Loft Living

Once strictly industrial spaces converted to housing in major urban areas, lofts are changing. They’re showing up in smaller cities, in new construction—and some of them even come with walls.

Photo: flickr.com

Who wants to live in one, big room? You might be surprised. The market for loft apartments remains steady and strong, even during real estate downturns. And while they’ve traditionally been located in major cities such as New York, Chicago;, Washington DC, and Atlanta, they’re also showing up in markets outside the nation’s urban cores. One of the newest rental options in York, PA, a city 40 miles outside of Baltimore, is Codo, a 1910 building that has been a grocery warehouse, a roller rink, and an auto parts warehouse over the years and now has two new, decidedly contemporary buildings, thanks to developers.

“The project just works,” says Bill Swartz, co-developer of Codo, which rented 23 of its 35 apartments in four weeks. “It’s a metaphor of what’s happening in York. There are new people coming here and new developers, taking this old town and making it relevant to a whole new generation.”

A Creative History
Loft apartments made their debut in the 1800s in Paris, where they were occupied by artists who saw the potential of old warehouses and other commercial buildings as places where they could live and work cheaply. The large, open spaces and high ceilings made it easy to set up a studio; the large windows let in an abundance of light; and there were no neighbors to bother as the artists worked through the night.

The U.S. “loft movement”—identified as such by its proponents—grew out of SoHo in New York, says John McIlwain, senior fellow for housing at the Urban Land Institute. Today, they’re an integral part of a renewed interest in urban living that’s been underway for several years, according to a recent study by the Environmental Protection Agency. “It’s a great way to reuse old buildings,” McIlwain says.

Changing Definitions
While a true loft is a warehouse or other commercial building that has been converted to residential space, today’s loft options include new construction, featuring the elements that define loft spaces, such as high ceilings, exposed pipes, and ductwork, and wood or concrete floors, says Tom Eubanks, editor-in-chief of Loft Life, a magazine devoted to the loft lifestyle. They also may be what is known as “soft lofts,” which have walls to define separate rooms in the unit.

“Lofts are becoming so popular as a housing choice,” says Kara Reinsel, editor of AOL Real Estate. “They fit in better with the urban way of life. I’ve heard of Baby Boomers who don’t want a big single family house anymore. They don’t want to take care of a yard and want to be able to walk to work.”

That was the case for McIlwain. He and his wife live in a 1,000-square-foot loft that is significantly smaller than their previous homes but feels much larger because of the 14-foot ceilings. At 65, he says they wanted to downsize. “I don’t want to rumble around in a big space,” he says. “It’s worked out well for us. We like the design, the sense of windows. Baby Boomers have matured enough to point where they appreciate the old as well as the new.”

They also like the diverse group of people in their neighborhood, which he describes as a “new, evolving part of Washington, DC. You’ve got young people, young professionals, artists, empty-nesters.”

Continued Popularity
There’s no data on the popularity of loft apartments specifically; they’re not categorized separately from traditional apartments or condominiums. Anecdotally, however, “there’s a whole lot of activity in lofts,” says staff vice president for research at the National Association of Home Builders, Gopal Ahluwalia. “It’s a big trend. Young people like them. I really don’t understand it; it takes more to heat and cool the space, but this is what we are observing.”

Kermit Baker, chief economist for the American Institute of Architects, says the interest is part of a larger trend of people moving back to the urban areas, close to jobs, activities, and a sense of community.

“There’s always a segment of the population that is looking for this,” he says. “There are some longer-term demographics behind this. We’ve got a lot of people entering the market who are 30 and younger; they’re not going to be looking for the big house in the suburbs right away. Their first choice will be rental or a condo, and if they don’t have children, an urban feel would be desirable. I don’t know if it’s a change in housing preferences; it’s just where we are in the business cycle.”

Real estate agent David Kean has lived in a loft in downtown Los Angeles for several years and can’t ever see himself moving. He’s close to all the downtown attractions and has great views and says his neighbors have essentially become his family. “I have so many good friends here,” he says. “It’s like living in Mayberry in a building.”

Pros and Cons of Loft Living
Like any housing option, lofts have their positives and negatives. Here are five of each to consider:

Pros:

  • Wide open spaces. You have infinite choices in how to arrange the space—and you can rearrange to your heart’s content.
  • Unique look. Lofts tend to be very unique, based on the building’s former use. You’ll have a look that no one else has.
  • Great light. Large windows are a hallmark of loft spaces.
  • Room to be bold. Large pieces of furniture and art that would overwhelm most rooms look great in a loft.
  • Convenience. Lofts typically are in downtown areas, close to jobs, services, and public transportation.

Cons:

  • Lack of storage. Many lofts don’t have closets, so you have to create your own.
  • Noise. Sound ricochets off the high ceilings and bare floors.
  • High ceilings. Changing light bulbs can be tricky with a 20-foot ceiling.
  • Energy costs. Heating and cooling can be more expensive than in a traditional apartment.
  • Dicey neighborhoods. Since lofts typically are former industrial spaces, crime may be a problem.