Christopher Eley says he routinely puts in 15-hour days at the gourmet meat market he has owned for two years. At the end of a day like that, the last thing the Indianapolis businessman wants to do is face a long drive home. And so he doesn’t.
Instead, Eley secures the doors to his shop, called Goose the Market, and treads upstairs to the 2,000-square-foot flat he owns.
"It has worked out really well," said Eley. "Obviously, I spend a lot of time at work, and this shortens the commute and saves on expenses. Plus, I was able to purchase the building, and most first-time business owners don’t have that opportunity."
Eley and his like-minded neighbors have embraced a movement in residential development known as "live/work," which typically combines a residence upstairs with a business at street level. Though just a few years ago it was solely the province of frugal artists who scraped by in a combined studio and apartment, the idea has expanded and has begun to attract a broad range of professionals.
"It harkens back to the idea of living over the store" that was popular many decades past, and is part of the broader revival in downtown living, said John McIlwain, a senior fellow at the Urban Land Institute, a development think tank in Washington, D.C. "It’s like doing rental over retail, only here you would own both units."
McIlwain acknowledges that, like the rest of the housing market, the live/work niche is not exactly booming.
"It will be more attractive when the market comes back, though, to small entrepreneurs or people who are accountants or have small businesses," he said.
Yet the concept is hardly dead — in the depths of the housing recession, developers have unveiled live/work projects across the country, from Los Angeles to Lowell, Mass., and from Honolulu to Huntsville, Ala.
In a nod to the times, some have switched the residential component to rental. And their offerings are not uniformly styled, McIlwain says.
"Some have a garage in back that can be (legally) converted into an office, (and) some think of it as an open space down and an apartment above," he said.
There are lots of variations, he said. "It’s more likely to be a kind of extra office space or convertible space," and some of the plans may be flexible enough to convert to a second residential space for a family member.
Eley’s downstairs neighbors in the five-unit Douglass Pointe Lofts project in Indianapolis are mostly retail, and they include a hair salon, a yoga studio, a personal trainer and two marketing firms. Four of the five business owners live upstairs, he said. …CONTINUED
But some developments will see a broader mix of uses, some of them personal.
"It’s been interesting, as people have come through, what people have in mind for the space," said Jessie Engel, project manager for Homes That Work, a seven-unit live/work project in Evanston, Ill., being developed by the Walter Talley Land Co.
"We have an artist who will be using it as a studio," she said. "We have a doctor who would use it as a personal home office. A woman who has a film company and an office in downtown Chicago is considering setting up her film business on the first floor and living above."
Eley said the physical proximity to home is a boon for him, although there are drawbacks sometimes.
"It’s hard to get away from the business," he said. "If the business is open and I try to take a day off, it’s difficult to get away.
"Regardless, had I lived above it or lived 20 miles away, I’d have to be very hands-on," he said. "Things still happen — you have to deal with equipment failures or employee issues. You’re never really off, as a business owner. This just makes it a bit easier to deal with."
The proliferation of home-based workers might bode well for the housing genre as the economy recovers. Pollster Mark Penn, in his recent book "Microtrends," estimated the number of Americans who work exclusively at home has blossomed from a relative handful in 1990 to 4.2 million now, with another 20 million doing it part time.
McIlwain said separate-but-connected live/work arrangements might become increasingly attractive as workers who have carved space from their homes’ spare bedrooms find their patience wearing thin from interruptions and distractions from family members. He speaks from first-hand knowledge, he says.
"My wife and I have come to a set of accommodations," he says, laughing. "Sometimes I put my hat on and she knows I am working and not to bother me. She sees me wearing the hat and she knows I’m ‘at the office’ " and not merely using the computer in a spare bedroom.
Even so, technology has expanded to the point that the next generation will reject even being tethered to the house.
"The next generation, it will be working from where you are," he said. "The echo boomers, with their BlackBerrys and their laptops, are beginning to work from Starbucks or at the park, so the static office is becoming less important.
"So perhaps builders shouldn’t be planning home offices so much as flex spaces" that can be used for office, bedroom or whatever the owner wants, said the development analyst. "The more flex you can have, the more people you can market it to."
Mary Umberger is a Chicago-based writer.
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