Artists have been at the forefront of urban renewal for decades. In search of low-cost spaces to work, they often select places like dilapidated old warehouses or industrial buildings in marginal communities with low rents, room for living, and lots of space to create. More artists come, and restaurants, commercial, retail, and service businesses follow; residential projects are planned. Soon these deteriorated downtown areas and neglected urban cores are being revitalized, which prices those artists who led their rebirth right out of the market.

But now, local governments, developers, and nonprofits are all recognizing the contributions artists make to vibrant communities. As a result, live-work building projects are popping up across the nation. Architects are creating both homes and studios for artists in abandoned old structures as well as new buildings, at affordable rental rates. And demand for these projects is growing rapidly.

Quite a number of artist live-work projects are renovations of older structures of all types, from religious buildings to railroad stations, with the vast majority some type of industrial building having large windows. “Artists appreciate the history of these buildings. The spaces with high ceilings, brick interiors, and exposed ductwork inspire them,” says Paul Jankovitz of Paul Jankovitz Architects. “These old industrial buildings were usually built with load-bearing masonry exteriors and heavy timber construction for floor structures. Some have significant architectural elements; others are pedestrian but offer large flexible spaces, with low to moderate fit-up costs.”

There is not a single prototype floor plan for an artist’s live-work unit. However, there is almost a unanimous desire for open space with lots of light, according to Laurance Caulle, AIA, of Hickok Cole Architects. In a new building, the artists units can often be configured on one floor. “The artists want as much open space as possible, without walls,” he says. Yet local jurisdictions don’t always like that concept: “For a space labeled a bedroom, some localities require four walls and a closet.” His solution is to label the units as studio apartments rather than one-bedroom apartments. Caulle finds that, in addition to a modest living area, artists need about 100 square feet of unobstructed studio space.

“Budgets are always tight. That is when the architect’s creativity comes into play, to design the open spaces that artists want.” - Laurance Caulle, AIA

Sometimes in older buildings, the live-work units are designed on two levels, to feel like a townhouse. Often the cities encourage a retail edge, with art galleries, studio space, and craft shops on the first level and associated living space on the upper levels, finds Jankovitz. The goal is to make art more accessible to the community.

Whether new construction or an extensive rehab, artist live-work projects tend to have one thing in common, according to Caulle. “Budgets are always tight,” he says. “That is when the architect’s creativity comes into play, to design the open spaces that artists want.”

For example, in an open plan studio or one-bedroom apartment the artist is likely to need a good-sized sink for working, but there might not be room or budget available for it. “So you will need to rethink the sink,” Caulle says. The solution could be as simple as swapping out the kitchen sink for a mop sink, which would be in keeping with the industrial aesthetic of many artist live-work projects.

Typically, artist live-work buildings are inner city developments. Like most affordable housing, the success of these developments rests on their proximity to public transportation. Artists frequently seek out work and living space in dense urban areas to avoid commuting in traffic, along with the need for a car and the expense associated with owning it.

While these inner city developments tend to be whole building projects, Caulle points out that needn’t be the only approach. The live-work trend is steadily on the rise and offers unparalleled opportunities to revitalize long overlooked urban cores and create a new vitality and sense of place. “Artist live-work projects don’t have to be stand alone,” he says. “They should be part of a larger effort in the community.”

About the author: Elena Marcheso-Moreno writes about architecture and design from McLean, Virginia.

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