A while back, I got a solicitation from a local real estate agent whose client was ostensibly in the market for a "loft." The agent described her buyer’s ideal loft — apparently without irony — as having "at least two bedrooms, two baths, (and) 1,500-plus square feet."
I wondered why the agent bothered using the term "loft" when it sounded more like her client was really in the market for a huge condo apartment, if not a fair-sized house.
Webster defines loft as "an upper room or floor" or "one of the upper floors of a warehouse or business building, especially when not partitioned." The real estate and development industries, on the other hand, seem to define loft as "a chic new label that can be applied at will to a standard housing formula."
Initially, the entire point of developing lofts — and perhaps we should be precise and call them commercial or industrial lofts or live/work spaces — was to utilize America’s growing stock of disused but often architecturally praiseworthy commercial and industrial buildings.
Artists, musicians and other people seeking wide-open, rough-and-tumble interior spaces were the first to occupy such buildings, often illegally. They were soon followed by other independent-minded occupants of all kinds.
Despite staunch early resistance from staid city governments and code-thumping building departments, it soon became clear that intelligent rehabbing of nonresidential buildings for living made perfect sense: It put substantial and often ruggedly beautiful structures to good use instead of consigning them to the wreckers.
It offered inexpensive living space — initially, at least — along with unparalleled interior flexibility. And at the same time, it revitalized declining industrial areas by introducing a lively, round-the-clock population.
So, despite bureaucratic opposition by the usual suspects, the loft movement became tremendously successful. Too successful for its own good, alas: It wasn’t long before a certain stripe of developer learned to exploit the profit potential inherent in this formula while at the same time neatly circumventing the apparent annoyance of having to actually rehab old buildings.
Instead, they simply started erecting new ones and tarting them up in quasi-industrial costume. Corrugated siding, metal windows and a few exposed steel beams suddenly qualified a run-of-the-mill condo development as a "loft" or a "live-work" project.
Well, so what? Who cares what a building is called as long as it serves its purpose? You might as well ask the difference between apples and Apple Jacks. Calling an ordinary, new-from-the-ground-up condo development a "loft" simply plunders the most salable aspects of a valid and environmentally responsible concept without providing any of the social benefits in return.
Like the U.S. auto industry with its oxymoronic "hybrid SUV" offerings, developers who apply the term "loft" to otherwise unremarkable new projects kill two birds with one stone: They makes buyers — like that lady pining for a two-bedroom, two bath "loft" — feel warm and fuzzy about supporting the same old paradigm.
At the same time, they sidestep the bother and expense of genuine innovation, conveniently ignoring the fact that true lofts are a lifestyle, not just a label.
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