Beyond surface design, most people who want to live in lofts don’t give much consideration to construction standards in this uniquely urban form of housing. From a home inspector’s perspective, most of the same perks and problems that can arise in a new house or condo apply to these commercial spaces that have been converted to residential use. There are, however, some unique features in loft construction that make them a great choice for buyers.
Lofts are wide, open spaces. Most of our clients love the look and feel of the space when they purchase a loft condominium. From a construction point of view, the open area of a loft becomes easier and less expensive, in some ways, to build in than a residential home.
The heating and air conditioning systems, for instance, are readily accessible, with few “offset” bends to complicate the installation. The limited number of walls, especially those that run fully from floor to ceiling, provide fewer design and construction decisions to inhibit the contractor’s layout and technical efforts.
Depending on classification of the building by the city of Chicago, the loft owner will often receive a commercial grade heating and air conditioning system, which tends to perform better and with less maintenance than your typical residential installation. Simply stated, it is easier to run the system in an open space and the developer is required to use better quality materials. These are both good things for the consumer.
The electrician is presented with an easier installation typically, than he would find in an older apartment building with more walls and electrical outlets “fish taped” through them. Anyone reading this article who has shopped for a loft probably has seen gray or silver piping running along the ceiling or walls of a loft building connecting outlets or switches back to the main electrical panel. Just like the heating guy, the electrician has an open space to work with. Less fuss, less mess.
Like heating contractors, electricians prefer the ease of installation that surface-mounted electrical conduit provides. They are required to use a better grade of material to run wires than if they were working in an old building with many walls. Electricians generally spend more on materials for lofts, but as in most trades, the real dollar savings are found primarily in the labor. Here all parties benefit. The developer gets a less expensive installation, the electrician saves on labor and the homeowner gets a better, more adaptable electrical installation.
Historically, loft buildings were built as manufacturing centers. As such, they required significant amounts of fresh air to exhaust noxious fumes and to insure a reasonably healthy work environment. This is why loft buildings usually have large arrays of oversized windows. With the onset of residential use, we see another quality component emerging in the construction process, stronger windows.
You can’t put a flimsy window in a big opening. If you do, it tends to break under the gale force winds that define Chicago. It doesn’t always follow that bigger is better, but there are few residential window manufacturers who are in the commercial market. Commercial window frames are typically more robust than residential. The downside is that they tend to cost more.
Plumbing in a loft has similar advantages. Hundred-year-old factory buildings and those built with fire sprinkler systems required “super large” cold water mains. Manufacturers use large amounts of water for cleaning and cooling equipment and materials. The benefit for today’s loft buyer is that the water pressure tends to be good.
An interesting side bar here is that several loft or manufacturing buildings that were converted to residential dwellings have kept their rooftop water towers. Although they aren’t used as water receptacles, these towers sometimes provide a very real source of income as local telephone companies rent space. Some of these cells generate $600 to $800 a month in revenue for common expenses.
It’s true that some loft conversions, especially the earliest ones, have had problems with sound transmission in Chicago, but developers have used “floating floors” and lightweight concrete to solve the problem. And to say that the original floors are sturdy is a gross understatement. If they held ancient cast iron printing presses, they’re more than able for all the people, stereo equipment, home theaters and king sized waterbeds you can muster.
It’s pretty hard to find a residential building constructed more solid than a loft. This is good news for the developer and good news for the potential loft buyer. One downside to the structural component of loft buildings is that they are more often than not poorly detailed for sale at the building’s exterior masonry walls. Many loft buildings have been converted with almost no attention to the scarring effects of 100-plus years of winter on the exterior walls.
But lofts remain some of the city’s strongest and best built choices for prospective buyers. Aesthetically, they offer limitless options for interior design and unique space arrangements. The views of the city tend to be spectacular. There is always the potential for a large roof deck, and if your dining room set includes an antique printing press, you’re golden.
Thomas Corbett is president of Tomacor, Inc. a professional property consulting company specializing in commercial and residential property inspections and expert witness work.