With its exposed brick, high ceilings, stripped-back floors and minimalist aesthetic, the archetypal trendy Manhattan apartment is often a warehouse conversion.
The trend for converting warehouses into dwellings has long since crossed the pond with developers seeing the pound signs in London’s rich industrial heritage.
The warehouse conversions we see in the capital today originated in a unique area in the heart of Manhattan: the Meat Packing District of New York.
With a history stretching back to the 1800s the district was primarily a residential area until 1884 – at the height of an economic boom – when it became a market district. Unlike in most neighbourhoods, where residential buildings were torn down, many industrial buildings were converted into commercial warehouses.
However, by the 1980s the industry was dead, leaving an abundance of abandoned warehouses.
Lacking any security they quickly became crime hotspots. But developers belatedly recognised the potential in New York’s industrial heritage, with exciting possibilities for businesses and housing in prime locations.
As cities become increasingly squeezed for space, people are getting bolder with the types of spaces they are willing to renovate. And many disused commercial buildings are in prime locations where the idea of new builds won’t always be entertained.
The urban revitalisation of recent years has been driven by the housing shortage and decline of manufacturing in advanced economies. For London in particular, the popularity of warehouse conversions has been on the rise, predominantly in the vast textile factories, granaries and breweries of East London.
“We have seen a growing demand from developers,” said Richard Sayer, senior commercial property consultant at KFH, “and this will increase as time goes by. Though there are conversion costs, there is still a considerable difference in values and you are almost doubling your money.”
Fuelled by changing interior design trends the more spacious open-plan living style has become desirable to modern buyers.
More and more buyers are opting for the industrial chic look, combining historic charm with contemporary style.
Lochie Rankin of estate agents Lichfields says “generally, a lot of the loft-style conversions you see now are actually office-residential schemes, of which there has been a glut over the past few years. The way offices are set up, they have very good ceiling heights once the suspended ceilings are removed, which creates a really voluminous feel,” he told City AM.
“This type of building is becoming more and more popular over here,” says James Barton, an associate with Knight Frank. “The quirkier spaces and stories behind these buildings are appealing to a certain buyer.”
Things to consider
Consent and planning
You will need to get detailed planning permission before you can start work. Many older buildings are listed so you might need listed building consent.
If the building is in a conservation area there will also be certain restrictions in place that prohibit alterations. This could be problematic as commercial buildings often lack the plumbing or conventional windows, walls and doors you would need in a residential dwelling.
As a general rule, planners do not like substantial changes to the outside of buildings – for example, you may be prevented from adding windows/doors or making alterations to cladding. In the most extreme cases there will be restrictions on permanent alterations inside the property to allow it to be changed back to its original use.
Make sure you have the building surveyed before you make a purchase. From this survey you can gauge how much money needs spending on the property and how much work will be involved, pre-empting any problems that may occur.
Watch out for
You should also be wary of issues such as lead paint, asbestos and faulty foundations as decontamination and reconstruction can be costly procedures.
Converting a commercial property may seem like the budding property developer’s dream, but it certainly requires a great deal of imagination, time and, most importantly, a flexible budget. Nevertheless, given the shortage of housing in cities across the UK, it’s anticipated that demand for warehouse conversions will only continue to grow – so why not jump on the bandwagon now?