Chicago lofts: Is loft condo design stylish or 'super crappy' in recent developments?

Not to beat a dead loft, but Paulj’s comment on an earlier loft post got us thinking about the state of Chicago loft design:

The structure and the windows / openings will never be dated. The Chicago “loft look” is very dated. Who wants to look at ductwork? Radiant heat flooring would be a wonderful option allowing for stone floors, polished concrete…. Too many developers with horrendous taste in this town. The interiors in all but a select group of buildings are amateur and super crappy.

By way of a response…I’m not an architect or an engineer (as I think Paul may be), but it seems to me that radiant floor heating migh present challenges for developments where units often have ceiling heights of 12 to 18 feet. Getting adequate, even heat in these spaces can be tough with forced-air heating too, but at the best projects, loft developers seem to have risen to this challenge, just as they have with the issues of sound transmission, spalling, etc. (If you can shed more light on the heating issue, either as a loft owner or as a pro, please click on “Comments” below.)

Van Buren LoftsBut the real issue here seems to be an aesthetic one. Most true Chicago lofts are big, muscular spaces that embrace their industrial roots. My own take is that while you’re busy hiding the exposed ductwork, why not cover up the heavy timber beams that reveal unsightly structure? Why not find a way to disguise those garish concrete columns and cover the rough brick with drywall?

Mostly because you’d be stripping the space of all character. If you have such urges, lofts probably aren’t for you.

I’ve seen some terrible lofts in Chicago, but more often than not, they tend to be fun, interesting spaces precisely because they eschew the vanilla-box standards and finishes of conventional condos.

As to the question of who wants to look at ductwork (that is, who wants to live in a Chicago-style loft, since most do have exposed ductwork)…Early this year, I counted 38 loft condo developments on the market totalling several thousand units. Most of those units were reserved, under contract or closed.

For the first time, we now see lofts in neighborhoods ranging from North Kenwood-Oakland to Avondale, and from Rogers Park to McKinley Park. New construction – everything from townhouses to high-rises – has been imitating loft style, and sometimes pretending to be lofts in its marketing, for many years now. It’s not unusual for brand new developments to have not only exposed ductwork, but also exposed concrete ceilings, partial-height walls and other lofty features.

Here’s a glimpse at a few current loft developments. What do you think – dated and “super crappy,” timeless and stylish, somewhere in between?

Lofts at River East Art Center Lofts at 2100

Olympic Lofts Prairie District Lofts


  • UptownR 11 years

    Radiant floor heating is probably the most space-efficient system available. The issue is cost and unions. The unions in Chicago have made it very difficult to do anything that isn’t the standard duct/VAV box HVAC system. Also, radiant floors would be cost prohibitive in most buildings.

    I personally don’t like the look of exposed ductwork–unless they have done something spectacular with custom high-end work–but I can’t deny that loft condos remain quite popular in Chicago. And with 12′-18′ floor-to-floor, there is definitely room to spare.

  • Stokes 11 years

    40 yrs old = anti exposed ductwork

  • paulj 11 years

    exposed ductwork = accountant who thinks he is hip

  • paulj 11 years

    Do You Live in a McLoft?

    If you can empty your dishwasher from the sofa in your livingroondiningroomcombo, you live in a McLoft.

    If you can’t hear the wall-mounted plasma over the the McFireplace due to the noise from the stackable WD and HVAC, you live in a McLoft.

    If the sloshing pipes over your bed contain your neighbors feces, you live in a McLoft.

    If you have a shiny spiral habitrail of ducts darting to and fro, you live in a McLoft.

    The list goes on and on…

  • Stokes 11 years

    And if you live in a vanilla box of soffits you live in an assisted living home…

  • Sam 11 years

    Seriously Paulj – we all know you suffer from an acute lack of design taste. Your stated highly ludicrous list of the most “luxurious” recent high-rises in the city are a testament to your fuddy-duddy Parisian tendencies…..

    While I’m no huge fan of exposed duct work per se, your continuous negative harping on the issue – to a level of near-fetish-like obsession – may yet turn me into a major fan, ie if you find it distasteful, there must be a certain amount of aesthetic merit! Buy some taste cheif, or better yet, move back to Paris – bientôt!!

  • Jeff 11 years

    Dated – this is too easy. I bet $100 that I can easily guess the developer of the bottom photo. How can you market something like that? The same developer that, instead of restoring 4’x4′ marble panels in the front of a loft building, puts steel plates in the missing ones, thinking no one will notice.

    I have to give credit to the Near West & West Loop loft builders & developers, who seem to go the extra mile to not only restore, but then put some nice architectural touches on their buildings. For example, drove by the Odyssey Lofts, near Greektown; they are going to town on that place. In the South Loop, the same developers would have sold it as is, minimal restoration, no character or imagination, and would have made it look like the last picture above. Then the facade would have crumbled!

  • paulj 11 years

    Sam, easy there big fella. Have another sausage and watch a rerun of da bears.

  • Jeff 11 years

    paulj – you guessed wrong. Sam is playing for the other team!

  • Jane 11 years

    To summarize: not all lofts are the same. Some are well designed and stylish, while others are poor imitations. I think you could say this about every type of housing. And as a general rule, the more mass-produced something is, the lower the quality.

  • Local Realtor 11 years

    The question is: “True Loft” or “Soft Loft.” As I have understood it, a “True” loft has an artsy, edgy feel to it, as expressed by exposed ducts, brick walls, open walls demarcating sleeping areas, etc. On the other hand a “Soft Loft” may have high ceilings, hardwood floors, open floor plan, etc., but the bedrooms are separated from the living room by floor-to-ceiling walls, the pipes are not exposed, and the floors may even be carpeted.

  • UptownR 11 years

    As I understand it, a “soft loft” is any loft space touched by a developer to include the comforts of home you would find in a typical condo, including some walled off areas. A “true loft” is raw space that is not partitioned off, and is probably re-habbed by an individual “homeowner”.

  • UptownR 11 years

    Here’s an interesting “soft loft” in Greektown where the owner did something a bit more modern with the space… It’s definitely not for everyone with the all white modern look, but it’s a step above what you usually see design-wise. The ducts are sort of “hidden” by painting them white to match the ceiling.

  • Mike D 11 years


  • Radiant Fan 11 years

    Radiant heating has nothing to do with unions and everything to do with air conditioning. The ducts are needed for air central air conditioning which is a necessity for the most part. Two separate systems would be redundant and expensive – the alternative with be through the wall units…

  • UptownR 11 years

    You can run chilled water through a radiant slab system and it does provide some air conditioning–it’s just not as efficient as a forced air system. You see it in Europe, but they have a lower expectation for air conditioning. It would be a hard sell here. There’s also the issue of ventillation.

  • RavenswoodJ 11 years

    I tend to see “hard loft” the same way. The present-day usage by developers has really obscured the true usage of the word. (And who sells hard lofts, anyway?)

  • kendra 5 years

    Personally I LOVE Chicago’s lofts!!! In fact, I have looked at condos in other cities and I think THEIR lofts look like crap! Chicago’s lofts look like they actually have character and style. Anyone can paint a vanilla box, if I am laying down a 500 mortgage for a place, it better LOOK like it’s worth it.