• A new 3/4-inch-thick steel fin wall wraps around the facade of the 1940s masonry building. - photo by Leonid Furmansky

The Commune, a co-working spot for creatives in Austin’s North Loop neighborhood, occupies a 1940s commercial building that formerly housed a locksmith.

Architect Hunt Architecture
Client Lauren Cunningham
General Contractor Texas Construction & Design
Interior Designer Clair Zinnecker Design
Fabrication Petrified Design
Structural Engineer Arch Consulting Engineers

The block of North Loop Boulevard between Avenue F and the Austin State Hospital Cemetery is home to a novel collection of mostly single-story 1940s retail buildings occupied primarily by vintage clothing and furniture stores. With its ample neon signage, limited parking, and general shabbiness, it has for many people today something of the air of the “old Austin”: a funky hideaway for freaks and geeks. But the new Austin has arrived at this low-density neighborhood on the northern fringe of the central city, and its latest commercial representative is The Commune, a co-working space for the next crop of creatives. 

Designed by Hunt Architecture with interior design by Claire Zinnecker, the project is a renovation of an existing structure that most recently housed a locksmith shop. It had, however, sat empty for a decade. Several businesses had looked at it as a potential location, but there had been no takers, mainly due to the lack of parking. Lauren Cunningham, however, founder and owner of The Commune, saw in the plain little building quite a lot of potential. She purchased it in 2018, put in a parking variance request with the city, and, once that was approved, moved forward with a repositioning of the old structure.

While scrapping the building and erecting a wood-framed box in its place would have been cheaper, that would have obliterated the marketing strategy. The scuffed concrete floor, steel pipe columns, exposed timber joists, and faulty CMU walls exuded a spirit that Cunningham — a graphic designer by trade — knew today’s creatives would respond to, were it given the right touch. 

The first step was bringing daylight into the 3,600-sf, bunker-like building. The design team added eight skylights and clerestories to the roof and opened up the perimeter with steel-framed windows, many of which are operable. The CMU walls were patched and the street facade was redone with a 3/4-inch-thick steel fin wall and a large entry aperture that includes a picture window. To keep things bright, the interior and exterior are painted white, with what few colors there are appearing in pastel pinks, blues, and greens. Blond wood tabletops and cabinetry, curated ceramics, and potted plants (not to mention floral aromatics permeating the space) round out the aesthetic. Windows, doors, steelwork, millwork, and much of the furniture was fabricated by local makers Petrified Design.  

The interior space is divided between an open co-working area with a lounge, desks, and large, communal tables and seven enclosed studios, two of which open onto the common area with sliding operable walls. There is also a photo studio, a conference room, a design resource library stocked with sample books, a canvas storage locker, two private phone booths, and a kitchen. The Commune offers several tiers of membership, from day passes to private studios, all of which were taken, with the wait list growing, as of press time. 

Before moving to Austin two years ago, Hunt Architecture’s husband-and-wife team, Nicholas and Brittany, lived in Brooklyn and worked for Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects. While this is their first commercial project, in scope it closely resembles the New York City apartment renovations with which the couple incubated their practice. (They still take on such projects because the fees for a New York City apartment renovation are equivalent to those of a ground-up house in Austin.) With but a few simple moves, made in collaboration with Cunningham, who brought her own design sensibility to the process, a significant transformation has occurred, and a decrepit space has been freshened for a new generation. 

Aaron Seward is editor of Texas Architect. 

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