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November 23, 2010
How Architectural Character Can Add Value
London’s residential real estate market is clearly subject to some subjectivity. Two similarly equipped houses on the same street can sell at surprisingly different prices, leaving comparative spreadsheets in a smouldering heap. While lurking variables such as length of time on market and vendor’s desperation obviously contribute to this apparent irrationality, the architectural character of the building in question plays a large role. This hard-to-quantify desirability extends beyond simple appearances, and all aspects of a structure can make or break its character.
First, every building is constructed for a purpose. Some buyers today obsess over “purpose-built” developments because homes tend to operate well when they’re used for their intended function. But a building’s function is liable to change as the decades tick by, and character blossoms with adaptive reuse. Mews houses were constructed as stables, carriage houses, and servants’ quarters, and were originally meant to service the luxury homes they often hide behind. Today, of course, many mews houses have become chic, sophisticated places to live, showing a complete turn-around in function. Manhattan Loft Corporation (MLC), working exclusively in London, distinguished itself by carving residences out of formerly industrial spaces, in most cases using ultramodern styling to complement the heavy industrial character of the spaces. One of its earliest projects involved converting a print works warehouse into 25 apartments on Summers Street. The building’s enormous windows and high ceiling lend themselves perfectly to residential use, retaining character and inspiring demand. Some of MLC’s projects fetch upwards of £1500 per square foot. Demand for character has applied this rule to many former industrial buildings, especially in East London, and forced prices upwards.
Materials used in decor and construction similarly set a building apart. After all, who doesn’t love white stucco-fronted Italianesque homes flanking the nicest streets of South Kensington? Fabulous red brick mansion blocks in Mayfair similarly delight most buyers. Use of local materials can further brighten a building’s character. For example, London stock bricks made from Kentish yellow clay are unique to the Southeast and a standard in the Capital. Adorned with white trim and columns, the London stock homes along Courtfield Gardens elegantly rival their red brick neighbours’ character.
A building’s architect can further add to a its perceived character. In this case desirability varies widely with a buyer’s taste, so a correlation might not be crystal clear. For example, the super-sustainable development at Central St. Giles, which includes 109 residences, leaves many commoners scratching their heads. Famous Italian architect Renzo Piano is responsible for its questionable design and therefore it is revered in some circles. Do the simple shapes and odd colours of Central St. Giles add to its character? Yes. Will this character appeal to every home buyer? Certainly not. Rationality does not always define the degree of a building’s character, but famous architects provide a boost.
Time period of construction and an architect’s school of thought dictate the last key element of a home’s character: its style. Architectural style and its context often contribute the most. When compiling brochures for certain properties, selling agents often toss in phrases like “pre-war” or “Victorian-era” to capture this appeal. For instance, the uniformity of Holland Park’s white ornamental homes exudes beauty, class, and sophistication. Within a neighbourhood, consistency is often desirable, though a stark contrast can likewise charm. An ultra-modern home with walls of windows stands out among standard London homes, as shown by numerous examples along upper Earls Court Road and Campden Hill Road.
The character of a building remains one of those un-quantified factors in home buyers’ decisions. The desirability of a structure’s character is not always easy to predict, either, since personal taste is often the foundation. Next time a building catches your eye for one reason or another, look closely and think hard about its history and its context. Whatever its current state or use, the place could end up being part of the next hot thing—not unlike the mews next door.