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Jane Hughes Writer, editor, yoga teacher

Flexible living

Mail on Sunday, November 2005

With Londoners pushed for space, a new breed of flexible homes that kicks conventional notions of fixed living arrangements into touch is emerging. Developers and architects are introducing multifunctional layouts and space saving ideas in a bid for market advantage amongst buyers who have growing expectations of how their homes can work for them.

"Densities are increasing and flats are tending to get smaller so developers have to be cleverer in their use of space," says Richard Brindley, director of practice, at the Royal Institute of British Architects. "Coupled with that is the fact that people, schooled by television makeover programmes and interiors magazines, have high expectations about how their living environments can be configured."

What's more, he says, land and development costs are so high that it's comparatively cheap for developers to incorporate flexible ideas that may then become a major selling point. New technology, too, is encouraging the trend. For instance, it's now possible to run an electric current through a glass partition to change it from clear to opaque.

Increasing numbers of developers are introducing moveable wall panels and space saving ideas into their schemes. Berkeley Homes, for instance, offered sliding partition walls at the three bedroom flats at its Neville House scheme in Westminster and also at earlier phases of the 700-flat Chelsea Bridge Wharf development in Battersea.

At Chelsea Bridge Wharf, buyers can also order a £6,000 designer foldaway bed, where two smart shelving units can be revolved 180 degrees into the wall so that a single or double bed can be pulled down. Flats in Senses - the current phase, where prices start from £495,000 for two bedrooms - also have optional opaque glass dressing rooms angled into the master bedroom, and shower rooms that can double up as steam units. Additional space saving fixtures are available at other schemes, such as West 3 in Acton.

"Our aim is to create a mix of homes that will appeal to the broadest possible audience - from singles to downsizing couples - because we don't know for sure who is going to walk through the door," says divisional MD Paul Vallone. "The pull down beds are particularly popular with people who want to use their second bedroom as a study most of the time, but we've also built studios in other developments with beds above low height wardrobes."

More radical is the one-off apartment designed by architect Graham Philips at the futuristic Albion Riverside development in Battersea. Philips, who is chief executive of Fosters and Partners, the architects of the building, bought the smallest one bedroom unit, B44, off-plan.

With the Foster offices next door, he wanted to create a pied--terre and London base for his family without the limitations of a fixed layout. His solution was to dispense with static internal walls (aside from the bathroom) and make everything mobile.

Four sliding opaque glass screens fixed on ceiling runners and a mobile glass wall mounted on wheels allow him to reconfigure the space alternatively as a separate bedroom and reception, study, huge hotel style bedroom or grand dining room for 20 people.

The mobile wall even incorporates a 42 inch plasma screen and surround sound system that can be plugged into sockets built into the floor.

"My idea was that if you can't afford a really big, generous apartment in Albion Riverside, then why not use a relatively small space in different ways to make it as good as - if not better - than the larger units," says Philips, who has now put the flat on the market for £495,000. "It's very easy to organise - and good fun."

Elsewhere, Oakmayne's Wireworks scheme of 14 two bedroom flats, priced from £285,000, in Borough has foldaway beds, as well as sliding floor to ceiling panels. This gives residents the option of creating a completely open plan space or partition off sleeping and study areas.

Meanwhile in Islington, niche developer Colony Developments is building Colony Mews, four two bedroom mews houses and a live/work unit from £300,000. The architects in this scheme, which won a Housing Design Award and will be finished next year, removed all hallways and corridors in order to maximise the living and bedroom space. Thinking along similar lines, developer Modern City Living designed open living spaces encircling an "island" bathroom at The Spur, a small City project.

Social housing manager Ian Sier, 41, found the perfect solution to his dilemma of not wanting a one bedroom flat but not always needing two bedrooms when he bought a home in the newly completed Madison Apartments building in Borough four years ago. His flat came with a sliding opaque glass wall and pull down bed, allowing part of the living space to be divided off into a second bedroom. Although he's now selling the flat for £359,950, Ian says its flexibility has been incredibly useful. "I've tended to use the extra space as a dining area but having the option of a second bedroom has been great for when friends come to stay."