or How to Find, Build, and Live in an Unconventional Space
February 8th, 2012
By far the most common email I get is in response to my (recently former) warehouse living art space. Though my piece on not using shampoo for six months received over 40k views, I rarely ever get emails about that. Yet, I get at least 2-3 emails a week on how to find and how to live in a warehouse, so it has inspired me to compose this guide of sorts.
Tips on finding, building, and living in an unconventional space.
Okay, so first be sure you’re serious about this. In my experience, unconventional spaces come with a lot of patience testers and flexibility is a must. Bad landlords and rough neighborhoods are often just the start. Be warned.
Craigslist is a fine place to start. Search words like commercial, industrial, light industrial, warehouse, factory, post office, office spaces, malls, church, library, bomb shelter, horse stables,… You see the trend. Get creative here. Your future live in/art space is only limited by you.
Go beyond the web though. Drive or walk around the light industrial areas and commercial parts of town. A lot of the prime spaces never see the light of the internet. Either they dont know how to use it, or they just cant be bothered. Immigrant neighborhoods often have gems like this. While exploring new neighborhoods, the more decreptitude the better. You’re probably looking for cheap, so get adventurous. Live in a rough neighborhood for a year or two and you’ll likely realize it’s hardly as bad as everyone wants to believe. Theres a life lesson in there somewhere.
Its in your best interest to not interrupt the flow of your art and creation, so of course you’ll want things like a kitchenette, a toilet, a shower, a bed. Remember it’s only unusual if you act like its unusual. For you, it’s an essential part of any creative space.
Get friends involved. The more people to go in on this endeavor, the better. It will help keep costs down and surrounding yourselves with other creative folks will help you. Remember, show me your friends and I’ll show you your future.
This one can be tough, depending on your budget, amount of people involved, and locale. Remember most places are flexible on the rent so don’t be afraid to negotiate. Another suggestion I often have for people is for when you come across a space that is too huge for you. Talk to the person, see if you can put up divider walls to make the space you want to rent smaller and thus more affordable. I’ve seen it done. Also, ask them if they know of any smaller spaces available.
I managed to rent over 1500 square feet, plus a huge gated yard in one of the roughest neighborhoods of San Diego (hint: it was featured on Gangland). I split it with a friend. We paid $1400/ month. Total. Don’t let anybody tell you it isn’t possible.
What to tell the owner:
So you find an ideal spot, but you don’t know how to tell the landlord you want to live there. Well my advice: don’t! Remember, it’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission. Besides, artists keep strange hours. Let them know you’ll be coming and going at odd hours. in my experience they often expect you to end up living there, but it’s in their best interest to not know. Ignorance is bliss for you. And even if they confront you on it, deny it. You don’t live there. In extreme situations, keep an alternative address if you really need to sell the story. Of course, I’m not a lawyer and this isn’t all sound advice. Don’t be an asshole and you should be fine.
How to do the building (even if you aren’t a builder):
Pending your budget, you can always find willing affordable laborers at your nearest Home Depot. Support your local economies! Alright, so you want to do it yourself but you may not believe in yourself all that much… Well, get tough, hit google, then youtube, ask around, and be adventurous.
Really, most projects I’ve undertaken have been with limited initial knowledge. But since around here we believe in making our own damn luck, it’s time to buckle down and DIY. The folks at places like Lowes or Home Depot are more than willing to help you along. I had never built my own staircase from scratch, so I looked up some building strategies online, asked around for additional advice, took all the safety precautions necessary, and built a damn staircase strong enough to hold eleven elephants and dancing manatee.
Most stores offer discounts on slightly damaged building supplies. By that I simply mean drywall with chipped corners, wood cut strange sizes, etc. Everything you can use for a fraction of the price. Also look to barter or rent tools and services. Everyone’s hurting these days, so everything counts.
Move in and other living fun stuff:
There are plenty of people doing this stuff for a lot longer than I’ve been at it. I knew some guys who had an informal skatepark in their industrial loft. A friend of mine in Chicago rented an old VFW hall with a huge stage and 20 ft ceilings. I couchsurfed at a hip spot called the Nerditorium in Austin Texas, where a few guys turned a normal enough condo into a creativity incubator. A friend of mine in Colorado is building his place out of shipping containers. A family bought the library in my childhood hometown and turned in into a gorgeous house. In my studio I built a platform for a couch so we could have stadium seating for our projector theatre. We even had a surfboard shaping and glassing room. Get your space and share it back here. I’m certain there are plenty of spaces out there waiting for someone to get creative in them.
Dig around the web for more ideas. There are even Flickr groups dedicated to documenting unconventional living spaces, so steal some inspiration there!
If you have an unconventional living space, please get in touch with me. I’d like to keep connecting with folks that do this, and perhaps we can even collaborate on a future feature here! If you have any other questions or thoughts, let me know! firstname.lastname@example.org