One bright young practice resisted the lure of London to bring loft living to Birmingham. Now its gamble is beginning to pay off.
Loft living is something most people associate with London. But not for long, if Birmingham architect Bryant Priest Newman has its way. The practice has a knack for innovative tower block and factory conversions, turning them into desirable residences for people who want to live in the city centre.

"I suppose we like to see ourselves as urban pioneers," says partner Mark Bryant. "It's an exciting time to be working in Birmingham." Bryant, 30, Larry Priest, 38, and Mark Newman, 33, chose to stay in the city after studying at the University of Central England. "We did have a serious discussion about moving to London, but decided against it because you could end up being just one of many," says Bryant.

That was four years ago and the decision seems to have paid off. Bryant Priest Newman is the only Midlands practice listed in the Architecture Foundation's 1998 New Architects, which names more than 100 promising young practices in the UK.

The firm is based in a ramshackle Victorian house three miles outside the city centre in unfashionable Bearwood, but this has not hindered its progress. The trio have taken on three part-time architecture students to help with the rising workload, which includes a cricket school in Birmingham in conjunction with David Morley Architects and a competition-winning entry for an arts centre in Oswestry.

But it is loft conversions that have provided the firm's commercial success. It recently completed a £2.5m mixed-use conversion of a 1960s concrete high-rise in Newhall Street in the city centre. The 65 one- and two-bedroom Millennium Apartments, as the former BT office is now known, are selling well, with 10th-floor penthouses going for as much as £250 000.

Two or three years ago, such a scheme would have been unthinkable, but Birmingham's loft conversion market has taken off – even if some are not strictly lofts. Unlike Manchester and London, the city is not blessed with a plethora of disused factories and warehouses, so Bryant Priest Newman has looked to other types of building. "What we have got is a lot of ugly concrete buildings, which, as we've seen with Millennium Apartments, can actually be an asset," says Bryant. The practice has also worked on the conversion of some of the city centre's few warehouses, at Ludgate Hill and Sherborne Wharf near Brindleyplace.

City-centre apartments may be bringing new life to Birmingham, but, according to Bryant, the city has a long way to go to match Sweden's urban communities. Inspired by the community-focused designs of Stockholm-based architect Ralph Erskine, Bryant worked in Sweden after graduation.

In 1997, Bryant got to work with Erskine on a lottery competition entry for the Midland Arts Centre. The scheme was eventually awarded to Branson Coates, but, had Erskine's scheme won, the architect planned to open an office at the centre so that potential users could inspect the designs. Bryant was so impressed by this democratic way of working that his firm has adopted a similar system. "We learned that clients don't want a solution dropped on their lap; they want to work with a team," he says.