Concrete Chic: Decorating the Modern Loft

We had a great turnout last week to our panel discussion on “Designing for the Modern Loft” at e-lofts in Alexandria. “Modern” is a term not only defining interior design, but as our panelists pointed out, it describes a new way of working and living, for which e-lofts serves as the perfect case study.

Melanie Domres, executive vice president at e-loft develooper Novus Residences, gives attendees a tour of the building.

The theme of the evening was blurred lines—between living and working, between residential and commercial furnishings, and most importantly, between office and apartment buildings.

I moderated the panel from my seat on the left. Next to me are Melanie Domres, Jiyoung Park of west elm, and Holly Polgreen of Carlyn & Co.

As I reported last month, Novus Residences has introduced the e-lofts concept as a way to repurpose vacant office buildings at a time when more of us either work at home or tele-commute, and when small start-up businesses are looking for space that’s more affordable and less risky than a standard 5- or 10-year commercial lease.

Novus Executive Vice President Melanie Domres noted the paradox of years of steady job growth in the DC region, accompanied by an equal increase in office vacancy. “Really cool buildings are vacant now. It seems like a trend,” she says.

The soaring lobby gets a modern, residential touch from designer Holly Polgreen.


Jiyoung Park used the building’s concrete infrastructure to her design advantage in a model unit styled as an office.

Melanie started off the panel discussion by laying the groundwork: Vacant office buildings are generally in great locations, close to Metro and major arteries; and the spaces are more industrial looking, with high, concrete ceilings and exposed ductwork, walls of windows, and open-plan layouts. “It’s all the things that appeal from a design standpoint,” she said. Plus, there aren’t that many of them in the DC area. Lofts are typically developed in vacant factories, which is not what DC is known for. “But what we do have are office buildings,” she said.

A pergola in the outdoor seating and dining area stands in the foreground of the e-lofts, a former office building.


A typical apartment building is not wrapped in walls of windows.


And talk about great locations: This unit looks out toward the Washington Monument and Air Force Memorial.

And here’s the best part: Because this building is in an area of Alexandria already zoned for both residential and commercial/mixed-use, Novus got approval for all three uses within this one building. This means that as a resident, you can choose how to use your space: You can open a business (with 10 employees or fewer), rent an apartment, or move into a unit where you work and live. (It doesn’t hurt, either, that there’s a huge in-house gym, practice space for musicians, or a spa area for pets.)

The panel then turned to west elm’s lead stylist Jiyoung Park, who decorated the model units at e-lofts. “The spaces were versatile but really industrial-looking; it’s a nice backdrop for creative design,” she said. Her assignment was to create a look for a unit that’s being used as a business, one that’s both live and work, and then one designed purely for living.

Her takeaways:
—Furniture doesn’t have to be just for office or for home; design is incredibly flexible these days. For example, a dining table is put to use as an executive office desk in the “work” unit, while lacquered Parsons desks are combined into a working “pod.”


—An industrial shell doesn’t have to translate into modernist-only décor. She used a deep-oxblood Chesterfield sofa and colorful pile rugs to warm up the “live” unit, along with a sinuous, organic live-edge dining table.

A model demonstrates the above concepts in the “Live” unit.

—Think about multi-tasking in open layouts. A martini table becomes a stool; a bench/storage case for the bedroom can also hold office supplies; a huge mirror can reflect light from open window walls throughout the rest of the space; a concrete end table can also be a chic bed stand.

The diminutive brass martini table next to the desk can be pulled into service as extra seating in the seating area.


The bench/storage chest in the bedroom nook.

—Use your closets! Unlike most conventional apartments, e-lofts units have huge walk-in closets, which can also serve as back offices or supply rooms in a business setting. Every closet has outlets and data ports, so the printers and fax machines don’t have to be out in the open. They’re also big enough to hold chests of drawers, so that you can make the most of a large, open layout.

The typical closet in an e-lofts unit is a room unto itself.

The conversation then turned downstairs, where Holly Polgreen of Carlyn & Co. was on hand to talk about the lobby design. Following along the same lines of our other panelists, she emphasized how the common areas and conference rooms could be of equal benefit for office or social use.
—The demonstration kitchen and bar, and the restaurant-style booths are great for an office lunch, or if you want to order BBQ takeout and don’t want to get your apartment messy.

The cooktop is placed at the end of the bar in the demonstration kitchen.


The restaurant-style booths leading up to the kitchen.

—The media presentation room, with its comfy sectional and armchair, is designed to welcome PowerPoint meetings and movie nights alike.

The cozy media presentation room. Holly also told me that she chose art and photography from local artists to hang in the lobby.

—The meeting room is suitable for hosting a business roundtable, or even a baby shower.

A plinth in the center of the vast lobby hold multiple meeting rooms of all sizes.

No matter the use, Holly said, “we wanted it to have a residential feel.” And because the space was so open and airy, she avoided interrupting those sightlines by keeping bold colors on the floors, such as the over-scale hound’s-tooth rug under the large serpentine sofa, or the orange and gray chevron in the media room. The color only veers upward, via bold stripes, inside the contained restaurant booths.

Rugs, like the one under our panelists’ seats, are embedded into the lobby floors.

The main issue with public lobbies, Holly said, is that when someone sits on a sofa or at a large table, no one else wants to sit there. By designing serpentine shapes, she said, the curves and bends create smaller areas within the whole so more than one person or group will feel comfortable there. It’s the “alone together” concept, she said—the idea of creating privacy within a larger space.

The serpentine desk and sectional sofa in the lobby.

Those who attended this panel discussion included designers, design enthusiasts, and potential renters. Conversation was buzzing about how exciting this new concept is –some designers I know were saying they’d be ideal for small offices like theirs. One designer asked if two small design offices could co-lease one of the units, and Domres said it would be possible as long as the capacity didn’t exceed 1 employee per 100 square feet.

A reception preceded the panel discussion.

The first handful of tenants began moving into e-lofts last month. Novus is already going through the permitting process for opening a second e-lofts location in Fairfax County—just over the county line from Arlington on Columbia Pike—because it’s filling a growing void, Domres said.

There’s currently a housing shortage of 200,000 units in the DC region, she explained. And we’re headed toward 500,000 if we don’t do something soon. Compare the cost and time investment of building a new apartment building from scratch, seeking all the required permits and approvals, versus transforming a vacant office building that already has the zoning, parking and infrastructure, and it’s kind of a no-brainer, don’t you think?

Ping-Pong tables are placed on a terrace on top of the building’s pre-existing parking garage.

If you want to see for yourself, click here to see the e-lofts floor plans, or here to schedule a tour.

[Disclaimer: I received compensation for my post and review. All thoughts and opinions expressed herein are my own and not influenced by E-lofts, and/or its affiliates in any way.]


  1. Great followup & event, Jen. I followed up with a post on casartblog to your first one and on this event as well! Now I’m off to share your post. Kudos! 😉

  2. Loved your pictures and the design concepts discussed! Great inspiration for an upcoming commercial job I have.
    Thanks again for a “real” blog post!