofts on a series of projects in the 1990s that turned unwanted Victorian schools in unfashionable parts of London into desirable spaces. Sapcote did the hard graft, including re-roofing and insulating, then sold vast raw spaces to artists, pop stars and photographers. “We wanted to produce pure space and sell via word of mouth rather than advertising,” says Nicholson.
So when news leaked that Nicholson and Verve – the company he founded in 1999 – had bought the old Sunlight laundry, known as Loud & Western, in Fulham, an area of west London not known for its warehouse conversions, anticipation mounted.
The ghosts of laundry girls may still haunt the space where they once washed linen from West End hotels but Verve has divided this striking Edwardian building into four enormous residential properties.
“We think it is more ‘East End funky’ than Fulham,” says Emma Stead of Savills, which is selling the spaces at £1.69m for a 2,323 sq ft unit up to £3.95m for 7,093 sq ft of space. “But it appeals to international buyers. About 50 per cent of our buyers in this area last year were European, partly because we have a French school here.”
The company’s best-known recent project is Paintworks, an old paint factory in Bristol, which it turned into live-work spaces and made a new creative hub. “The whole Verve idea is to find characterful buildings that no one else knows what to do with. We work out what the area needs – and do it,” says Caroline Doggart, marketing consultant at Verve.
So what attracts people to buy raw space, apart from the urge to be brave and take on a blank canvas? “It is cheaper,” says Savills’ Stead. “You buy at around £700 per sq ft rather than £1,000, which reduces the amount of stamp duty.”
At Loud & Western a set designer has made skeletal black outlines, to suggest doorways, a double-bed, a lavatory, and even a Ferrari in the corner of the factory floor-sized sitting room to fire the imaginations of prospective purchasers. “Buyers can use a space to have an art gallery, keep a car collection, start a cooking school, have a photographic studio and live alongside – these spaces are that big,” says Doggart.
Search agent Gulnara Long, of Property Vision, says many of her high-end Russian clients are keen to buy raw space in London. “That is the way they do it in Russia. They want the property to exactly fit their desires, and they find it very expensive to rip out newly installed kitchens and bathrooms.”
Earlier this year a mid-Victorian house in Clarendon Road, Holland Park, west London, came to the market in a “raw shell” state. Architects BB Partnership and Kelling Designs worked up plans for about 4,000 sq ft of space with planning consent to dig out the basement, creating another 6,684 sq ft so that it had capacity for six to seven bedrooms and a spa. Strutt & Parker brought the property to the market – gutted but structurally sound – at £12.95m and it is now under offer.
A disused mid-20th century Dutch barge on the river Thames offers a very different sort of raw residential space. This project is the work of Chris Atherton, who offers to source sturdy old barges in Europe, bring them back to a dry dock in Kent, fit them out to the design of the buyer and bring them up the Thames to be moored near London Heliport opposite Imperial Wharf station.
The Vega IV is already moored at the site to show what he can do, but this example is furnished along the lines of a city penthouse, with three bedrooms, en-suite bathrooms, televisions, cocktail bar and huge outdoor deck. The living-room windows are at water level and ducks peer in as they pass.
It comes with high-security entrance gates and access to services from the five-star Hotel Rafayel. Savills Waterfront and Bective Leslie Marsh are asking £1.5m for this finished version.