Creative Lofts offers live–work units with minimalist loft styling: the kind of space that would appeal to graphic designers, photographers and other style-conscious small businesses. The town centre's long-derelict grade II-listed Mechanics Institution provided the raw material, and authentic loft looks for the scheme. Funding from such varied regeneration agencies as Huddersfield Pride, the European Union Creative Towns fund and Yorkshire Forward made the £2.2m conversion project possible. But ultimately, Places for People was taking the risk of finding 21 budding businesses that wanted to live where they worked.
In its favour was the fact that local art space the Media Centre was located next door and could help provide a suitable tenant base, as well as support facilities for Creative Lofts' tenants. Still, it took nearly five months to find takers for the unit's rented flats. "We were creating a bit of a market," says Dave Power, head of group policy and strategy at Places For People. "The market is really immature. We had to work quite hard and ended up marketing it as a lifestyle choice."
Now all 21 units are occupied. The one- and two-bedroom apartments range from 84-130 m2 in area and contain a kitchen and bathroom, with all the remaining space left open-plan so that residents choose how to organise their work and home space, and how big an area to allocate to each. Rents range from £115 to £150 a week – an average of £1.50 a square foot.
And are the tenants and their businesses thriving in this environment? Homes asked resident Deborah Munt.
The resident's view …
Deborah Munt runs a charity called OpenArt, which manages public art projects and runs creative thinking workshops. She liked the sound of Creative Lofts because her business partner had just moved on and she was looking for ways to manage her time more flexibly, softening the divide between work hours and home life.
"I had a separate office and living space before, and it didn't make sense," she says. "I took control of the situation and decided to live and work in the same space. There's more flexibility. I don't always work nine to five. This way I can take a day off during the week or work evenings or weekends."
But she knows when to switch off: "I have two phone lines, one for personal and one for business, so if the business one rings after hours I don't have to answer it if I don't want to."
Her partner also lives in the split-level open-plan flat, although like many locals he was sceptical about the concept. "As soon as we saw the space it won my partner over," Munt says. "Working around each other and having to concentrate and telling him to be quiet can be a problem. But it's great to be in the town centre and have a nice space to run a business from.
"I really like the way that there are four distinct areas, even though it's open-plan. I don't think I could have coped with just one big space. This way, if the office is messy then the sitting room doesn't have to be. I wanted to have my sofa area around the corner from the office area, so that I'm not watching television and seeing my desk in the background, reminding me of all the work that I'm not doing." And there is a seperate meeting room in the building for residents to use, so they don't have to invite business clients into their homes.
But the clean, modern design does have drawbacks: the biggest is storage. "This apartment has no storage whatsoever. Having come from one with lots of storage, it's been difficult. I've got stuff piled around." And she has had to give up her smelly oil paints.
Munt thinks parking facilities would be useful, and Places For People is negotiating with the council in the hope of acquiring more land locally. She also believes the kitchens should be bigger: "You can't really have two people in there at once," she explains.
But the space does leave room for her much-used punch-bag: "I couldn't really have something like that in a traditional office space, but it works really well in here."
Despite the flats' billing as an artistic community, she hasn't made many links so far and hopes that a stronger community spirit will emerge in the future. "I haven't really met anyone from the other flats," she says. "There isn't any mechanism for getting people together. As you come into the entrance way there's no sign of which organisations are in the building. The business side could be promoted a bit more – the fact that it's live–work space is what's unique about the building. There's the potential for businesses to link up and work together."
The developer's view …
The building's long-derelict state proved to be more of a problem than Places For People had anticipated.
"It needed so much money spending on it," says regional manager Helen Lupton. "The property was in a far worse state than we'd imagined and things we'd thought would be reuseable – like the stonework – weren't. Cost really was an issue."
Many of the walls that Places For People had hoped to keep were demolished, and the expense ate into a budget that was originally intended to be spent on trendy light fittings and radiators.
"We really wanted strengthened glass in the corridors to bring light down to the lower levels through the ceiling, but we had to make savings. And we wanted to convert the basement into car parking space."
Despite the slightly scaled-down nature of the project, the units have been greatly admired, with the open-plan mezzanine spaces in greatest demand.
"People love those, although I thought they might not be as popular," Helen says. "If we could have repeated that layout in all the flats then we'd have liked to do that. We find there's a hierarchy developing now; people in other units will ask for a mezzanine one; they put their names down for them, and they work their way up from the smaller units."
Lupton suspects the mezzanine unit's popularity is due to its versatility: "You're far more able to define your own space. You can live in the top bit and work downstairs, or vice versa, depending on what you prefer. People use it very flexibly, depending on how they want to work and how they divide their time up."
The flats have developed a quiet air of purpose and business, which Lupton says comes from their residents' focus on their jobs: "Everyone's very work-oriented within the building," she says. "They're highly motivated people, and that's what people like about it: that it's got a strong work focus. People often work right through the night to get jobs done," Lupton says. "It's about having an environment where it's quiet and appropriate for that."
She too expected the modern design to come as a shock to Huddersfield, but is pleased by the response. "I don't know whether Huddersfield was quite ready for it when we first opened our doors," she laughs.
Registered social landlord Places for People Contractor Turmerin Architect Brewster Bye