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For the Love of ‘Loft’
By Any Name, It’s the Space That’s Hot

by Daniela Deane Washington Post staff writer

Everywhere you look these days, it seems there is another loft for sale. There are the Lofts at Adams Morgan, the Savoy Lofts in Silver Spring, the Terrace Lofts in Rosslyn, just to name a few now on the market.

Condominiums are not just condominiums anymore. Now they are all lofts.

But does that mean Washington is becoming a city of starving artists, a town where all of a sudden there is a wealth of huge, cheap, unheated places in old warehouse districts?

Far from it.

The lofts on the market now are by no means cheap. And they are mostly new construction, because little warehouse-type space is available for conversion in the Washington area.

So what is a loft? And are these new lofts really lofts?

Traditionally, a loft apartment was a large open space in what once was a warehouse or factory. They were home to artists in search of cheap studio space, often in neighborhoods with few, if any, other residents. The artists were then followed by yuppies looking for cool digs in up-and-coming neighborhoods. Think Tribeca in New York or South of Market in San Francisco.

The space is left raw and open, often with no walls to separate the living areas. In some lofts, even the bathrooms have no doors. Ductwork is left exposed, interior walls remain brick, and the ceilings are high and vaulted.

Few of the lofts in the Washington area fit that description, but that does no mean they are not nice condominiums. They often are. They are just not lofts in the New York sense....

...The reason there are not many true lofts in Washington, the way there are in New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Toronto and other North American cities, is because Washington has no significant industrial past. The District has always been more of a white-collar metropolis, a place established for the business of governing rather than manufacturing. Because of that, not many factories or warehouses were built here....

...The District’s Abdo Development is also planning a reuse loft project—20 lofts condominiums at the old Bryan School on Capitol Hill, built in 1906. “We’re going to keep the big classroom spaces,” said Jim Abdo, owner of the company. “Some of the living room-dining room-kitchens are going to be 32 feet long by 32 feet wide. You’re going to be able to play basketball in your living room.” Other loft-style condos in the area have also been carved out of former schools, such as the old Morgan School in Adams Morgan and the Carberry School on Capitol Hill....

...Builders say they have a tough time finding abandoned commercial buildings that lend themselves to conversion. “There are some building in the NoMa area [north of Massachusetts Avenue in Northwest Washington] and along the Navy Yard area, but not much else,” condo developer Abdo said.

So, most builders are just opting for new, and then imitating that raw industrial look. They expose duct and conduit work, leave concrete beams unpainted and brick walls exposed. They make railings and bridges out of steel framing. They make the kitchen, dining room and living room one large space. They install big windows, as large as nine feet by nine feet....

...But why all this sudden interest?

Washington developers say they took their cue from other cities in the United States, where people have been rehabbing lofts for years and building then new over the past four or five years since the real estate market heated up. In the District, building came to a virtual standstill in the mid-1990s and so the trend came later to the region.

“It took longer for the trend to get here, because it took a while for urban, downtown living to catch on here,” said developer Abdo....

...Developers say lofts were also a natural evolution the open-plan rooms they had been building for the past few years. Abdo Development was constructing condominiums with open-plan combination kitchen-living room-dining rooms before they moved onto lofts.

But although big open spaces are increasingly popular here, Washingtonians are still not prepared to go all the way, developers say....

Excerpts from "For the Love of 'Loft' By Any Name, It's the Space That's Hot" in Washington Post December 14, 2002