March 22, 2005 1:27 PM   Subscribe

Let's say some friends and I want to purchase an old warehouse and refurbish it into something great, like living/art/performance space; how would we go about doing that?

This is essentially a far-future pipe dream, but some friends and I are thinking of getting hold of a warehouse here in Philadelphia and putting some sweat equity into it to make it into some kind of performance and art space, and maybe even a place to live. Assume none of us know anything about carpentry, masonry, wiring, or really even how to go about getting a warehouse. If you have experience with this sort of thing, I'd love to hear about it.

What I would basically like to know is about, you know, getting a suitable space, the best way to learn these skills, and the best way to go about getting materials and planning something like this.
posted by deafmute to Home & Garden (9 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
This is not specific to your question, but you will need to get a zoning variance presumably
posted by edgeways at 1:53 PM on March 22, 2005

Best answer: You've got a variety of challenges:

(1) Legal issues: a warehouse is generally zoned as such; to change it into performance spaces requires a change in zoning. Making part of it residential also would require a zoning change. A lot of cities aren't that interested in having mixed zoning (industrial areas with residents, or art space), so you probably should look in areas where such conversions have already taken place, or warehouses on the periphery of such areas. In any case, you're going to need a good lawyer (one who has done stuff like this before) to help.

(2) Money: to buy the space and to upgrade it (materials, technical help). Whatever you do, make sure that have the space thoroughly inspected - asbestos, dry rot, plumbing issues, bad roof, whatever, so there are minimal surprises. (You probably can't afford anything that has been in use in the past, say, five years, so you're probably looking for a building that has been boarded up for a while.) So you're probably going to need to talk to someone at a bank that does commercial lending.

(3) Finding the building: a commerical broker is someone who specializes in helping people buy (or sell) non-residential buildings. Talk to a couple - they can give you a sense of the money and legal issues involved as well.

(4) Building modifications: these may well involve significant structural changes, which in turn will require building permits, which will require filing of plans. If you do anything significant, you probably need an architect. Again, you want someone who has done a similar project, not someone doing this for the first time. [By coincidence, I happen to have a first cousin in Philadelphia who has done major building remodeling ... ] And even if you do most of the work yourself, hiring a general contractor to handle permits, bring in equipment, and do specialized stuff (you probably don't want to learn how to lay tile floors, for example, and plumbing can be quite technical) is probably a good idea, although many won't want to let you do much of the labor.

(5) Learning building skills - I'll defer to others on this. Not trivial - you probably want to focus on a couple of the more easily-learned things where there might be a lot of work required (internal framing, sheetrocking?).

(There is a saying that if very few people are doing what you're thinking of doing, there must be a reason ... )
posted by WestCoaster at 1:57 PM on March 22, 2005

This is such a big open ended question... carpentry, electrical and pluming are separate questions, and each will be closely checked by inspectors. Some areas will not allow some work to be done except by professionals.

you could try and find people to give you onsite training. RARELY someone will let you work with them on the project in partial compensation for the job...

too much to answer
echos WestCoaster on preview
posted by edgeways at 1:59 PM on March 22, 2005

Best answer: I've done similar (although not with warehouses). Anything that is done officially that involves living/public performance space, has to be done to a very high level of competence, and attention to detail, and attention to building regs (unless of course you squat a place).

The best way to learn the skills is to start working in construction, for someone else. Spread the skills out between different folks; you will probably need (minimum): masonary/brickwork/concrete/cement; framing/carpentry; plumbing; wiring/electrics; painting/decorating; sheetrock/plastering; roofing; and others. The cheapest way to get materials is from construction salvage yards. If you could possibly find some way to do eco-friendly building demo/building salvage, you'd combine some of the two.

If you are buying a warehouse, depending on where you live, you may have to pay attention to zoning regs for residential/public performance space. If you are planning to hold performances, I very much doubt The Man will let you just 'patch-up' a warehouse and then let people in. It will have to be professional job, starting with the drawings. If you *can* get zoned for residential/public performance, you'd probably have to do a lot of legal stuff as well - health and safety, building codes, fire exits, whatever.

I'd seriously recommend looking for grants for urban regeneration (I have done this in the past, it can be very successful). I'm pretty sure are foundations out there looking for competent gangs of sweat labourers to work on their projects. You *will* have to convince them however that you are competent enough to do this (and not just have some people with a nice but vague idea and some enthusiasm). It may help to incorporate yourself as a co-op or something. It's just sometimes easier to run things this way, especially with a large building project. Also you can have meetings for a year or two before you start, and figure out who the flakes are. You really need to have everybody willing to give 110%.

It is really really hard work, but very rewarding, if you do it right. And, on preview, what others have said.
posted by carter at 2:02 PM on March 22, 2005

looking for competent gangs of sweat labourers to work on their projects.

I think that should really read: looking for competent gangs of sweat labourers to work on projects that are congruent with their goals.
posted by carter at 2:06 PM on March 22, 2005

And if those answers haven't depressed you, don't forget the carcinogenic chemicals in the ground under virtually every warehouse. It's the "fun" in SuperFund.
posted by smackfu at 2:08 PM on March 22, 2005

Maybe rather than looking for a performance space you can live in, you need a living space you can perform in. Old/converted schools can be good for this.
posted by carter at 2:16 PM on March 22, 2005

For developing useful skills, what about volunteering for Habitat for Humanity or a similar program? You'll learn construction and, you know, do good and stuff.
posted by cali at 2:54 PM on March 22, 2005

Response by poster: Thanks for the serious answers, everyone. This is largely just a "would it be great if...." type question, but I'm genuinely interested. Thanks!
posted by deafmute at 6:07 PM on March 22, 2005

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