This Issue
 
The micro loft concept transforms old buildings into cutting-edge urban dwellings.

WRITTEN BY Holly Grosvenor, AIA

Many architects have made great strides in changing social environments by matching old buildings with new uses and altering assumptions about how we live.

The top two floors are reserved for micro lofts, while the street level contains a pedestrian walkway and shops. These units are energy efficient because they are small and easy to heat and cool—and also use natural light.

The top two floors are reserved for micro lofts, while the street level contains a pedestrian walkway and shops. These units are energy efficient because they are small and easy to heat and cool—and also use natural light.

The uncelebrated everyday building stock that occupies acres of urban land throughout the country has often been considered outdated and too expensive to upgrade, and their present-day fate is frequently the wrecking ball.

 

However, there is good news for these “buildings-from-a-different-era.” These buildings hold intrinsic value as effective agents of carbon reduction. And although preservation has at times been an uphill battle, micro lofts are one example of a successful marriage between a new purpose and an old structure. More than the sum of its parts, this type of development not only enhances the use of a renovated building but also inspires revitalization of inner cities.

 

The term micro loft refers to a small living space—600 square feet or under—complete with all the elements of an apartment: a living space, kitchen, bath, and bedroom. As an example, the Arcade, the recently completed project in Providence, Rhode Island, has 48 micro loft units ranging in size from 225 to 600 square feet. The majority are simply furnished with a single chair. All other furniture is built into the unit in the manner of a ship’s cabin, including a Murphy bed. Most importantly, micro lofts provide an affordable place to live and are ideal for students, individual residents, young couples, and remote employees. Another important factor: Micro lofts offer a sense of ownership and participation in the local neighborhood. A bustling commercial center provides balance to the small quarters—a key component for the project’s success.

 

Many mixed-use micro loft projects are inherently energy efficient. Micro loft developments are often situated in older buildings, the reuse of which requires no demolition and rebuilding or construction of infrastructure. They are also typically located in urban areas complete with access to public transportation. High-density living reduces the use of cars and fuel as the residents can walk or bicycle the convenient distance to stores, classrooms, and offices. The Arcade includes Providence’s first bicycle garage.

 

Under the glow of a large glass skylight, the micro lofts at the Arcade are within walking distance of restaurants, entertainment, and shopping. Originally designed by Russell Warren in 1828 as an interior pedestrian street, the historic building was the first three-story “atrium style” commercial center built in the country before the age of public elevators. The upper tiers of the building were accessed by exterior stairways.

The Providence Arcade is probably the single most important example of commercial architecture in Providence, and a building of national significance. The reopening of the Arcade is a monumental, much–longed for occasion, and a great gift to the residents of the city.

– James Hall, director of the Providence Preservation Society

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The reopening of the Arcade is an exciting development for Providence. This project breathes new life into America’s oldest indoor mall and one of our city’s most historically significant buildings, with a mix of retail, restaurants, and affordable housing for young professionals in the heart of downtown Providence.

– Angel Taveras, Mayor of Providence

Kitchen with nearly full-sized refrigerator, sink, dishwasher and microwave.

Kitchen with nearly full-sized refrigerator, sink, dishwasher and microwave

The conversion takes advantage of privacy in the upper levels and allows the residents to have a relationship with the public street and businesses below. The resulting community of private and public space bustles with activity. With card key access to shared walkways above the public way, the Arcade residents live in a new kind of urban dimension, one of autonomy with a shared sense of participation in the larger city.

 

The micro lofts range in size between 250 and 600 square feet. Each dwelling offers a kitchen, full bath, sitting area, and bedroom. Built-in beds and shelving offer space-saving techniques.

The micro lofts range in size between 250 and 600 square feet. Each dwelling offers a kitchen, full bath, sitting area, and bedroom. Built-in beds and shelving offer space-saving techniques.

The apartments are small by any definition, and apart from the low rent, it might be considered a hardship to live with such restrictions on space. Windows on the outside walls for each unit serve to relieve the closeness of the space, and the daylit atrium brightens the living space, making it feel bigger than the containing walls. The challenge to micro loft residents is to embrace the new concept and the significant change in lifestyle. And if actions speak more than words, the long waiting list to occupy the 48 units is proof that the interest is high and the future bright for this new concept.

 

New structures that are designed to be energy efficient typically outperform old structures because they leverage modern technology, materials, and strategies from the outset. On the other hand, the “make new” approach faces a dilemma of net energy return. New construction of any kind requires energy and resources. Estimates show that it takes between 20 and 60 years for a new, energy-efficient home to offset the same amount of energy that was expended during construction, according to an entity called the Preservation Green Lab funded by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. From this theoretical perspective of measuring total global energy, it is understood that it takes energy to become efficient. Or does it? There may be other ways to build a more energy-efficient lifestyle that would net a more positive result.

 

One tactic to reduce energy usage in existing buildings is to upgrade various elements, like a home’s insulation. Through this approach, bit by bit, a building can gradually reach the goal of overall efficiency without undergoing radical change.

 

The market for preservation through repurposing requires human energy to succeed—and the creation of this new paradigm needs design talent sensitive to the local community and market-wise tenacity for success. A creative approach to promote re-use and preservation of existing buildings might make all the difference in achieving an energy-efficient future—and the micro lofts at the Arcade do just that.

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