Achieving the right work-life balance has always been something of a circus act and nowhere more so than in London, where the ratio of offices to homes has regularly teetered on a seesaw. Fortunately, for those now looking for somewhere delightful to live in the primest of prime locations, things are currently tilting in their favour.
“The transfer of office space for residential use has been a strong recent trend,” says Nick de Lotbiniere, founder of the London Planning Practice and a senior director at estate agents Savills. “In Westminster alone, about four million sq ft of office space has already been reallocated, with over two million more in the pipeline.”
This transition has had a particularly beneficial effect on what is available to buy in central London, which has seen the glamorous reclamation of such notable addresses as Belgravia’s Grosvenor Crescent (where a three-bedroom flat is currently available for £12.5m through Knight Frank), and Queen Anne’s Gate, overlooking St James’s Park, where Savills recently sold two Georgian houses for £5.5m and £10.75m.
Cornwall Terrace, a Grade I-listed neoclassical parade in Regent’s Park, has perhaps been the highlight of this release. Formerly the headquarters of property-development company British Land, it was bought in 2007 by Oakmayne, who magicked its higgledy-piggledy layout and workaday interior into a magnificent row of eight ultra-luxurious homes, with prices ranging from £25m to £40m. No 6, a five-storey, six-bedroom house, adorned with nine different types of marble, a £60,000 fireplace, a lift and walls finished in raw silk overlayed with platinum, sold last year for £39m.
There are both current and historic reasons for the realignment. First and foremost is the fact that much of central London’s office space was originally built as homes that were briefly seconded for commercial use in the 1940s and 1950s. “London had been so badly bombed during the second world war that local authorities granted temporary permission for their commercial use until new offices could be built,” says de Lotbiniere. “By and large, however, that permission ran out in 1990.”
This local-planning idiosyncrasy has, more recently, been reinforced on a national level by the government’s attempts to address a critical shortage of living space by encouraging more migration from office to residential countrywide. Fortunately, the movement has chimed with new ways of doing business. While the daily grind of the 9-5 was once conducted in a politely segregated fashion, with executives sheltered in a carefully guarded box and junior staff huddled in neat packs of three or four, most companies today are looking for large open-plan spaces to accommodate a communal way of working and a significantly more complex array of technology.
The economic climate has helped push the swing harder, as the value of central London office space has plunged well below what it would fetch if stylishly kitted out for domesticity. “In Mayfair, commercial property now sells for about £1,600 per sq ft,” says Lochie Rankin, director of prime central London search agents Lichfields. “As a refurbished house or flat, its value is in the region of £3,000 to £4,000 per sq ft.”
This imbalance has, in part, been created by the demands of a new class of wealthy homeowner able and willing to finance a lifestyle that many assumed had disappeared for ever half a century ago. “For a long time, the only people who were able to afford the upkeep of the grandest houses in Belgravia and Mayfair were embassies and businesses,” says Noel De Keyzer, head of the house department at Savills’ Sloane Square office. “Now, wealthy overseas buyers are not afraid of taking on a project where they can create a house to their own specifications.”
For this type of buyer, nothing could be more covetable than two of London’s most elegant townhouses, both located in Belgrave Square. From its construction in the 1820s and 1830s until the second world war, the square was one of London’s most impressive private addresses, its noble, stucco stretches occupied by aristocrats and plutocrats. No 17, where Edward VIII is said to have met his mistress, Mrs Dudley Ward, has been occupied by the Royal College of Physicians for the past 30 years. Now it is on the market for £40m, through Savills, as a private home. Further round the square is No 2, which was formerly occupied by the Hispanic and Luso Brazilian Council and has been sold for £30m for conversion into a six-bedroom, six‑reception deluxe dwelling.
For those with a more modest budget but equally inventive plans, Hathaways is currently marketing a former quantity surveyor’s office in Westminster’s Stafford Place, with planning permission to transform it into a three‑bedroom house (£5.2m).
The liberation of this commercial space is not just a happy planning accident, but very much part of a carefully laid scheme to re-energise the historic heartlands of central London’s elite living.
Grosvenor, the privately owned property company belonging to the Duke of Westminster and his family, owns substantial tranches of Mayfair and Belgravia. As far as it is concerned, long-term deliberation rather than a get-rich-quick philosophy has always been the correct approach. “We want to enhance the vitality of these areas and create great places to live, not merely extract the maximum value,” says Will Bax, the firm’s London portfolio director.
To ensure the mix in Grosvenor’s domain is as dynamic as possible, it has converted commercial space for residential letting as well as for sale. “People who rent flats tend to live in them and make a more robust contribution to the community,” says Bax. This year Grosvenor is releasing a number of former offices as one- and two‑bedroom flats (£1,000-£2,500 per week) in sought‑after Mount Street, opposite the now-legendary Scott’s restaurant. “We’re hoping to attract trendy and culturally engaged tenants,” Bax adds.
London’s traditional clubland, St James’s, which is partly overseen by the Crown Estate, has already witnessed just such an influx, and St James’s House, designed in 1905 by Norman Shaw and Ernest Newson as the headquarters of Alliance Assurance, has now been reborn as eight glamorous flats (from £20m through Christie’s International Real Estate), ideal for those who favour sweeping views of Pall Mall and visits to the Royal Academy.
Meanwhile, another landlord, Capco (Capital and Counties Properties) has gradually been transforming Covent Garden from a transient tourist honeypot into a more rooted, residential corner. “Over the past couple of years, we’ve developed two former office buildings around the piazza, and have created very generous, lateral apartments,” says Beverley Churchill, the firm’s brand director. “Local agents told us there was no demand for flats of this quality here, but we were pleased to find they were wrong.” The Russell, which launched in April 2013, achieved a sale value of £2,800 per sq ft.
Capco, like Grosvenor and the Crown Estate, has deliberately set out to make its patch livelier and more liveable, importing desirable “destination” brands, such as Chanel, Dior and Apple, and marbling the area with foodie delights, such as Godiva Chocolatier and American burger phenomenon Shake Shack. “Without turning our back on the tourists,” says Churchill, “we’re repositioning the area at ground level.”
The ripple effect can be seen south of the Strand, where Jackson-Stops & Staff is currently selling 11 sleek and contemporary apartments in a Grade II-listed building in Buckingham Street. Although the property started life in the 18th century as one of London’s first purpose-built apartment blocks, its most recent incarnation was as offices. Now, with interiors by Linley and prices for the two- and three-bedroom apartments anticipated to start from around £2m, all hint of its working past has been eradicated.
One undoubted advantage of former office space is that it frequently matches the architectural requirements favoured by modern buyers. “These buildings often offer large, lateral spaces with fabulous ceiling heights,” says Alex Michelin, co-owner of property developers Finchatton. “But of course, not all office blocks are equal. You wouldn’t, for example, want to buy on a busy road – you want somewhere that’s in a lovely place to live.”
Finchatton itself has recently become the development coordinator on just such a location, and transformation is set to begin on No 20 Grosvenor Square, a pre-war mansion block that long languished as the workplace of US government bureaucrats. In the coming years, it will once again house some of London’s most expansive and expensive apartments.
Those with no time to wait for a renaissance, however, might like to consider the penthouse at Trafalgar One, billed as the only residential building in London with a Trafalgar Square address. Here, the offices of the Canadian Pacific Railway – and more recently, a law firm – have already been reinvented as a dazzling four-bedroom duplex penthouse (£15.25m through Knight Frank) with views of Nelson’s Column and the National Gallery.
Savills’ de Lotbiniere predicts that other central London areas are equally well qualified for transformation. “Quite a lot of buildings north of Oxford Street would make beautiful and splendid houses,” he says, “and Bayswater has a mass of lovely stucco-clad hotels that are perfect for residential use.” Some have already spotted the potential, and Harrods Estates is set to launch seven loft‑like apartments carved from an art-deco-style former office building in Berners Street in Fitzrovia (two bedrooms from £1.86m).
“I think it’s a very positive trend for the city,” says de Lotbiniere. “The quality of what’s being built is fantastic and it’s bringing residential communities back into the heart of the capital.”
Definitely a swing in the right direction.