When Victoria Bravery moved into the former factory of Percy Dalton’s Famous Peanut Company, all she had to work with was an empty shell.
The stalwart British company, founded in the 1930s, had housed its factory – more than four large buildings in a development spanning two blocks – in Hackney Wick, formerly the industrial heartland of London’s East End. In 2007 Bravery, an entrepreneur, moved into a smaller standalone section of the factory, located on Fish Island (so called because of nearby roads named after the freshwater fish Dace, Bream and Roach) that had once been used to pack peanuts.
The poorly insulated building was freezing in winter and during heavy rain the roof leaked, but this did not concern Bravery. In the then undesirable area of Hackney Wick rents were low and, with almost 2,500 sq ft to play with, there was plenty of room for the screen-printing business that she and her partner, Remi Landaz, planned to set up. By moving into the former factory the pair could afford around triple the floor space for the same price as renting a conventional apartment elsewhere.
Building everything from scratch, Bravery added partition walls to create bathrooms, bedrooms and a workshop. She installed an open-plan kitchen and laminated the floor. Furnishings were made, donated or bought cheaply online. Crucially, for someone launching a start-up, the building allowed her to operate the business from one end of the building and use the other end as living space, saving additional costs.
Bravery, 31, was early to catch a wave that is gaining momentum in London today. Artists, musicians, students and entrepreneurs are colonising empty buildings in the city in a bid to enjoy the lifestyle and space usually available only to the wealthy. And, no, they are not squatting but paying rent.
Matt Cyrankiewicz has lived in a warehouse conversion, also part of Percy Dalton’s peanut factory, for two years. The Polish entrepreneur leases the property through the Hackney-based agent Spaced Up, which specialises in live-work units and art studios in east and north London. The rent is £4,200 per month, divided among tenants, for an empty warehouse space spanning more than 4,000 sq ft that has been converted to include seven bedrooms, a large kitchen – and even an indoor bridge and swing.
The large airy Victorian windows, eight-metre-high ceilings, white walls and industrial chic lighting give the home a stylish feel, despite the warehouse’s rundown, red-brick exterior. The building has nine permanent housemates (including the popular English electronic music duo Mount Kimbie) and a constant stream of sofa-surfers all attracted by the cheap rent.
“It is very much like a New York loft apartment,” says Cyrankiewicz, 27, creative director of Dropr Limited, an online portfolio platform. There is, however, one crucial difference. “Here, living in a warehouse, you can do whatever you want – if you want to build a [temporary] wall, you build a wall. If you want to modify it, you do.”
“Creative types, photographers, designers – [they] need space,” says Italian artist and musician Simone Strifele, who lived in a warehouse in Seven Sisters, north London, from 2005 to 2012. “They can have their own little factories. I find it a beautiful thing because you have got control over the way your living space and your working space gets developed.”
Networking websites such as Gumtree are full of warehouse units advertised as living spaces. Several companies serving tenants looking to live in old warehouses or factories have also sprung up. Prices on Spaced Up, for example, range from £240 per week, for a 1,100 sq ft ground-floor Victorian warehouse in High Barnet with no bathroom or shower, to £1,297 per week, for a converted 4,500 sq ft warehouse in Woolwich with 13 rooms, a lift and views of the Thames.
Tenants often build their own kitchen, showers and bedroom units. When Cyrankiewicz moved into his ex-warehouse it “was an absolute mess” with just a couple of walls dividing the vast space. He negotiated three weeks rent-free to renovate, and raised a few thousand pounds through dinners, performances and parties hosted in the building to pay for heating, lighting and more walls.
According to planning laws the movement to populate commercial buildings is often unauthorised. Companies like Spaced Up appear to offer a “mixed bag” in terms of planning legitimacy, according to Roger Hepher, head of planning at the international estate agent Savills. Landlords – either unaware or turning a blind eye in return for rent – often leave the exteriors uncared for to disguise residential use, and residents can be left in the lurch if the council chooses to take enforcement action.
This looks like it might happen in Haringey where the council recently released a report titled “Tackling Unauthorised Living in Industrial Areas”. It noted that problems including “refuse, clutter, noise and disturbance” should be addressed through “regulation, improvement, enforcement and, where necessary, prosecution”. As such, the futures for large warehouse communities in Haringey remain uncertain.
Yet, according to Hepher, “it isn’t illegal to occupy premises without planning permission – it only becomes illegal if enforcement action is taken successfully. And councils are often slow to take enforcement action, so people often take liberties”. Bravery and Cyrankiewicz get around this by renting live-work spaces where they legally reside and pay council taxes.
This does not exempt them from rising rents. Hackney Wick has not only become a hotspot for artists (the area has the highest concentration of artist studios and creative practitioners in Europe). It has also been subject to top-down redevelopment owing to its proximity to the Olympic Park. The process of gentrification, however, can push out creative types.
“It’s a domino thing,” says Strifele, 34, who has worked at a warehouse rental agency. “One place becomes trendy, it becomes expensive and people move to a cheaper area.” Bravery’s rent has increased from £18,000 a year in 2007 to £39,000 today (she now sublets the warehouse and sometimes stays at her start-up 90 Main Yard in Hackney). She believes a byproduct of the Olympics is that “the majority of spaces . . . are under threat from developers looking to cash in”.
Bravery founded 90 Main Yard, in 2012 to provide affordable creative space in Hackney Wick. For her, it is important to support artists pushed out “due to increased rents and planning applications for large autonomous apartment blocks”.
Still, for now, converted warehouses and factories remain a popular choice because of low rents and the community that often flourishes as a result. When Cyrankiewicz was looking to share two rooms last year he had dozens of potential tenants view the space in just two days. “People will still move in [despite hiked rents] because of the community. Artists and musicians make this area very hip,” he says.
On most nights, Cyrankiewicz and his roommates cook dinner together and he says he loves this “big family” feel. Communal living, however, also reaches far beyond the four walls of the warehouse. Online communities on Fish Island have joined forces to fight local crime, such as setting up volunteer watches to try to prevent muggings in the area.
The groups also help each other make art. When Cyrankiewicz needed a typewriter as a prop for a video he was filming last summer he simply posted the request online. Within 10 minutes he had been given a typewriter for free by someone living in an adjacent warehouse. “Things spread really quickly here,” he says.
Still, Strifele insists there are disadvantages to such close living. As a musician, he has been forced to leave warehouses in the past by agents or landlords wary of noisy recording studios and complaints from neighbours. For Strifele, who sports shoulder length hair, a goatee, and a chunky silver necklace, the “sounds of intimate moments” coming through the makeshift plasterboard bedroom walls can also be problematic.
Despite this, he says that warehouse living is worth it. “Psychologically, you need to be able to breathe and the open space gives you that. Plus you can do hula hoops, you can dance around. It’s beautiful.”
Strifele adds that he is not the only one to be captivated by the lifestyle. “You’d be amazed at how many people at 7.30am walk to the Silverlink train in a suit,” he says. “It is strange to see a commuter in this industrial wasteland.”
The legal lowdown
Planning laws concerning the renting of disused warehouses or factories for living spaces in London are hazy. As it stands, it is unlawful – but not illegal – to live in an industrial warehouse building without planning permission – something most boroughs in the capital are reluctant to approve.
However, there are exceptions. Some boroughs have in the past granted permission for residential use or mixed residential/employment use. “There was a period a few years ago when councils were quite sympathetic towards live/work proposals,” says Savills’ Roger Hepher. “That sympathy has waned, however, because much of the live/work space proved in practice to be used exclusively for living.”
There are, of course, loopholes. In cases where buildings have been used as a residence for a continual period of four years or more the tenants and landlords win immunity from council action, which is almost equivalent to having been granted planning permission.
There are also signs that the rules might be changing. Last year, the government introduced a permitted development right allowing landlords and tenants to convert office space into residential space with only limited planning restrictions. In the recent Budget, the government announced that similar measures would be introduced for the conversion of industrial and warehouse spaces. Detailed proposals, however, have yet to be made public.