Story of a San Francisco loft apartment

Interview with Donnie Wang

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Before the loft, I had ideas; they were just ideas that I didn’t know could come true. We were probably just daydreaming. But now I know these things are possible.

We dream about ideas. We look at interior magazines and imagine what it would feel like to live in one of those tastefully crafted homes. We watch shows and documentaries of tiny homes and admire the creative staircases and loft beds from afar. It is often hard to apply these ideas to our own apartment, especially when we don’t come from an architectural or interior design background. We deem them untenable and shy away from taking action.

Sometimes, however, it takes dreaming and then executing on that dream to really know what is possible.

Donnie and his wife Nicole had the dream of transforming their small studio apartment in downtown San Francisco. They were inspired by concepts such as staircases with storage and walls that slide open to reveal kitchen cabinets or Murphy beds. Like many of us, they kept these ideas as dreams for a long while.

I certainly hung on to these ideas for a long time. I waited longer to actually try to build something because I didn’t know where to start.

The studio apartment was simple; it had a large bed in the middle that takes up most of the floor space. At times when they tried inviting friends over for dinner, their friends often felt uncomfortable sitting on the bed as an entertainment space; the place looked full from the furnishing with the queen bed as the centerpiece. 

Before the loft; “We were really happy with this space for 2-3 years. Eventually we just had this urge to gain additional space.

Eventually, they desired more space. The obvious solution was to find a larger place with more bedrooms, yet they wondered if there was a different solution.

As long as Donnie can remember, he resonated with the minimal living lifestyle. His house rules for minimal living were “for every new item that we buy, two old items need to leave” and “if an item is not worn or used at least once in 6 months (or in a year if it is seasonal), we donate or get rid of it.” This minimal lifestyle was in tune with the tiny home movement; higher quality of living did not always entail owning more things or having a bigger apartment.

Perhaps this belief drove the couple to think creatively with their space. Instead of moving to a larger place, they sought to alter their studio apartment in a more efficient manner. What if there is a way to gain access to vertical space? The 13 foot ceiling of this SOMA apartment building presented a unique opportunity.

At the time, they met a friend who was going to architecture school and transitioning his career from being a software engineer to an architect. Transforming this 537 sq ft studio apartment became his portfolio piece. The small footprint of the urban apartment served as a constraint that sparked the creative solution of building a minimal and cozy loft.

The end design called for a multifunctional unit comprising three separate spaces: the “bedroom” above the loft, the “office” underneath with a pull-out table and Murphy bed, and the “living room” outside of the loft area with recliner chair and projector screen. Even though it was still one “giant” room, the ability to simply be out of view of the other person made a huge difference. According to Donnie:

With the loft, there was an opportunity to find private space when you needed to.”

Top left: separate workspace; bottom left: guest bed; Right: Custom ladder, “One of our dreams was always to have a rolling library ladder.
The structural build of the loft was simple with the minimalist “less is more” vision. Here, concrete was chosen over wood. In a wood structure, it is a skin system with many layers: the wooden frame along with drywall and panels on the interior for insulation. Whereas in the monolithic system of the loft, the structure, final finish, as well as the ability to bring in light are all achieved via a single material of concrete.

The loft accommodated the lifestyles of a morning lark and a night owl. Before the loft, when Nicole had gone to sleep early, Donnie, the night owl, had to work in the dark. Despite keeping lights off, there was a sense of intruding on her space and pressure to stop working. Once the loft was built, somehow the separation of space relieved Donnie from the pressure as he was able to continue to work in the sanctuary beneath the loft. 

Our environment has the power to foster relationships by providing the needed privacy, and this division of physical space doesn’t always have to be separate bedrooms. According to Donnie, “I think the loft actually made us closer. That's been one of the biggest blessings.

In addition, the space became more conducive to social gatherings. Once the bed was out of the way, the addition of a dining table to share a meal made the place more welcoming and inviting.

A more inviting dining table and entertainment space.

Many young couples list “inviting friends over and having gatherings” as some of their priorities when choosing a new place. It is this feeling of wanting to share with others our intimate living space that help us in connecting with others better; when we gather around the dinner table, drinking tea and having snacks, we catch up on our lives and feel closer to one another. 

Having the space to invite friends over may seem like a dream for a small urban studio, yet, the loft made it possible.

The building of the loft gave Donnie and Nicole a lot more confidence in what they can do to improve their immediate surroundings.

The thing that’s changed since we got our first project done, it kind of unlocked that box of ideas.

Now when my wife and I are brainstorming ideas on what we can do to our place, we are actually talking about it in real terms. We’re not just throwing ideas at a wall, we’re exchanging ideas that we really feel confident that we can execute on them.

When I think back on accomplishments and things I’ve done in my life, it’s still one of my proudest moments. I just feel it’s one of those things in terms of improving your living situation that had made a huge impact; the quality of life that my wife and I had while we lived at that place, and it really extended the time that we stayed there. Had it not been for the loft, we definitely would’ve moved out years before.

“Under normal circumstances we may have just looked at the space we had and said, oh we just need more bedrooms and let’s move. That would’ve played out a lot differently if we didn’t have this mindset of how can we improve our space and make it better for us.

It is the difference between accepting our living situation and actively thinking and reimagining what could be better; it is the mindset of taking agency in improving our space and quality of living. 

When we look around our space, we realize that the dream homes we see on television are possible.

It had been five years since the loft was completed; the couple had moved out of the apartment when they welcomed their first child in 2017. Now the space is occupied by a female founder of a tech company. She was looking for a creative and inspiring space to live in while using it as her main office and work space. Luckily, she found the loft.

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Thank you Donnie Wang for the interview. Looking forward to seeing innovations with your new space.

Suggestions for further exploration

  • The best inspirations on tiny apartment living: NEVER TOO SMALL. Just look at this home!

  • Video on Donnie and Nicole by Brit + Co


Thanks for reading! Sometimes, I think about if it’s possible to draw out blueprints and make them a kit for different apartments to make building a dream loft accessible while streamlining the process to make it scalable. 

As always, respond to this email with any comments or feedback! 

If you’re curious to transform your home, perhaps adding a backyard office, please let me know! I’m transitioning my career from tech to architecture and would love to work on a portfolio piece :)

Talk soon,

Coco