Conversions are all very well, but what about new-build, I hear you ask? All this recycling of existing buildings sounds very worthy, but surely it’s easier to build something new from scratch? Well, once you have planning permission granted and the foundations are in, then I’d probably agree with you. But two of the key challenges of new-build is the unknown quantity of going into the ground and the risk of NOT getting planning permission. All manner of horrors can be found lurking beneath the contractor’s spade, such as old wells, utility pipes, and unstable soil, and you only get to discover these problems once work commences. That coupled with the requirement for full planning permission makes new-build riskier in my book than converting an existing building under permitted development. In addition, digging the footings for a new-build is relatively straightforward when the weather is fine but not so great when it’s not. I’ll let you opine on how many guaranteed dry weeks there are in the English calendar, but it’s a moot point with a conversion project since the footings are already in place.
The final benefit of converting light industrial buildings lies in people’s inability to see past their ugly façade. Surely you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, they’ll think. I’m reminded of this argument each time I see the eye-watering cost of flats converted from the old wharf buildings on the Thames or the loft apartments in New York. A few generations ago, living in one of these buildings would have been unheard of, yet now they’re eminently desirable, with prices to match. Rather than try and mask their heritage, the developers have made a feature of it. I won’t pretend that the old printing works on Commercial Street has the same kerb-appeal as a wharf conversion overlooking Tower Bridge. But the same principle applies, and a good architect will not only be able to sort the external appearance; they’ll also be able to incorporate heritage design cues and features that add both interest and value. And when the competition is a bevy of uninspiring, lookalike flats, your more characterful, individual units will certainly gain an edge.
So, the next time you see an ugly, tired old light industrial building, try looking at it with a fresh pair of eyes. The ability to convert to residential using permitted development rights and a lack of competition make these buildings an attractive proposition, plus the small-scale nature of these projects make them ideal for the first-time developer. Not for the first time, as it turns out, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.