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Jane Hughes Writer, editor, yoga teacher

Women developers

Mail on Sunday, February 2006

The world of hard hats and construction sites has traditionally been a testosterone dominated domain. But a new breed of women developers is making inroads into this former bastion of masculinity. Not only are these women holding their own on the building site, they're also commercially adept at meeting the needs of London's fast growing number of female home buyers.

Take Bernadette Cunningham of Thornsett Group. At 35, she's the only woman director in a rapidly expanding niche property company. But her input has a significant influence on the design of Thornsett's developments. "More women than ever are single and financially independent and they're making major buying decisions about where they want to live," she says.

"Developers have often overlooked things that are important to women - such as storage space, safety and security. It's a real downer when you see a fantastic new flat with an ironing board and hoover propped against the hall wall because there is no tall cupboard storage."

To appeal to the female market, says Bernadette, Thornsett is putting a lot of thought into what women want. Plans for Charterhouse-Square, an upcoming London scheme of 174 flats in Clerkenwell, were adapted after she intervened.

"We've made sure that the approach to the building is well lit with no blind corners, and that the concierge office has a clear view of who is coming and going," she explains. The flats will all have tall, as well as standard, storage cupboards, while penthouses include useful extras like inbuilt shoe racks. Prices will start from around £249,000 for one bedroom.

Due to start in April, with completion 18 to 24 months later, Charterhouse-Square will also have commercial units and a cancer and cardiac research institute for three London hospitals.

Having grown up around building sites owned by Thornsett - originally a family firm founded by her uncles - Bernadette is used to the testosterone soaked atmosphere. "A lot of men on site assume that women don't know anything about construction - and you only change that by doing the job," she says.

"I get a lot of job satisfaction from seeing a building develop, and I think women bring another dimension to the industry." Men, she says, get excited by bricks and scaffolding and the moment when big machines appear on site. "They tend to focus more on construction, whereas women are good at getting down to the nitty gritty of what it will be like to live in a place."

Certainly central London developer Superna Sethi, 39, and her male business partner, Harjit Singh, have brought very different qualities to their highly successful Manhattan Properties company. Within their portfolio of exclusive one-off projects for rent or sale, Harjit focuses on the high tech, design side of things while Superna juggles between interiors and finance.

"We create homes that we would like to live in - and we're very hands on," says Superna. "I think most developers are quite masculine in their design and don't think about practicalities. A lot of kitchens in central London schemes - even the upmarket ones - are very small and poorly equipped."

In contrast, she says, Manhattan Properties focuses on the quality of space. For instance, the company's conversion of a flat in Lowndes Square, Knightsbridge, reduced the number of bedrooms from three to two larger ones.

Kitchens are generously proportioned, with islands and, often, plasma screens. Bathrooms are roomy, with large showers and fitted hairdryers. And fittings are "curvy, feminine and softer on the eye". "Our high earning women clients love this look - and men like it too," says Superna.

Having started out developing properties in Harrow and Wembley, she and Harjit moved into the central London market and today work on projects worth between £2.5million to £5.5million. They recently got planning permission to build the largest house in milionaire rich Gerrard's Cross, are expanding into America and have converted a warehouse in Hanger Lane as a showplace head office.

Anne Gaur, 27, moved into developing from buy to let, doing up her rental flats for sale. Later, she spent a year searching for the right property to develop for herself, settling on a split level Victorian conversion flat in Marylebone.

"It was in a pretty disgusting state," she says, "but the reward for taking it on was doing it up to my own spec, right down to the warm oak finishes and flush chrome light sockets." For Anne, it's this attention to detail that reveals the ‘woman's touch' in all her projects. "I can spend hours deciding on the right door handle, whereas a man would probably buy everything in the showroom," she says. "I think a lot about colour and import Travertine marble myself for the bathrooms."

Recently Anne converted a former guesthouse in Freeland Road, Ealing, into seven high spec flats. Prices for the four still available range from £275,000 to £415,000. Currently, she's completing the refurbishment of a five bedroom house in Chertsey Road, Twickenham, which takes its look very much from her own flat. Next up is a new build house in Marylebone, which will be exactly the sort of house she'd live in - if she could afford it.

"Developing is very much a man's world - and it was quite intimidating at first," she says. "But I enjoy it now and I've found that people do pay attention when I put my foot down."