I recently asked Thomas Dolan, the author of a comprehensive, new planning manifesto, Live-Work Planning and Design: Zero-Commute Housing (Wiley, 2012): “Why live-work?” He reversed my question, asking, “Why commute?” He then pointed out that anyone with a good Internet connection and a decent idea can compete with any business in the world from the comfort of home. “You can live the American dream: own your home and be your own boss. And one of the best ways to reduce your overhead is not to pay two rents.”
The ideal of zero-commute living underpins the concept of sustainable community, eliminating the time and energy wasted in traveling between homes that remain vacant all day and offices that remain vacant all night, according to Dolan. However, some attempts to develop live-work have yielded something less than the ideal, often transforming former industrial warehouses into economically segregated, upscale lifestyle lofts with few, if any, units actually used for earning a living, and few opportunities for human interaction within the building. What was missing in failed attempts to create live-work environments that actually work is something that can be found in Dolan’s book, namely a nuanced understanding of live-work as a land use, and a series of building types, combined with a clear path to successful implementation.
Dolan brings to the writing of this book on live-work housing the experience of his 30-year career designing, developing, and researching successful live-work environments. He was the first architect in the United States to design and construct a purposefully built live-work community, and he approaches live-work with the consummate vision of a theorist and a practitioner. His book begins with a brief history of our long relationship with the live-work environment, how modern zoning codes broke down this natural affiliation, and how it was reborn through the artist-inspired warehouse loft. Then Dolan goes much further than simply restating the litany of compelling and well-established arguments in favor of zero-commute neighborhoods; he gets specific and establishes a new vocabulary with which to differentiate and ultimately understand the many varieties of live-work environments, exploring each type, chapter by chapter, illustrating the specific elements that contribute to successful projects.
We have learned a lot from the failures, as well. For example, Dolan describes what occurred in San Francisco during the dot-com boom. “About 3,500 lofts were built, willy- nilly, all over the industrial areas of the city, often where no services existed for the people living in these dispersed developments. A reverse NIMBY problem arose, with new residents’ complaints driving out long-established businesses, and it was not a planning success,” said Dolan.
He advocates a considered approach that takes into account market realities and the overall needs of a city for services necessary to its functioning that should not be displaced, such as auto repair and light industry.
“Often, industrial areas are the first to be colonized for live-work. This is because the buildings in these areas offer great spaces for artists, who are essentially manufacturers. In their case, the work area is primary and the live portion incidental,” said Dolan. Such residents can relate to their neighbors, and no problems arise. Problems can arise when the SoHo cycle starts, as Dolan describes it, when the artists are followed by yuppies and displacement ensues, as noted above. “This works well for real estate speculators, but it is not always the best outcome for the community,” said Dolan. On the other hand, in an area with the potential for mixed use and ample services such as transit, the SoHo Cycle is a process that usually results in improvements and the creation of a new neighborhood. New live-work is also often present in greenfield new urbanist projects, too, in a form Dolan calls the “flexhouse.”
Dolan does not oppose lifestyle lofts and café-lined urban neighborhoods; on the contrary, he lives and works in one near San Francisco. But Dolan recognizes a spectrum of needs and states that some form of live-work is appropriate in all parts of a city. In the spirit of his belief that every citizen has the inalienable right to work where he or she lives, he provides guidelines for planning appropriate and highly flexible live-work environments ranging from home occupations, such as writers, through the typical, townhouse-style retail with residential above to inner-city, blue-collar incubators that serve those who need both housing and a functioning work space.
Dolan divides live-work into three main types:
Home Occupation: This type of arrangement is what most people think of when they hear the term “working at home.” The space is clearly a residence and may or may not contain a workspace, typically in the form of an office or a workshop. Reversion to commercial or work-only is not desirable here.
Live-Work: The use of the term live-work indicates that the quiet enjoyment expectations of the neighbors in the building or adjacent buildings take precedence over the work needs of the unit in question. Therefore, the predominant use of a live-work unit is residential, and commercial activity is a secondary use; employees and walk-in trade are not usually permitted.
Reversion to work-only or live-only may be acceptable, depending on surrounding users. Flexibility is the key to success in this type.
Work-Live: The term work-live means that the needs of the work component take precedence over the quiet enjoyment expectations of residents, in that there may be noise, odors, or other impacts, as well as employees, walk-in trade, or sales. The predominant use of a work-live unit is commercial or industrial.
Recognizing that working at home often means working alone and that isolation is a disadvantage, Dolan dedicates an entire chapter to a design he pioneered, the live-work courtyard community, an architectural arrangement inspired by Dolan’s experience living in an Italian-style compound, where all residents crossed paths as they came and went through a central courtyard, eventually creating much the same social cohesion that cohousing seeks to establish via common facilities. By applying some of the same architectural elements Dolan experienced in the compound to designing a live-work environment, namely attractive, common circulation areas that encourage repeated, casual interactions between neighbors, Dolan discovered that the social dividend develops in live-work courtyard communities, too: Working relationships develop and flourish naturally. “I have done a number of these projects, and I continue to believe it works almost like magic. The formal term for what we provide is semi-public open space. It provides security and also interaction. Informally, we call it ‘more than neighbors and less than family,’” said Dolan.
But there’s more to Dolan’s book than inspiration. Since zoning and building codes present some of the obstacles to live-work development, one of the most important chapters dissects every line of the 2009 International Building Code (IBC), Chapter 419, the first attempt to address live-work in a prescriptive manner. Dolan also provides a table of suggested changes and additions that would make for a more responsive and complete code that addresses the unique challenges of combining a commercial and residential environment under one roof. In an upcoming post, I will ask Dolan to review Chapter 419 of the 2012 IBC and tell us how it has improved, and what remains to achieve our goals for 2030.
You can read Dolan’s blog on work-live environments at Better! Cities & Towns: http://bettercities.net/news-opinion/blogs/Thomas%20Dolan.