Diamonds Are Forever


When you’re searching for a new property, there are certain things you look for. Proximity to good schools, industrial fittings perhaps, a macabre history or the kind of exterior that could withstand a military assault? What are the real deal-breakers for you when you’re hunting for your home?

Increasingly a number of new properties are located in unique, architecturally significant and historically interesting buildings. Sites like The General in Bristol (originally a hospital), the former Normansfield site in Teddington, South West London (a residential centre for handicapped adults), a water tower in the former Lambeth Workhouse and Infirmary, a Cornish nuclear bunker, a Chelsea courthouse and the former HMP Canterbury have all been turned into homes, not to mention the monolithic Battersea power station, soon to house over 3,000 new addresses.

These new properties also tell a story of the changing landscape of Britain: as the economy has deindustrialised, warehouses and factories have been left empty; with the Care In The Community programme, large-scale asylums like Moorhaven on Dartmoor were seen as brutal relics and left to rot (it reopened as housing in 2001 with the grounds including tennis courts and croquet lawns); old, overcrowded jails are closing at a rate of three a year; and with the government still trying to balance the budget, mothballed buildings which can be sold to developers represent a significant saving to the exchequer (HMP Canterbury was sold for £7m in 2014, while Hackney’s Queen Elizabeth Children’s Hospital had been empty since 1996 before recently becoming the Mettle and Poise apartments).

There’s a lot to recommend these properties to buyers beyond the bragging rights that a one-off property confers. The Kennington Water Tower boasts the only 360 degree London wide view from its eighth floor ‘prospect room’. Designed to withstand mass use and often a dominating feature of a local landscape, they were constructed to extremely high standards – the Bristol General was built with italianate stonework and French renaissance rooftops and withstood heavy bombing during World War Two; Jonathan Mathys who redeveloped Moorhaven pointed out that many municipal buildings ‘were designed…by enlightened philanthropists and were sited in the best locations.’ Perhaps the ultimate example of robust building is the 3000 square-foot nuclear bunker built in Coswarth, Cornwall in 1978 for the South West Water Authority, which sold in April 2014 for £140,000. Certainly, subsidence is unlikely to be an issue with a home built to withstand Armageddon.

There are issues that buyers should be aware of. Many historically interesting buildings will be listed – not only does this restrict what you can do to them (both internally and externally) but you need written evidence that the seller has had full permission for everything they’ve already done to the property. In fact buyers in London will no doubt be aware of the large swathes of the capital listed as conservation areas (including about half of Fulham). There are also thousands of Grade 1 & 2 listed buildings across London (112 in Fulham alone - see infographic) and these have specific covenants that apply.

On the plus side, grants for repairs and VAT reductions for building work may be available for some listed properties, although the 2014 budget tightened up on these payments (the best source for information is the Listed Property Owners Club). Ideally, if you’re purchasing via a developer they will have dealt with these headaches for you, and the extra effort is ultimately worth it. After all ‘I live in a converted nuclear bunker’ is always going to sound more impressive than ‘I’ve got one of those new glass boxes by the train station.’