Page C1.2 . 20 June 2012                     
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The Amazing Flexhouse


Although flexhouses have typically been used as an ingredient in establishing new mixed-use centers for new neighborhoods over the past few decades, the same approach can be used in existing neighborhoods. Provided that the basic retail dynamics are supportive, a row of flexhouses can reestablish a commercial core in a disenfranchised neighborhood or create a new retail center for a neighborhood making the transition from warehouse or industrial use to mixed use.

Despite its elusive nature, the market for live-work is certainly greater than the current inventory of live-work units would suggest and is likely to grow along with the development and reurbanization of U.S. neighborhoods. Working Americans who spend their workdays primarily at home are better educated and more affluent than those who commute to a conventional workplace every day. All that is lacking is widespread awareness of the market among producers of real estate for the live-work category to match its potential.

The Lofts at Habersham
Beaufort, South Carolina
Built 2002—2006

Total Unit Area  2,130 square feet (198 square meters)

Ground-floor Area  710-square-foot (66-square-meter)

Conceptual Design  Richard Black

Final Design  Ben Miehe

Town Planner  Duany Plater-Zyberk

Developer  Habersham Land Company Inc.

Type of Live-Work  Townhouse-style mixed-use development; 33 mixed-use buildings

Proximity Type  Live-near flexhouses

Location  Habersham, Beaufort, South Carolina, a large New Urbanist greenfield community

The Lofts at Habersham

Habersham is a large New Urbanist community, in Beaufort, South Carolina, designed by Duany Plater-Zyberk, and largely built out. The developer jump-started the downtown by building flexhouses — mostly presold — that frame the town's main street very successfully.

The Lofts at Habersham consist of 33 mixed-use flexhouses in a site plan arranged on two sides of a street that includes a generous median in the style of the Ramblas in Barcelona or Mizner Park in Florida — although more down-transect than both examples.

An important and pioneering feature of The Lofts at Habersham is its robust construction, which was conceived and built to provide maximum flexibility. The buildings are designed to allow either commercial use on all three floors or residential use on the second and third floors over commercial on the first floor.

The commercial space is generally serviced from the street with access to the second floor only through a thirty-five- by eighteen-foot rear yard. Owners have the option of constructing an accessory building at the rear of the lot.

A true mixed-use project that was designed for maximum flexibility, the flexhouses each contain a 710-square-foot (66-square-meter) commercial space on the ground floor and a two-level residential unit above. Across the development, the total area of the ground-floor commercial space is nearly 24,000 square feet (2,200 square meters). Each flexhouse contains a total of 2,130 square feet (198 square meters) on three levels.

The first floor is set up to be commercial — usually retail — and is designed to house small mom-and-pop businesses. The developer points out that although 710 square feet (66 square meters) seems small, there are currently three ground-floor spaces fitted with full restaurant kitchens that seat 30 inside and an additional 10 to 15 outside. Each first-floor space has an accessible unisex restroom and — depending on the use — the first floor may or may not have access to the back yard space.

The developer has essentially secured preapprovals for any combination of uses for the building, such that any buyer or tenant only has to secure a business license from the town of Beaufort. While flexible entitlements are a stated goal of many who have built flexhouses, this is the only instance of which the author is aware of a project that has obtained such flexible entitlements.

The second floor is laid out as an open-plan loft (i.e., without interior walls). The living space is on the street side, which allows for balconies — a common Low Country design element — and provides "eyes on the street." The second floor also includes a dining and kitchen area. The structural separation between the first and second floor includes one layer of Sheetrock on the first-floor ceiling; supported steel-bar joists, capped with a metal deck; and then 4 inches (10 centimeters) of regular concrete, which achieves a fire rating of two hours. The second story features a stained concrete floor surface.

The floor/ceiling separating the second and third floors consists of laminated beams with 3-inch (7.62-centimeter) tongue-and-groove wood planks. The stairs between the second and third level are open. The HVAC at the second-floor level is exposed spiral-coil metal duct; all the plumbing is exposed cast iron. Exterior walls are concrete block, furred out to accommodate utilities and insulation. The structural separation between the flexhouses is rated at three hours.

Each lot is 18 feet (5.5 meters) wide by 100 feet (30 meters) deep. There are assigned parking spaces in a common surface lot behind the rear yards —two for each upstairs residential unit. Street parking for The Lofts is provided in the front and serves the ground-floor commercial. The buildings are sprinklered under current commercial building codes (i.e., NFPA-13).

Developing The Lofts

A typical buyer of a flexhouse is an investor or individual who plans to live above and rent the first floor out to a business or to rent both out separately. Some of the flexhouses are owned by businesses, whose owners sometimes rent the upstairs portion to employees. There is commercial activity in the upper levels of some units, including the project sales office, a builder's office, and an architect's office; only the sales office is linked to the first floor.

The developer, Bob Turner, observes that in general, if a flexhouse is built in a commercial zone, then all of the above-space use options could apply. Habersham's form-based code — by Duany Plater-Zyberk — specifically permitted flexhouses: the land on which The Lofts were built was zoned as commercial.

The real hurdle, he notes, is specifically in the building's structure. The Lofts at Habersham — due to their being built to commercial standards — cost 8 to 10 percent more than a comparable wood-frame residential building with only one-hour separations.

"Having at least a two-hour separation horizontally (party walls) and vertically (second floor) allows for mixed use in both directions. Typical 'live-works' only allow the resident to have first-floor commercial because they only have one hour separation in both directions; therefore upstairs use is essentially limited to home office types. We found that having increased fire separation in both directions gave us the most flexibility," Mr. Turner says.

Building a flexhouse that can accommodate commercial use throughout raises disabled-access questions. In general the intent was to locate business primarily on the ground floor. In order to permit independent commercial use on the second floor, The Lofts' stairs were designed to allow for a chair lift. Depending on interpretation of Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), this might or might not be entirely compliant. ADA also requires two restrooms if there are more than four employees.

For that reason the developer roughed in plumbing to allow a second restroom to be added to the rear of the building.

Loft Lessons Learned

1. It is worth it to buy the flexibility you need to weather an unpredictable economy by spending a little more on a building that can accommodate any possible mix of occupancies (users). If you obtain the entitlements up front to construct a set of buildings that can be housing over retail, office over retail, or even all office (although that option has street-activation issues), you have a better chance of keeping the buildings full or finding buyers who will appreciate their inherent flexibility and therefore risk-hedging investment value.

However, with the adoption of the International Building Code's Section 419 and the requirement that all residences now be sprinklered, it is no longer necessary to provide more than a one-hour separation between any of the occupancies anticipated at Habersham or in most flexhouses.

2. In greenfield settings such as Habersham —a traditional neighborhood development —developers have struggled with finding the best way to create a vital town center. At Habersham, the developer's approach has been to compose the main street entirely of flexhouses, presold and built incrementally. In this way the developer was able to build out his main street without a huge outlay of capital and to maintain control of it by requiring that his management company manage the first-floor retail for five years after purchase.

This is an innovative approach that —combined with the flexibility of the building type —has worked well at Habersham. Of the thirty-three flexhouses, almost all are sold; and all but six were bought by nonresident investors who rent out the upstairs mostly to millennials —who are attracted to the loft-like feel —and the downstairs to tenants chosen by the developer. Of those who owner-occupy, most both live upstairs and run a business downstairs —living above the store in the twenty-first century.

3. The author spoke with the developer about the fact that the upstairs portions of the units can only be accessed from the ground floor, asking if the access had created any problems. In the author's survey of traditional neighborhoods in the southeastern United States (see case studies in Chapter Three: Design), he found at least one project where placing the entrances to the rear of live-works was problematic. The developer's response:

"No, it has not been a problem. I agree that it is nice to come in off the street in some cases. But we would have to reduce the street frontage for the commercial by adding staircases. This idea may work better for condos where two buildings could share a common staircase, but it is difficult in a townhousetype ownership —i.e., who heats and cools the corridor, cleans it, etc. In our case, the residents enjoy designated parking in the rear as part of their property/lot ownership. The residents above also have use of the rear courtyard, and they feel a part of the street through balconies/ front windows. I also like rear access because it keeps the on-street parking for customers, not residents."

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Thomas Dolan is the principal of Thomas Dolan Architecture (TDA) in Oakland, California. An architect, landscape and urban designer, and development and code consultant, Dolan designed the first purpose-built live-work complex constructed in the United States. He was instrumental in the development of the live-work building code for the city of Oakland. He is also active in the Congress for the New Urbanism.

This article is excerpted from Live-Work Planning and Design: Zero-Commute Housing by Thomas Dolan, with contributions by Laurie Volk and Todd Zimmerman, copyright © 2012, with permission of the publisher, John Wiley & Sons.

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This series of flexhouses was included in Duany Plater-Zyberk's master plan for the 325-acre (132-hectare) new urbanist community in Kentlands, Maryland (1988).
Photo: Courtesy Thomas Dolan Extra Large Image

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Designed by Ben Miehe and Rick Black, the three-story flexhouse Lofts at Habersham include rear-access residential units that occupy the second and third floors.
Photo: Jonathan Herron Extra Large Image

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Typical floor plan drawings for the three-level Lofts at Habersham units.
Image: Courtesy Habersham Land Company Extra Large Image

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Built in a southern neovernacular style, the Lofts at Habersham buildings include ground-floor retail spaces that occupy each unit's full 18-foot (5.5-meter) street frontage.
Photo: Jonathan Herron Extra Large Image

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Accessory buildings are permitted in the rear yards of The Lofts at Habersham, which also serve as the access route between the residential entrances and a common rear parking area.
Photo: Jonathan Herron Extra Large Image

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This flexhouse conversion concept drawing, shows a removable first floor and a pop-out panel in the front facade to facilitate the future insertion of a storefront.
Image: Courtesy Thomas Dolan Extra Large Image

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The James Avenue Live-Work Compound (2003) in Oakland, California, designed by Thomas Dolan Architecture and Jennifer Cooper Designer, represents a storefront live-work building that contains all three live-work proximity types, enabling great flexibility over time.
Photo: Courtesy Thomas Dolan Extra Large Image

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Live-Work Planning and Design: Zero-Commute Housing by Thomas Dolan.
Image: John Wiley & Sons


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