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High-end house buyers are now hiring one-stop designer-developers to ensure seamless project management – right down to the teaspoons in the kitchen drawers. By Catherine Moye.

October 27 2010
Catherine Moye

As with Hollywood stars, at one time a bit of nip and tuck was all that was considered necessary to update a home: a better kitchen, perhaps, and a smarter bathroom. Now, the equivalent of open-heart surgery is required. Purchasers of high-end houses commonly pay millions for beautiful homes that they reduce to rubble weeks later, when nothing is visible save a hole in the ground deep enough for the basement and sub basement required for a swimming pool and underground parking.

Such is the relish for fully bespoke contemporary homes among high-end buyers that many don’t so much look for a house as the plot on which one stands. Then they find the right interior designer to assess it. “It used to be that a surveyor gave his opinion on the property for the sale to go ahead,” says James Simpson, a partner at estate agent Knight Frank’s St John’s Wood office, north London. “Now the interior designer has to see it – and if they don’t like it, the sale will often fall through.”

In recent months Simpson has lost several sales because an interior designer couldn’t fulfil his client’s brief in a given house. “Things like the orientation or the flow of the property was deemed to be all wrong,” he says. “And nowadays the master bedroom suite is incredibly important: it has to have two dressing rooms and two bathrooms.”

Simpson reckons that around 50 per cent of buyers looking for houses upwards of £10m will already have an interior designer in tow. One client spent £25m doing up a house in Regent’s Park, London – slightly more than it cost to buy. This demand for bespoke homes custom-designed to a client’s specifications has led several designer-developers to offer a “one-stop shop” or “vertically integrated” home and lifestyle solution. Not only will the developer handle every aspect of the process from planning permission to destruction and rebuild, they will also deal with the landscaping and interior design – often right down to the type of teaspoons in the kitchen drawers.

Several developers also provide a warranty on the home and will continue to manage it after clients move in. For example, Harrison Varma, a niche developer in the Hampstead and Highgate areas of north London, employs a dedicated team of joiners, designers and project managers to create boutique homes from scratch. When the home is finished, the company continues to service and manage it.

“We do everything from changing the light bulbs to paying the utility bills, if that’s what’s required,” says managing director Anil Varma, who gives five-year warranties on all Harrison Varma homes.

Varma reckons that the surge in demand for homes that are either rebuilt fully bespoke, or gutted and rebuilt behind an existing shell, is due to a number of factors. First, the Victorian and Georgian layout of London’s larger homes, characterised by a warren of smaller rooms, is often at odds with high-end buyers’ demand for spacious, open-plan living. Second, the time-poor, cash-rich international businessman wants a home that is not just hassle-free but tailor-made to his needs.

“We have a Russian client right now who wants fibre-optic broadband links brought straight from the exchange into his house so that he can conduct meetings by video link-up,” says Varma. “He also wants stock-exchange information on screens in all his rooms.”

Above all, Varma reckons that the ideal of the “bespoke” has now shifted from items within the home such as furnishings and fitments to the very house itself. “The affirmation that one has ‘arrived’ is now about personalising everything, building something that is utterly unique,” he says.

Gideon Stone, managing director of Janine Stone architects and interior designers, agrees: “Those who can afford it want to go and establish something a bit more distinctive. They don’t want to copy anyone but to make their own statement, because there’s something inherently satisfying about being an original and first.”

Janine Stone’s 50-strong practice is the largest private turn-key service provider for residential property in Europe. Through its Residence service, the company will source a property with potential or land on which to build, having assessed the client’s desires in terms of location, accessibility and privacy. Lifestyles of each family member are carefully considered. For example, the team will find out who gets up first in the morning and design the bedroom so that one person can rise, go to the master bathroom or dressing room and out onto the terrace for coffee without disturbing their partner. Staff are also factored in: for example, can they transport food from the kitchen to the dining room or entertaining spaces quickly and without being noticed by guests?

A client in Cheshire, who bought a listed house that Janine Stone converted back into a single dwelling, wanted a 30,000ft leisure complex extension complete with bowling alley.

Other requirements have included an art gallery and wine and whisky cellars (Stone will source additions to both art and wine collections as part of the service). Walk-in humidors, a chapel, a Turkish hammam and hairdressing salons are all recent requests. “The process of designing something bespoke around an individual to tick all their boxes takes a lot of time and effort,” says Stone. “Every project is different. You have a lot more flexibility in country houses but we also do ambitious London projects, including one 15,000sq ft property with a motorised floor in the swimming pool that can be raised to serve as a large entertaining space.”

Much of Janine Stone’s work involves viewing properties prior to purchase to ascertain if a client’s wishes are achievable. “There is a constant need for the design team to be part and parcel of a building strategy, especially when there are large sums of money involved,” says Stone. “Sometimes it’s a case of a client wishing to combine, say, flat A with flat B, or to incorporate a mews house into another property. We tell them what they can achieve from the building point of view.”

Janine Stone can “future-proof” a house to suit changing needs over time, for example, by installing a lift. It will also maintain and manage a house under a separate arrangement.

As Simpson points out, a lot of luxury homes today are very high-tech, with complex Crestron systems (to integrate and control all the technology), Lutron lighting installations and entertainment systems. “Houses today have become like intelligent cars where you can no longer just check your own oil and water, you have to get someone to do that for you,” he says.

To put their own designer stamp on a home, clients will often consult several experts. But, rather like the England football team, however good a lawyer, architect, interior designer and landscape gardener may be individually, as a group their performance can often fall short. Using a one-stop designer-developer can be cheaper as well as more convenient and less stressful.

“Having one point of contact is cost-effective because it means that a designer can get far greater discounts from suppliers that he works with, often for many years,” says Martin Kemp, joint creative director of Candy & Candy. Despite having moved onto to larger projects, notably One Hyde Park, the firm has more private clients, especially in central London, than ever before. It charges a one-off interior-design and project-management fee; every other cost (eg, artwork, architects, contractors) comes with no mark-up. Among other projects, Candy & Candy is currently combining two mews houses in Mayfair for a young international client.

“He really wanted an impressive London bachelor pad, a very dramatic home in which to throw parties. Thus the floors are marble, not wood, to cope with stiletto heels,” says Kemp. The client also wanted a “champagne wall”, where 400 bottles of champagne could be chilled and illuminated together.

The huge influx of overseas buyers into central London, together with their special tastes and needs, is another key factor in the rise of the one-stop developer. According to Knight Frank’s 2010 prime central London price index, overseas buyers now account for over 50 per cent of all prime London residential purchases and 68 per cent in the £5m-plus sector. The number of different nationalities buying in central London grew from 30 in mid-2008 to 48 in mid-2009 and 51 by mid-2010. Most want something very different to the doll’s houses they find in the capital, even if they are listed properties set within the golden postcodes.

“In a house that I am finishing now for someone associated with the Bahraini royal family, the client wanted a very elaborate kitchen in the basement and a basic one upstairs,” says Blaze Stojanovski, founder of Blaze & Co high-end developers in Chelsea and Fulham. “They also wanted 12,000sq ft of food storage space and all the baths taken out because of space restrictions.”

Anna Burns and her banker husband Tosh are clients of Blaze. They decided to go the one-stop developer route after a frustrating house search in the Fulham and Chelsea area. “Many of the homes were of a more traditional character which did not suit our taste,” says Burns. “We were looking for something modern and spacious with good light. At the time this would not have been easy to find through conventional means. We felt it very important to have an open living space, which necessitated tearing down some of the walls and rooms in traditional London housing.”

The couple met Blaze, who already had a wealth of experience in many styles of restoration. “He understood our tastes and requirements and could work with us to design from a holistic point of view rather than in bits and pieces,” says Burns. The couple had a significant impact on the design of their property, making many structural changes – including tearing down walls and excavating a basement – as well as inputting on the kitchen design and the music system.

“He had contractors and other craftsmen at hand and could guide us through efficient and effective costing for the design,” says Burns. “The overall business proposition was important to him as well as us, so we had a common interest in achieving a satisfactory end result in a timely manner.”

With business empires being run, as much as families being raised, in today’s contemporary palazzi, owners understandably put a premium on their houses’ look, creature comforts and state-of-the-art gadgetry. Those who create such residences are becoming equally serious global players.