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Birmingham planners have conditionally relaxed their own recently adopted guidance, which stipulates a 50:50 floorspace split for live/work, for a new scheme in the city's historic Jewellery Quarter.
But Hannah Martyr, managing director of the development firm behind the conversion of 8-14 Hylton Street (pictured onsite above), warns the concession does not herald a change of heart by the planners, nor an imminent change of policy. 'It's a pilot scheme for them,' says Martyr. And for other more cautious developers too. 'There are a lot of people watching from the sidelines to see how Hylton Street goes.'
Viti's project will by early summer see the completion of six live/work apartments and two offices in a Grade II listed terrace now being converted from its former use as workshops for silversmith William Hasler, once supplier of silverware and jewellery to Liberty's in London.
Senior planning officer for local planning Diane Sampson said the building's listed status was key to the council flexing its guidance on live:work ratios. 'When Viti bought the building, it already had planning consent for live/work but they couldn't see how they could make the 50:50 split work without having to make a lot of alterations. They applied to us to vary or delete that condition.'
Hylton Street is Viti's first venture of this kind on Birmingham's property market. It follows months of intensive research into the expanding trend for homeworking, which persuaded Martyr and her two colleagues - all native Brummies - of the huge potential for live/work in Birmingham.
Martyr in particular would like to see it emulate the success of live/work in Brighton, where she spent her undergraduate years before working as an estate agent. 'Birmingham has some of the best universities in the country, but we're losing our skills and talent to cities like London, Leeds and Manchester,' she says.
'Brighton is now a live/work hub for artisans. But both there and in Tribeca [New York], the creative people led the market. We're hoping Hylton Street will be the catalyst for Birmingham, where the creative element of the market has been neglected.'
Viti's ambitions for the Jewellery Quarter chime with those of city planners, who declared it a conservation area in 1980. But many of the buildings, though beautiful, says Martyr, are also largely distinguished by buddleia growing through the windows. It's a lovely area,' she adds, 'but it has a neglected seaside town out-of-season feel. It seriously needs some tender loving care.'
The combination live/work can offer has an obvious appeal â€“ employment potential plus a residential presence outside traditional work hours. But Hylton Street is in the heart of the Jewellery Quarter - an area traditionally dominated by industrial or commercial use and where residential use is tightly controlled. Persuading the planners to allow flexible use of floorspace was a tough option but one Viti believed vital to making the units saleable.
'We realised that 50% would make the units very hard to market. For tax purposes that ratio would deemed a property mostly commercial, making the occupier liable for capital gains tax, VAT, business rates and probably two sets of bins,' says Martyr. 'Then we'd have to consider erecting new internal walls, which didn't sit well with a listed building, and it would marginalise the sort of creative people who'd like this building because of its natural light.'
A 50% ratio could have made it almost impossible for buyers to obtain residential mortgages, with lenders usually becoming unwilling to lend on these terms if workspace is above 40%. Commercial mortgages are usually over 15 not 25 years and typically have interest rates at least 2% higher.
At 50% Viti would also have been effectively determining how the occupants could use their own floor space, regardless of professional needs or preferences. 'We didn't want to make it difficult for people to work here, quite the opposite. So we've been very keen not to restrain usage. An IT consultant might want a fixed office for example, while a photographer might want to take a picture of a bunch of flowers one day then use an entire wall as a backdrop the next,' says Martyr.
'That was our issue with planning,' she says. 'We told them, "we don't want to use this as a Trojan horse for residential". We are committed to the idea of a vibrant urban village that matches the vision of the city planners.'
Hylton Street's transformation is slowly taking shape with the contractors now on the brink of fitting and installing the newer elements after months of stripping out â€“ '90 skiploads at the last count'.
The design of the units has been very much shaped by what the building allows, says Martyr. 'It's very quirky with lots of nooks and crannies, making the units a lot of fun. We fell in love with the charm and character of the building and wanted to retain that.'
Marketing is also in hand, determined by a section 106 agreement stating that the live/work units can only be marketed for live/work or business use. Martyr says: 'We are only talking to genuine small businesses or their employees. We've already turned down offers that were for pure residential.'
This tight marketing focus should ensure Viti can satisfy Birmingham's planners and legal department. Sampson notes the success of a housing association-led live/work development nearby. But here, she says, Keynote Regeneration is controlling work use through tenants' leases. 'We'll be controlling work use through the section 106. If there was a breach we would take enforcement action,' she adds.
If the first confirmed sale indicates the shape of things to come, the planners can relax. 'We've already sold one unit to a graphic design firm which is relocating from elsewhere in Birmingham,' says Martyr. 'They're bringing with them six jobs and plan to use it for 95% work. There'll just be a sofa bed so if anyone is working long hours or there's a function, they can stay over.'
And next up for Viti? 'We like to do more of the same,' says Martyr. But while space restrictions and the number of units at Hylton Street ruled out a hub or a dedicated area for occupants to socialise or combine their work skills, she'd like to see this incorporated in their next venture.
'I love the idea of a PR consultant living next to an IT consultant - one gets the other's story in the news and gets their website designed in return. We'd like to encourage that sense of interaction and inter-reliance in the community that used to be so familiar in the quarter,' she says. 'Developing business clusters makes a lot of sense.'
'At the end of the 18th century, there was still little separation between domestic and working life. This applied to almost all those who earned a living through trade and manufacture, from wealthy entrepreneurs such as Matthew Boulton with his house overlooking the Soho manufactory to the small master in his garret. This was true not just in Birmingham but in other working towns. There is good evidence that from the beginning many houses on the Newhall estate and on the Inge property beside it were built with warehouses, workshops and tenements at the rear or that these premises were constructed soon after.'
From the Jewellery Quarter conservation area character appraisal. Prepared by Donald Insall Associates and Weatherall Green & Smith, in association with Birmingham City Council, English Heritage and Advantage West Midlands
Birmingham's planning guidance on live/work
'The council will support the provision of live/work units as a component of mixed use development in the areas defined as the Golden Triangle and the Industrial Middle, where the ratio of living to working spaces does not exceed 50% of each unit.
;It is expected that a number of proposals will include live/work, defined for the purposes of this document as living and working accommodation combined within a single self-contained unit where the unit contains a defined working space with its own toilet and kitchen. Live/work is classified as sui generis and a change of use requires planning permission.'
Jewellery Quarter conservation area. Character appraisal and management plan - adopted as supplementary planning guidance, Birmingham City Council, January 2002
The scheme at a glance
8-14 Hylton Street, Hockley, Birmingham
Six loft-style live/work apartments and two offices over three floors in a Grade II listed former Liberty warehouse/workshops in Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter. Apartments have solid wood flooring, exposed brickwork and high ceilings.
Unique, character apartments in an up and coming conservation area, for start-up businesses wanting to determine their own work:live divide. All modern facilities in a Grade II listed building.
Flexible split but must be used in part to run a business. Units vary from 64.6m2 to 135m2
125 year leasehold
Due for completion May/June 2006
Hardwired for broadband, extra plug sockets, developer willing to meet special requirements, eg trunking, ceiling fans. Within close walking distance of shops, restaurants and bars, business district and convention centre, with good public transport links
Specialist estate agency, mailouts, magazine advertising, regional and national publicity, site banners, word of mouth
£1.5m bank loan
Call Maguire Jackson 0121 634 1520