Live-work buildings, the combination storefront/apartment building, is a global phenomenon, anchoring the vibrancy of a local community while building diversity into the economy.
Live-Work Buildings: Key to a Vibrant, Hyperlocal Lifestyle
The live-work building, designed to provide a space that can accommodate both residential and commercial activities, offers a seamless solution that meets the diverse needs of its occupants. Although the term “live-work” is relatively new, the concept of a flexible property that combines housing and thriving businesses has been in existence for centuries. At moss, the live-work journey began in earnest with the first moss HQ in Ravenswood, which was both a living quarters and an office within a vintage defunct firehouse. After the moss HQ moved into a remodeled storefront in Logan Square, living quarters followed above the commercial tenant space, repackaging the live/work space into a live-work-commercial neighborhood asset.
Matt and Laura have a longstanding familial connection to storefront living that can be traced back through several generations. Matt’s grandparent’s first living arrangement in Chicago was a three-flat building that housed both their residence and a tailoring shop on the ground floor—a business they personally owned and managed. In this setup, Matt’s grandparents occupied one of the apartments while his uncle and his family lived in the other. Similarly, Laura’s family shares a parallel narrative, as they, too, had an amalgamation of an optometrist’s shop and an apartment above the shop in their history.
Above – the gangs all here; friends gather outside the family-owned tailor shop on Laflin St in Chicago
Current day – similar to numerous other mixed-use buildings, the family’s tailor shop underwent a transformation, evolving into a three-flat residential building
The neighborhood deli directly across the street from the family-owned tailor shop is now a multi-unit apartment.
A SOLUTION TO THE MODERN HOUSING CRISIS
A lack of available housing is a serious issue facing Americans. According to a study from Up for Growth, the US has fallen 3.8 million homes short of meeting housing needs, both for renters and prospective buyers. Zoning laws that discourage mixed-use functions for mid-rise and high-rise buildings aren’t helping matters. Many two- or three-story buildings are in areas where residential and retail, commercial, or hospitality uses can occur, and each one is an opportunity to get redeveloped into quality housing paired with amenities that improve a neighborhood and keep dollars in the local economy.
“Buildings that combine different uses like living and working are taking maximum advantage of the fact that urban space is three-dimensional,” says Howard Davis, architecture professor, and author, at the University of Oregon, whose fascination with the typology spurred his book project—Living Over the Store: Architecture and Local Urban Life. The book explores the contextualization of the storefront apartment within the urban fabric.
THE HISTORY OF THE STOREFRONT: AN ECONOMIC NECESSITY
Following function to form, storefront living was an economic necessity for most of the history of the city itself. Owning one building from which to work out of that also served as a home reduced commute time to zero, allowing for child-rearing and home maintenance to happen between business patrons. It was only relatively recently that zoning prescribed more rigid lines around what was allowed to happen within a single parcel, something that began and accelerated during the industrial revolution. Davis cites the early 20th-century apartment houses in Paris and New York to Otto Wagner-designed Vienna houses as early examples of how these developments shaped cities.
In Portland, Davis says, many mixed-use properties remain from before zoning took hold in 1924. “There was a pretty seamless relationship between work and “living,” says Davis. “It was very easy to move back and forth between different activities. This was normal life for tens of millions of people in the world.”
Live-Work Buildings: Storefront Living Today
While less common than it once was due to zoning and other regulations, the combination storefront/living space is still found thriving in cities everywhere—including Chicago. It’s a great way to adaptively reuse a space by transforming interesting historical details or unique layouts into something that is better adapted to the needs of today’s community while also preserving the visual elements that tell the story of a city brick-by-brick. And, of course, adaptive reuse is a fantastic way to avoid producing excessive construction waste, making it a more resource-friendly and lower-carbon option. Let’s take a look at some modern projects moss has developed that revitalize local spaces with new uses, reduce fossil fuel dependency, strengthen community, help improve the local economy, and so much more.
DESIGN EXPLORATION OF LIVE-WORK BUILDINGS
Moss has several mixed-use storefront-adjacent projects in the works and took the time to talk with storefront apartment enthusiasts and clients about the advantages of and experiences with the typology.
A Modern Fitness | Apartment Space in Lincoln Square
Abby and Adrienne own Brush Park Family Gym, which they live above, a decision that significantly simplifies the task of caring for their children while running a business a lot easier
As both a business owner and parent, Adrienne wears many hats, and living above her business has made seamlessly shifting gears much easier. “I would not be able to do all the work that I did without living right upstairs,” says Adrienne. She initially coached the majority of Brush Park’s classes and was able to fill in for employees if necessary due to her non-existent travel time. “The convenience of not having a commute allowed me to [adapt],” she said.
Adrienne used to commute for an hour-and-a-half in Chicago’s notoriously finicky weather. “That was just lost time,” she said. But it wasn’t just a time sink; on days when the weather was bad, Adrienne lamented that her long commute kept her from taking on extra duties at work when needed or picking up her kids from school. “If I didn’t have this set up, I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing here,” she said.
This nicely dovetails into another storefront living advantage both moss and Davis advocate for. Storefront apartments not only help boost walkability, decreasing reliance on fossil fuel-heavy transit but also make daily routines—from grabbing coffee to doing laundry to enjoying a nice meal out—easier and more sustainable to execute. This, in turn, helps support small businesses, bolstering investment in community members and neighbors. In essence, storefront apartments are a win for everyone.
A former teacher, Adrienne and her partner Abby had started raising a family when she decided to make the career switch into fitness to work with college athletes. While visiting different gyms, Adrienne noticed most of them didn’t offer childcare. There, the idea for Brush Park Family Gym was born—a community fitness center that supported parents while they soaked up all the benefits of exercise in a friendly, motivational space. “I wanted people to feel as if they were coming into my house,” said Adrienne. Living and working in close proximity has given her a bit of a local celebrity status, where it’s hard to run down the block without bumping into someone she knows. “I see my members all the time: at the coffee shop, at the local restaurant, my kids even go to school right around the corner,” she said. “It all feels very connected.”
Moss helped bring Adrienne’s vision to life with a space devoted to families and children that still offered high-quality amenities and a grown-up feel for the adults. “Even though it’s for kids too, I still wanted it to be stylish and vibrant,” she said. moss worked to design a light-filled, sleek space that still feels welcoming and accessible. An indoor play space allows kids to be active while parents hit the gym. “Both parents and non-parents deserve to come into a gym where the bathrooms are beautiful,” said Adrienne.
Storefront windows allow natural light to illuminate the gym space; the apartment with modern finishes
A Residential | Commercial Space in West Town
Ben and Emily reside on an upper floor of a commercial space within a building that they are currently collaborating with moss to renovate and convert into a vibrant community hub
Ben and Emily purchased a rundown building in 2019 with big plans for its renovation. “We knew we wanted a space we could build out on our own however we wanted,” said Ben. That turned out to be living quarters for them (which are currently being renovated) with a commercial unit below. The couple wanted their mixed-use space to intentionally invite in community members. “We really wanted [a tenant] where people would be coming in and out,” said Ben.
Ben and Emily ended up renting the storefront to their friends that run a vintage shop selling clothes and furniture. The store also runs events and pop-ups, hosting a variety of other local artists. The pair did a joint fundraiser with their tenants, which started a fruitful conversation with other spaces, leading to an abundance of sponsors from next door. “It has really enhanced our sense of community,” says Ben. “If it was just an apartment downstairs, we definitely would not have had this level of engagement.”
“Different levels in the third dimension—verticality—have different economic values relative to their distance from the street,” said Davis. Maximizing verticality in the way that Ben and Emily’s residential/commercial space does is not the only advantage; the multiple uses of a single lot catalyze urban life in a way that is much different than blocks zoned for strictly residential or commercial use, which in the former case typically fall quiet at night. This enriches an urban center’s culture. “This ‘density of hybridity’ results in people of different means, occupations, etc., occupying the same space,” says Davis.
Ben, a mechanical engineer, was able to work with moss to develop a solar array, helping to power the building through renewable energy. Always drawn to more industrial spaces, Ben discovered that a surprising benefit of living above a commercial unit was that it keeps the energy needs of the tenants nice and even. “We are typically in the building at opposite times of the day,” he said. “If we had two residential tenants, we might have had to configure our power set-up differently.”
With support from the West Town SSA, the building’s front and glass were replaced and updated. A mural from local artist JB Snyder attracts passersby to take photos in front of the building. “I don’t think a day goes by where someone isn’t taking a picture in front of it,” said Ben.
A Multi-Purpose Complex in Logan Square: Blending Commercial, Studio & Residential Spaces
Serving as the moss design HQ, Logan Certified is a versatile property that combines a mix of commercial, architectural studio, and apartment spaces. The ground floor features the moss studio, furniture showroom and a commercial unit, all surrounding a sun-drenched courtyard. The thoughtfully designed space offers diverse functionality within a stylish and sustainable package.
From left to right – Logan Certified transformed after extensive renovation; the building has been completely transformed into a modern and inviting space. Logan Certified prior to the renovation. The building stood as an abandoned grocery store, serving as an eyesore to the surrounding neighbors.
Built on the foundation of a run-down liquor store, Logan Certified now stands tall, complete with a vintage sign that exudes charm. The transformation started with a feasibility study and a master plan aimed at achieving the vision of a shared outdoor space for all occupants of the building—from residential tenants to showroom visitors, interior design studio clients, and the moss team. Overcoming the floor area ratio (FAR) constraints and building footprint required some creativity, but team moss came up with a brilliant solution—carving out a portion of the building to create a courtyard. The existing deli counter and ceiling above were removed to make way for this new space. “We subtracted this square footage from our allotment and re-allocated the gains to design a lofted apartment with a private deck and entrance on the second level,” explained Laura.
Lots of sunlight is key to creating a wonderful space, and the Logan Certified plan takes full advantage of it. They installed a solar array on the roof to maximize solar gains and filled the interior with an abundance of windows that showcase the moss furniture designs in the showroom. The showroom boasts a clean, minimal aesthetic that allows the custom millwork, oak paneling, and other builds to be the focal point. Additionally, a concrete floor with radiant heating keeps the apartment warm and cozy year-round.
Interior views of the moss showroom detailing interior finishes and custom millwork
Logan Certified and the other projects detailed here are all creative, design-forward examples of how the mixed-use typology can help build a healthier environment, add to the existing housing stock, and enhance neighborhoods through unique small businesses.
Mixed-use buildings, including the storefront apartment and similar configurations, encourage local economic investment and reduce congestion associated with car-centric design. By activating the streetscape and providing engaging destinations for living and working, communities become more cohesive, allowing neighbors to connect, share resources, and efficiently access amenities that are a stone’s throw away.
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