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Artist Space Guide

Design and Construction


Through zoning ordinances, cities and towns control the use of land. Zoning ordinances include: the allowable uses on the site (residential, office, retail, industrial, etc.), how buildings can be situated on the property (“dimensional requirements”), parking requirements, landscape and open space requirements, and numerous other regulations. Some sites have multiple zoning laws. For example, a waterfront property might have a base industrial zoning and a waterfront “zoning overlay” that permits new uses.

In addition to local zoning, the state regulates certain properties, most notably waterfront property, which generally falls under the purview of Chapter 91.

These laws and codes are all publicly available, usually on municipal websites. We advise researching the zoning yourself to learn whether the building has restrictions for residential or workspace use. Sometimes building code will refer specifically to artist live/work space. Calling a city official in the planning department can help you figure out how the code affects a building.

That being said, any project funded with a construction loan will need a “zoning opinion” from the developer’s lawyer, which states that the project is in full compliance with local and state regulations.

Make sure you fully understand the zoning status of a property before signing a Purchase and Sale Agreement.  If zoning action is needed, make that a condition of the Purchase and Sale Agreement. Buying a property before it is entitled for the use you need is extremely risky. 

In some communities, artist studios and residences are allowed in commercial or industrial zones, where housing is not allowed by the current zoning. Municipalities can create a special zoning “overlay” to encourage artists to use underutilized downtown or industrial districts. Somerville created an arts overlay district in 2005.

Variances and Special Permits

If the use you want is not allowed by the code or can’t be built within the dimensional or parking requirements, you can apply for a “variance” from the zoning. Every city and town has its own rules and processes for applying for a variance. Getting a variance is a lengthy and technical process, virtually impossible to navigate without some assistance.

If a “special permit” does allow the proposed use, moving forward with the project will still require the vote of a public body, typically the Planning Board.

Obtaining any sort of zoning change, special permit, or variance will involve time and money and can take months (or years!) for approval. Getting a variance often requires community input. It is therefore essential to get community support and consider all feasible requests the community might have. Compromising early on is far more efficient than grinding your way through endless public meetings.

Initial Budget and Design

An initial plan and cost estimate do not have to be elaborate or costly—don’t reinvent the wheel. Even at this early stage, we recommend hiring an architect AND a code consultant because building code is a complicated legal document open to many interpretations. The code consultant’s job is to find the least costly code interpretation for your project, while still providing a safe building.

At this stage, the architect creates a two-dimensional plan; to scale, but quite simple; called a “pre-schematic” plan. The architect also should provide an “outline specification” which lists the types of materials, finishes, systems, and equipment required. Have rough building measurements taken, but do not spend money having the building fully measured.

A contractor or professional estimator can take the code report, pre-schematic plans, outline specification, and a set of building photos, and arrive at a rough budget price. Always test your estimates by comparing it to similar, recently completed projects. If everyone else has spent about $100,000 per unit on construction to renovate a loft building, your $50,000 estimate will look suspicious!

Checking feasibility with a “pro forma”

The next step is to prepare a “pro forma” for the project. A pro forma is a more detailed financial analysis of the project and will give you a better idea of whether the asking price is realistic, given how much construction will cost and the selling or rental price. This analysis will evolve as different costs and inputs arise during the development process. It is imperative that someone on your team understand the pro forma.

Early Expenditures

Always minimize upfront expenses until the property is “taken off the market” with a letter of intent to purchase. Sellers will typically require a deposit to “tie up the property,” but it should be refundable (for any reason) for at least a month or two. As the project progresses, the deposit will become “hard” or non-refundable. Although most Purchase and Sale agreements have “contingencies” that return your deposit for things beyond your control (inability to obtain zoning approval, environmental problems, hidden structural problems, etc.), it is highly unlikely that you would be refunded because you incorrectly priced the units or underestimated construction costs.

Thus, unless you want to gamble with your purchase deposit, you need to spend what it takes to get comfortable with your pro forma before your deposit becomes nonrefundable. While the contractor might not charge for his estimating time, the architect will charge for his drawings and outline spec, as will your lawyer for negotiating the Purchase and Sale agreement, the code consultant for his analysis, and engineers for opining on the structure and the environmental issues. Including the purchase deposit, this contracted labor adds up to serious money, somewhere between 10 and 15% of the total project cost.

In most cases with artists’ projects, the developer or group of artists has to front the money for these predevelopment costs. If you are the one putting in upfront money, you should have a formal agreement with your fellow artists, developers, and/or investors stating how your funds will be used and credited toward your share of the project.

Working with Architects

Tips on design: The design of the project stays with it as long as it lasts. It outlives lenders, occupants, buyers, sellers, and the rest of the crew. A well-designed project can save money and increase efficiency. Moreover, a well-designed project showcases your creativity and your intelligence to the world. Good design can increase your happiness, your productivity, and enhance your life. You are planning to spend the money. Why not spend it well?

Tips on engineers: A typical project requires structural, civil (site work), and Mechanical, Electrical, Plumbing/Fire Protection (MEP/FP) engineers. Good engineering is the core of an artist building and the reason we admire industrial structures. It is the key to systems that work well and efficiently. Some engineers involved are often sub-contractors of the architect (e.g. structural) whereas others work directly for the developer (e.g. civil.)

Design-build: In the simple world of art-space renovations, the MEP/FP engineering sometimes follows the “design-build” method in which the design and construction services are contracted by a single entity called the design-builder or design-build contractor. The architect, developer, and contractor map out a strategic “outline specification” for the building systems and the contractor bids the outline spec to competing sub-contractors who include the final engineering drawings as part of their construction work. The developer employs his own MEP/FP engineer to write the outline spec and review the submittals prepared by the subcontractors. When well-supervised, this method can save design fees, uncover efficiencies, and reduce change orders.

Stages of the Design Process

  • Pre-Schematics: Layout drawings done to assess the general “fit” of spaces in a site or building.  Often several schemes are still in competitive play.
  • Schematics: Plans and elevations of all major and most minor spaces, showing the design concept to scale and including an outline spec. By this point, the team has made enough decisions to have settled on one scheme.
  • Design Development: A somewhat ill-defined stage; the point when the client (you) can be billed for introducing major design changes and when the contractor should commit to a price estimate. The schematics should indicate dimensions, materials, and unusual details.
  • Construction Documents: Drawings and specifications that legally bind the owner, the architect, and the developer to the job. The architect and/or engineers stamp and submit them to the building department, thereby formally binding them to the construction contract. Changes after these documents are issued are called “change-orders,” unpleasant missives the contractor sends.
  • Construction Period Services: The time when architect inspects the work in progress and signs off on a monthly requisition that releases (or denies) the contractor’s monthly payment request. The architect’s role becomes legally defined and key to the funding process.

An architect’s contract breaks down into the stages of service above. Fees vary widely. Low overhead keeps fees down, but short-staffing can cause costly delays and oversights.

Artists who work with architects they know; like friends, relatives, or friends of friends; have achieved good results. However, beware of unstaffed “moon-lighters,” no matter how well-intentioned they may be. Unless the project is exceptionally small, architecture should be the architect’s day job.

Certificates and Insurance: Make sure that the architect is prepared to sign the “Architect’s Certificate” issued by the construction lender. This certificate is a guarantee that the plans and specs meet all applicable codes. It also makes the architect culpable for any errors that might be uncovered. An architect without “professional liability insurance,” which a moonlighter probably wouldn’t be able to afford, should not sign it.

Remember that an architect is only as good as his client.  Carefully consider your needs and respond to questions promptly. You play a key role in the effort to keep fees down and schedules intact.

Contractors and Construction

Finding suitable contractors and negotiating the construction contract are critical steps in the development process. Make sure you have an experienced real estate lawyer, project manager, and architect at your side to understand how to set up this negotiation. When choosing a contractor for your project, check their references comprehensively. Does the contractor stick to their price and timetable? Are there change orders? The lowest bidder might not be competent or reliable. Network to find recommended contractors before settling on one.

Types of Owner/Contractor Relationships
Contracts are either competitively bid or negotiated. Neither system is perfect. Many developers choose a general contractor early and have competitive bidding at the level of sub-contracts only. This approach gives a constant update on the estimated cost and makes the contractor a part of the team. It also provides a price before the drawings are finished and helps to ensure that the final plans will be within the budget.

Having an “Owner’s Rep”
Though your architect will monitor construction, someone on your team should serve as the owner’s representative during the construction phase. The owner’s rep is someone who can make on-the-spot decisions when problems arise. Like a project manager, the owner’s rep will coordinate between the architect, building inspectors, and the artists who will use the space. The development group should fully support the rep during the stressful construction process.

Work by Occupants
You need to clearly distinguish between the work of the contractor and any work done by unit occupants themselves. It is almost impossible to have amateurs working on the job before receiving a Certificate of Occupancy. Even once the project is turned over, amateur builders will need guidance so that their work meets the code and other building standards.

Working with Building Inspectors
After determining that the completed work is acceptable, the local building inspector will issue a Certificate Occupancy or CO. This permit can be issued for an entire building or on a unit-by-unit basis as spaces are completed and inspected. Obviously, the inspectors are not eager to come to the property endlessly, so they sometimes will refuse to issue COs for individual units.

Building inspectors might change (and multiply) during the course of construction. New ones might not understand the code interpretations that previous inspectors had approved. It is important to be well-prepared when meeting with inspectors and to appoint a single point person (often the code consultant) to answer questions and respond to requests from the building, electrical, elevator, and fire inspectors.

Building Design Tips

Use as much of the existing building as possible: By using Chapter 34, the section of the Massachusetts Building Code that pertains to existing buildings, you can negotiate to reuse elements such as stairs, firewalls, and structural elements that are safe but might not comply with current regulations. This approach is green. It is far less harmful to our environment to reuse existing materials rather than buy new ones.

Simplify the plan: Minimize unproductive common hallways and make the circulation space function as socializing or gallery space as well.

Don’t overbuild for your artists’ market: In workspace projects where you plan to hold public programming like artists’ markets, use gender-neutral bathrooms when allowed by code.

Leave things out: Residents and studio users can add final light fixtures and appliances. If possible, give larger units access to a second plumbing shaft so that occupants can install more plumbing if they want.

Buy ready-mades whenever possible: Discount furniture stores like Ikea offer cheap ready-made kitchens and closets. Search craigslist and your local buy nothing group on Facebook as well.

Use appropriate studio flooring: A finished layer of urethane plywood, common pine planking, or plain concrete all work well. Rough existing wood flooring is popular for studio floors and hides spills!

Bedrooms can Be Carpeted: Wall-to-wall carpet in bedrooms is an inexpensive way to reduce noise. It costs much less than finished wood or concrete toppings.

Avoid in-unit laundry equipment: Washer/dryer units require expensive utilities and take up valuable space. Because of equipment inefficiency and use patterns, in-unit laundry uses more energy than group laundry facilities.

Omit central AC in small projects: Design for cross-ventilation and through-the-wall or window air conditioners. This approach saves money.

Plan ahead for exhaust: Design window assemblies to make it easy (or at least possible) to install exhaust fans without extensive retrofitting. Alternatively, for exhaust equipment in studios, consider building in sleeves upfront.

Let the engineering elements be the “decoration:” Take the time to coordinate the appearance of pipes, ducts, conduits, and structural elements. Doing so dignifies these elements and reduces the need for expensive drywall soffits, hung ceilings, and chases. If your input arrives at early enough in the process, installers typically do not charge additional money to run mechanicals where you want them.

Don’t paint the walls: Sometimes in certain markets, unpainted veneer plaster costs as much as or less than painted drywall. Occupants can paint the plaster of their units if they wish.

Hire a professional elevator consultant: The consultant can advise you about how to bring an existing elevator up to code as efficiently and inexpensively as possible. A professional consultant can review elevator shop drawings and specifications for technical quality and advise you based on your budget whereas installers and local inspectors probably will not.

Site Work Tips

Minimize exterior lighting: Take background light into account when designing site lighting, avoiding unnecessary fixtures and electricity use.

Minimize parking requirements: Work with the planning department to keep parking to an absolute minimum. Look into off-site parking, reductions for transit availability, Zipcars, etc.

Avoid asphalt paving: If installing a driveway or parking lot, use gravel. It reduces run-off, eliminates the need for stripping, and looks great.

See what the municipality will do for you: The municipality might build the sidewalks or plant trees. It never hurts to ask your local building department.

Let the occupants do some of the landscaping: Confine the project budget to big plants, sidewalks, drainage, paving, lighting, etc. Most live/work buildings have eager gardeners.

Contractors and Design Professionals

Bid the construction trades whenever possible: Negotiating with one supplier or subcontractor rarely yields the best price.

Investigate prices that are too good to be true: Unbelievably cheap rates usually signal unacceptable workmanship or delays. Desperate bidders might be one step from insolvency.

Avoid being the learning experience:  Few people get it right the first time. Use a team member or friend’s experience to develop the most efficient project. Experience should be an essential criterium for any professional you hire (contractors, architects, lawyers, plumbers, etc.)

Match the players to the budget: Don’t hire architects or contractors who consider your project beneath their standards. It is easier to get a rough-and-ready firm to step up than it is to get a luxury firm to step down.

Consider design-build systems: A good schematic and outline spec are typically all that HVAC, plumbing, and electrical contractors need for smaller projects. The sub-contractor does the final design according to your specification. The design-build approach can save engineering costs and lead to tighter bids and fewer change orders.

Insist on speedy construction: Delays increase general conditions, cost you more bank/loan interest, and can lose pre-sales.

Minimize winter heating costs: Temporary heat at a construction site is expensive for the owner, who almost always covers this cost. If you must have the heat on during winter construction, inspect the premises to make sure the windows are closed, biggest air leaks stopped, and heat used when absolutely necessary only.

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