What is Loft Living? Understanding the unique features of a NYC Loft Residence

By Brian J. Pape, AIA, LEED-AP, LRES

New York loft living is a unique experience and it’s important to know a little history to appreciate what makes it special. Over 50 years ago, the industrial urbanscape of New York was going through disruptive, dramatic changes, as the many small businesses that had set up factories and warehouses within utilitarian buildings began to close or relocate to less expensive regions. The pattern that began after World War II continued until blocks of buildings stood empty of most activity, and streets became increasingly dangerous to traverse. Industrial lofts were dusty and drafty, spartan places up very steep flights of wooden, dimly-lit stairs. Shops and restaurants servicing the industrial workers disappeared along with the “sweatshops” creating some rather forsaken streets in Lower Manhattan.

Before long, “starving artists” decided to live and work there as illegal squatters, and then the Fire Department posted “A.I.R.” at street doors, to alert firefighters of potential Artists In Residence upstairs. When the city passed laws in 1971 to make it legal, certified artists and their landlords made it a little safer. Then all this creative energy started increasing property values, and labels were applied to SoHo, NoHo, NoLiTa, and TriBeCa neighborhoods, to attract the young and affluent, the hip and fashionistas.

Loft living is a special experience because it is a type of space that is quintessential to industrial buildings in New York City. Loft living apartments have one thing in common: Space, a quality both exhilarating and calming. Loft living offers historic character and history, uniquely apparent in each loft property.

Although a few lofts have corner exposures, which makes them rare and valuable finds, most lofts are in buildings with solid “party walls” on both sides, meaning only the front and back walls have windows for light and ventilation. Given the typical 25’ x 100’ lot that most of Manhattan was subdivided into, lofts typically have a long narrow floor plan, along with higher than average ceilings, with light streaming deep into rooms from over-sized windows. Adding to the industrial layout, there is often a freight elevator, sometimes right at the sidewalk wall.

It would be impossible to describe every variation of design to transform these industrial spaces into modern living environments, since almost every one is fitted for their individual owners. But let’s try to find some common elements of new residences.

Many lofts have enough vertical dimension to allow “mezzanines” within the main space. Ladders, spiral stairs, or even standard stairs are added for these extra spaces. Others may use the extra height to ‘hide’ new heating and air conditioning units in the dropped ceiling of halls or bathrooms, as well as add recessed lighting fixtures.

Finally, location of plumbing drains and supplies can dictate where bathrooms and kitchens are placed, unless owners and architects are willing to build raised floors to hide the drain lines to distant locations.

When you have generous dimensions in three directions, creative possibilities expand exponentially. That is the beauty of Loft Living! And the West Village is full of great loft living buildings.

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