Thomas Dolan thinks that it’s smart to work in the same building that he lives in.
Paying twice as much as you need to in energy-related costs is just “silly and wasteful,” argues Dolan, an Oakland, Calif. architect who founded the nonprofit Live/Work Institute.
Although commuting to work has become a part of the American cultural landscape, recent sharp increases in the price of gasoline and other energy fuels now has many people who would have never considered living and working in the same space thinking seriously about doing just that. As a result, the demand for live/work space has begun to outrun the supply of buildings that can be remodeled to fit the needs of those who want to take advantage of the idea.
That could change soon, however, now that a growing number of developers are looking to create live-work spaces in suburban areas.
Experts say those looking to combine their work and living spaces under one roof should carefully consider their needs now that more options are becoming available to them.
While, on the surface, creating a live/work space seems like it shouldn’t be much more difficult than setting up a home office it is more complex than simply moving a desk and a computer into an empty room. A true live/work space takes one of two forms. It can be designed to support a commercial venture -- an office or a studio, for example -- within a residential setting. It may also, Dolan says, be a place where the reverse is true: A space designed as a commercial area – such as a former store or factory – that has been modified so that it also is a comfortable living space.
Unlike a home office, a true live/work space is not necessarily a quiet place with the kind of cozy privacy usually associated with a home. Depending upon the type of work you do, your live/work space could be noisy, filled with odors, have employees trooping through it or customers who wander through it when they show up to buy your products.
“It’s incredible the type of variety that you see with these living arrangements,” says Urban Institute researcher Maria Rosario Jackson. She and a co-worker studied how these sometimes-called “artists spaces” impact the community.
“Realtors know that anytime you have creative people moving into an area, it raises the energize the community,” she says.
The live/work concept goes back to the earliest days of human commerce, when shop owners lived above their stores and blacksmiths lived in small spaces behind their forges. The pendulum began swinging back in the 1960s and 1970s when artists began occupying former factory buildings left vacant by one economic downturn or another.
The owners of those buildings were stuck with aging buildings that they didn’t know what to do with before the artists came along.
“The artists loved the freight elevators, the tall ceilings, wide windows and the heavy floors,” Dolan says.
Not long after that, architects, lawyers, and entrepreneurs who liked those kinds of spaces for the same reasons came along. As computers and other technological tools became more sophisticated, corporate executives also started looking for ways to work from home.
The movement is now spreading outward from cities into the suburbs now that urban areas are built out. Many so-called “New Urbanist” projects are being designed to include live/work spaces.
Dolan says that, currently, live/work spaces work best for single people, young couples that have not yet started raising families, and empty nesters. Live/work spaces – and the communities that surround many of them – often aren’t as friendly to children as a traditional home can be, he says.
He expects that to change as more architects toy with novel concepts aimed at making a live/work space more family friendly.
They are aware of recent studies, including one by the Urban Institute, that have found these spaces can diversify low-income communities, increasing real estate values, and promote the development of what are known as “creative clusters.”
“Artist-space development has momentum, and this is a good time for the field to grow,” says Rosario Jackson.
The best live/work communities, Dolan says, allow for plenty of interaction since the greatest drawback of working at home is a sense of isolation that can cut into productivity.
Well-thought-out communities have common spaces that encourage casual interaction – places where it is comfortable to greet your neighbors and, perhaps, pause to chat for a few minutes before moving on.
Dolan likens the idea to meeting at the village well, a much friendlier concept than meeting at the water cooler in an office for a hurried conversation under the watchful eyes of managers.
People who are considering the live/work option should determine their goals before buying into the concept and then search for a development that meets them. They need also to learn about the rules of the community as not all types of work are allowed everywhere.
That aside, Dolan remains committed to the live/work concept.
The reason: “Leaving the house empty all day and leaving the office empty all night doesn’t make sense,” he says.
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