(Editors Note: David Nieman and the Seattle-based Neiman Taber Architects Design Team have graciously provided us with an inside look at how new live-work housing gets built. It is a model for other cities.)
In early December, we crossed an important threshold, leasing up our last renaming apartment as well as signing up an arts non-profit for our commercial space. That milestone represents the completion of a four year effort to design and develop The Roost, a first-of-its-kind artist’s live work micro-housing development.
The Roost has 33 units with 34 residents, 7 dogs, 2 cats, and is home to about two dozen working artists. Our residents share kitchens, living, dining, co-working and laundry rooms. Nine of our residents live in units that are subsidized through Seattle’s MFTE program, capping their rent at $702/mo. The market-rate units rent for an average of around $1200/mo.
The Roost is also the new home of Amplifier, a non-profit media lab that helps connect artists with social change movements to design, produce, and distribute art and media that helps those movements to reach a wider audience. Bringing Amplifier to The Roost is the culmination of a years-long effort with Seattle’s Office of Arts and Culture to identify a non-profit arts institution whose activities would provide interest and inspiration to our tenants. We hope this collaboration it can serve as a model for how new development can help support arts and cultural institutions in Seattle
It has been a lot of work getting to this point, and we were at times uncertain if we would be able to pull it off. Having finally crossed the finish line, its worth taking a moment to reflect on what we have accomplished and to share some of the things we learned along the way.
Four years ago (November 2014) we purchased a 4000 sf lot near the future Rainier Light Rail Station with the intent of developing first micro-housing project. Our starting point was the community micro-housing model that we first conceived for projects like the Yobi. These early projects paired compact, affordable private sleeping rooms with generous common areas arranged to promote chance interaction and help build community among the residents. We aimed to push this form of housing beyond its utilitarian roots, improve the general design quality, and explore the unique opportunities and challenges inherent where people live in community with one another. We described this effort as Microhousing 2.0.
Could we design housing that helped build friendships, social capital, and quality of life? Our first intuition was that we might be more successful if we could assemble a group of residents that shared some common interests and/or challenges. So we looked around the neighborhood and tried to imagine what a natural resident cohort might look like. With projects like Hiawatha Artspace next door, Pratt Art Institute nearby, and work spaces like Inscape and Rainier Oven within a short walk, we saw a natural opportunity to create artist’s housing that could have a symbiotic relationship with these exiting arts institutions.
At the time, Artspace had 150 rooms available in Seattle with over 1000 artists on a waiting list. Projects like Artspace are an important but scare resource, accessible only to those patient and lucky enough to get a spot. We saw an opportunity to create a market-rate analogue to Artspace’s non-profit development model – aimed at helping the same group of people but with a solution shaped by the toolkit that we have at hand. Artspace provides large generous units to its residents, charges its commercial tenants market rate, achieves affordability through federal tax subsidies and insures those subsidies benefit artists by screening applicants through a portfolio review. The Roost, by contrast, would achieve affordability through space efficiency and shared resources. We would use conventional private financing, charge market rate for our rooms, and use Seattle’s MFTE program to achieve a deeper level of affordability. We would provide subsidized commercial space to attract an arts-oriented anchor tenant. Our doors would be open to anyone, so we would have to find ways to attract artists to the project via marketing and outreach.
Early Design Concepts
Our earliest designs featured three upper stories of small (160sf) studios with a main floor dedicated mostly to a large common work room. The idea was that residents could live upstairs and work together downstairs in the common studio. This vision was a natural extension of our own past experiences as architecture students working in large shared studios. We took the earliest sketches of this idea around to a range of schools and institutions (Pratt, UW, SEED, Equinox, Artspace) with experience providing artists work space. The feedback was not encouraging: Artists work in a variety of media, at all hours, often with specialized, expensive tools and supplies. They have unique personalities, a fierce devotion to their work, and a need to protect the fruit of their labors, Accordingly, almost every institution that provides artist work space provides it in the form of four walls with a door with a lock. Our vision of a gleaming storefront space full of artistic collaboration and creative foment needed a bit of re-thinking.
We also published our plans online and sent a survey around to get feedback directly from prospective tenants. Some respondents found the idea intriguing. Many artists were suspicious of our intentions, which was generally presumed to be some sort of artwashing scheme. One pearl of wisdom that we gleaned from the outreach: Respondents put a much higher priority on living in a building with other artists than on working in a building with other artists.
Based on the feedback, we shifted gears a little bit. We gave up on the common work room and redesigned the main floor to have a conventional commercial space that we would reserve for an arts-oriented tenant. Having lost the common work area, we put a little bit of that work space back into each unit. We turned the upper three stories into two levels, but made each unit double height to accommodate a small bed loft. Lifting the beds up off the main floor opened up a small space for a work area within each unit – a miniaturized live-work loft,
Walking the Walk
Throughout the process we have had to live with a degree of uncertainty about the outcome. While we have always had a high level of confidence that we could make the project work as a conventional housing development, right up until the last we didn’t have a clear sense if we would actually deliver on the promise of creating an arts community. It’s one thing to want artists to come live here, but whether or not they will take up the invitation is another matter entirely. We offered up our storefront at a reduced rent to arts institutions, but two years of matchmaking during the design and construction phase didn’t produce much beyond a series of first dates. As the project approached completion, we sat down with our property manager to discuss a lease-up strategy, and a contingency plan.
We completed construction and got permission to occupy the building in mid-August. Summer and early Fall is considered a great season for leasing apartments. A conventional lease-up strategy would immediately buy up a lot of advertising and focus on getting the units leased before the slow season arrived. In our case, we felt our best chance to establish the project as an arts building would be to make sure that the first crop of tenants included as many artists as possible. So, rather than advertising broadly on general media sites like Craigslist and Zillow, we wanted to do our early outreach directly to artists.
We found ourselves at a junction where the project’s financial best interests (quick lease-up) were in direct conflict with the projects stated goal (arts community), So we had to do a little soul searching paired with some spreadsheet work. We ultimately decided that we could afford to give artists a six-week head start and stick with our guerrilla marketing plan through October 1, at which point we would need to switch over to a conventional marketing strategy to get our units leased up and start paying on our bank loan.
We reached out to over 60 arts non-profits and 35 galleries to use their bulletin boards, reception counters, telephone poles, and online social networks to spread the word about the project. We blogged, handed out postcards, and tacked up posters outside of art supply stores and art schools. We got enormous help from a few key institutions like SEED Arts, Artists Trust, Equinox, and Artspace. Slowly at first, and then more steadily, artists began to find the place. By the time October 1 rolled around, ten of the units were rented up with artists living in seven of them. It was a promising start, but we were out of time and needed to move on. Conventional advertising had to begin. How many more artists would show up? We were just going to have to find out.
In early Fall we finally caught a lucky break on leasing the commercial space. Amplifier was looking for a new headquarters, and the Seattle Office of Arts and Culture helped connect us. We began working on an agreement to get them into The Roost, and the match finally took. We got ourselves a dream tenant, and the final pieces began to fall into place.
In October and November, the building continued to lease up steadily at the rate of about 3 units per week. When people apply for an apartment, they declare their income and where they work for a living, but very few working artists make their primary living from their art, so you don’t really know if someone is an artist until you get a chance to ask them directly.To answer that question, we are conducting a tenant survey. While the information is still coming in, so far (with a 75% response rate) about 85% of our respondents identify as artists.
Our development projects provide us a laboratory to push new ideas and experiment in a way that isn’t always possible in our client driven projects. The Roost is the first of a series of micro-housing projects where we are both the architect and the developer. These projects provide an opportunity to test new ideas in the marketplace, and enhance our standing as subject matter experts when it comes to doing this kind of housing well. Operating the buildings is a unique opportunity to learn more about the day-to-day lives of our tenants, and deepen our understanding of this specific housing type. We look at this as a form of research that can helps us to improve our future projects, better guide our clients, and speak with more authority in our public advocacy role.
Filed under: National Politics