The Loft Goes Upscale and Suburban

They're not just for artists anymore. Lofts appeal to buyers of all ages and incomes, fueling rehabs in cities and new construction in the suburbs.

April 1, 2006

Lofts have come a long way from the days when they housed struggling artists in abandoned industrial buildings.

Authentic lofts — with their high ceilings, open spaces, and expansive windows — are fetching prime prices in former warehouse districts, while developers churn out new variations of the popular style in cities and suburbs across the country.

But as consumer demand for loft-style homes continues to soar, some observers say the modern versions aren't a true fit with the classic loft style. Purists question whether it's even accurate to call these new developments "lofts."

Renegade Beginnings

When manufacturers moved out of large cast-iron buildings in New York's SoHo district in the 1950s and 1960s, struggling artists moved in. At the time, the typical loft had 10-foot to 15-foot ceilings, thick plaster or brick walls, few or no interior doors and walls, cast-iron columns, and factory-size windows.

Artists found lofts to be affordable and exciting places to pursue their art while enjoying the urban life, say authors Marcus Field and Mark Irving in their book Lofts (Seuil, 1999). Unfortunately, living in lofts was against the law until 1975 because most city districts were zoned for either all-commercial or all-residential use, says Henry Smith-Miller, a New York-based architect who moved into a loft in 1971. "It was rare to have mixed use," he says. But for some people, the legal barriers only heightened lofts' appeal.

"There was a wonderful outlaw quality about living in these places," Smith-Miller says.

When city officials threatened eviction, artists responded with threats to boycott exhibiting their art in New York and go to other cities, says Smith-Miller.

The strategy worked, and over time more people — not just artists — flocked to lofts and in cities far beyond New York. "These were renegades who didn't want suburban living," says Smith-Miller.

From Edgy to Chic

As the loft movement gained momentum in the mid-to-late 1970s, the idea of how a loft should look evolved. The original "hard" lofts gave way to "soft" lofts with room-like divisions and softer ceilings, walls, and floors. The prices also climbed.

Interior decorations changed, too, from found objects and furnishings that many artists favored to elegant spaces with area rugs, swank furniture, high-end kitchens, and other status symbols of the day.

Smith-Miller attributes the loft's increased popularity in part to a spate of blockbuster movies set in lofts, including the gritty and dangerous "Fatal Attraction" (1987) in which Glen Close and Michael Douglas take a fateful elevator ride or the art-filled loft in "Unfaithful" (2002) where Diane Lane and her French lover Olivier Martinez rendezvoused.

These films and others, such as "Diva" (1981) and "Ghost" (1990), "transformed interiors all over the world," says Smith-Miller, who still lives and works with his artist/architect wife Laurie Hawkinson in a SoHo loft.

Modern Variations

Starting in the 1990s, architects and developers began to use the loft design as inspiration for new condominium and apartment buildings, and even for single-family houses in suburban neighborhoods.

Some purists scoff at these new imitators, saying the latest variations shouldn't be called lofts. Robin Diessner, CRS, broker-owner of Intero Real Estate Services in Scottsdale, Ariz., says that suburban lofts are really just condos with high ceilings. It would be more accurate to call these developments "clofts" or "londos," she says.

However, other architects and real estate professionals welcome the new additions — viewing them as a natural evolution of the loft style.

For instance, Smith-Miller's firm, Smith-Miller + Hawkinson, is building a project in Soho based on a loft scheme with big all-purpose living spaces at the front, bedrooms to the rear, and "no wasted corridors," he says. Elevators open directly to each unit.

"Who wants to go down a hallway and smell everyone's soup?" he says.

Some other examples of the loft aesthetic as inspiration include:

  • Stone Canyon, Las Vegas. Blue Heron, a home builder in Southern Nevada, offers luxury loft homes in its Stone Canyon gated community in West Las Vegas. Developer Tommy Isola pegs it as a lifestyle choice. "You can live in a neighborhood and come home to a loft," he says. What makes it a loft? Great room walls reach to "breathtaking" heights and most interior walls can be removed or shifted.
  • Tribute Lofts, Atlanta. InVision Group, a developer in Atlanta, is building the mixed-use Tribute Lofts in an urban location with the goal of recreating the feel of older lofts. The 147 units will have concrete floors, ceilings, and walls to simulate old warehouses but also will have a modernist architectural approach to appeal to "hip 25- to 45-year-old buyers," says principal Greg Wohl. The building also will be environmentally sustainable, he says.
  • Randolph Place, Chicago. MCZ Development Corp. in Chicago is adapting buildings to residential and mixed-use projects in several cities. Its 16-story Randolph Place development overlooking the Chicago River is a former warehouse that was converted in the late 1990s into loft condos, commercial space, and a parking garage. The company continues to do adaptive reuse when older properties are available for conversion and when there's demand, says MCZ Founder and President Michael Lerner. In cities where there isn't existing stock, the company builds new. In Miami, for instance, it built last year a 400-unit loft-style residence with exposed concrete floors and ceilings, ductwork, large windows, and open floor plan.
  • Vetro, Chicago. Architect Tom Roszak, with Roszak/ADC in Chicago is installing translucent interior walls and floor-to-ceiling windows to spread natural light in his new 31-story loft building in downtown Chicago. Loft styling includes 9-foot or 10-foot ceilings and a large open space with glass shoji-style screens to partition areas.
  • DUO, Atlanta. Developer Scott Leventhal is constructing DUO, a pair of condo buildings with a loft flavor in an historic downtown Atlanta area. The 80 homes will have loft-style metal-panel 10-foot-high ceilings to suggest an industrial space and open living-dining-kitchens that owners can partition. But they'll also have luxe amenities — granite countertops, stainless steel appliances, and hardwood floors — and features not usually associated with lofts, such as a fitness center, swimming pool, and dog walk.

What to Look for in a Loft

If clients say they want a loft-style home, find out what features are most appealing to them. Would they consider a new development with an open floor plan and big windows, or do they have their heart set on a traditional warehouse conversion?

Here are some features that architects, developers, and real estate professionals say buyers should look for in a loft:

  • Authentic 19th-century materials. "I like the idea of using hardwood for floors, brick or plaster for walls, and real tin for ceilings rather than ersatz materials," says Smith-Miller. But he adds that modern living requires certain accommodations that didn't come with original lofts, such as ample storage and energy-efficient windows.
  • High ceilings, few walls. Ken Wolfson, owner of Wolfson Lofts, a development company in Las Vegas, says well-executed lofts have high ceilings and few walls "if any."
  • Good location and floor plan. Broker Payman Emanian of Premier Realty in Pasadena, Calif., who has seen lofts take off in his city's downtown and in Los Angeles, says the positive characteristics of other home styles are the key for a good loft, too, such as good location, good construction, and a "wide-open" floor plan.
  • Quiet. Because high ceilings, hard floors, and big windows in downtown lofts can make interior spaces noisy, Diessner says buyers should look for surfaces that absorb sounds. Smith-Miller says wood ceilings, unfinished brick, and natural stucco all fit that category. One material that doesn't soften the sound is painted stucco, she explains. Putting rugs down on the floor or tapestries on walls also will help.

Learn More

Finding Success in the Condo Craze
(REALTOR® Magazine Online, February 2006) No longer just a cheaper alternative to the single-family home or a retirement option for boomers, today's condo market is filled with an ever-expanding array of options. Loft Dwellers
One of the best things about loft living is the large open space. Unfortunately, all that space can be a little overwhelming when it comes to decorating.

Barbara Ballinger

Barbara Ballinger is a freelance writer and the author of several books on real estate, architecture, and remodeling, including The Kitchen Bible: Designing the Perfect Culinary Space (Images Publishing, 2014). Barbara’s most recent book is The Garden Bible: Designing Your Perfect Outdoor Space, co-authored with Michael Glassman (Images, 2015).


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