By Christina B. Farnsworth Builder Eric Brown is a self-described maverick who thought "that in a city of more than two million there ought to be 40 who would want something different." He was more than right. Brown, president of Artisan Homes, has found far more than 40 Phoenicians with an appreciation for urban lofts. Artisan's Lofts on Osborn, seven blocks from the city center, has become the prototype for other Artisan loft projects brewing for downtown Phoenix.

Canada (Vancouver, B.C., to be precise) was Brown's inspiration. "The lofts there" he says, "have such a great feeling." After stints with The Meyers Group and Continental Homes, he was looking for the "just the right market niche for the little guy."

Brown deconstructed a few concepts onto a napkin and took them to architect Jeff Chelwick. Chelwick, principal of multifamily design at the Irvine, Calif.-based William Hezmalhalch Architects, was no stranger to lofts--he grew up in Connecticut and spent time in its industrial cities. When industry left the older, housing-poor cities, frequently commercial and industrial space was converted into housing.

Most lofts are renovations from commercial or industrial to residential use. The Phoenix challenge was to create a new building shell that suggested an industrial heritage and allowed buyers to sculpt 40 raw spaces into their own dream homes. It's what some developers call "soft lofts," says Brown.

At issue was the fact that there were no similar Phoenix projects and that the entire building shell had to be completed before any actual homes could be started. However, potential buyers needed something to look at. Kitchen Sink Graphics created three-dimensional walkthroughs using the architect's CAD drawings and real product and color specs. The results, Chelwick says, are amazing. Brown was even more pleased--the finished building looked just like the pre-built 3-D.

As for the city, "Phoenix was wonderful," Brown says. "They were actually looking for someone to do this kind of thing." Lofts are a sign of a mature city, and Phoenix wanted to look all grown up. The area was certainly old enough--the original land plat dated from 1911. Even after Brown managed to pry the four vacant parcels from three different owners, he needed a variety of zoning variations, because codes for building an industrial-style building with raw open space for housing simply did not exist.

Even so, it was still hard to build a great building.

Phoenix's legendary "dry" summer heat was potentially at odds with the loft tradition of acres of industrial-style glass. So Chelwick carved shady decks into the building fa#231;ade to foil the sun, then seasoned the effect with trellis details for further sun shading. Upper floor and roof deck views are awesome, Chelwick says, mixing the city's lights and mountains, including the famous Camelback.

The metal railing detail, the tower element, detailing on the decks, sun shading, and the covered roof deck are among the elements Chelwick playfully labels "retro-cool"--spicy twists to the basic loft recipe of brick and glass.

It was "brutally difficult" to soundproof the units, Brown says. To deaden sound traveling through floors, Artisan built a wood frame, an air gap, and layers of soundboard, all hidden beneath ultra-fashionable poured concrete.

The nine basic plans include wide open spaces with 10-foot ceilings, concrete floors, exposed duct work, sprinklers, upscale appliance packages, and high-end cabinets--and more than a few two-story units. Perhaps surprisingly, one-third of buyers don't isolate the master bedroom. Buyers often entered negotiations claiming a need for three bedrooms--for themselves, guests, and a home office--and ultimately selected more open options without worrying about their very occasional weekend visitor, Brown says. All homes include private balconies.

Common area amenities include a secured entry lobby with mailroom and oversized elevator, a fitness room, an outdoor pool, grill and picnic area, and a shaded rooftop terrace. Homeowner fees are $175 per month, including trash pickup, full-channel cable television, and high-speed Internet access, as well as "video doorbells" on channel 22 starring whoever's in the lobby.

Construction took longer than projected--18 rather than 13 months. The reason? Brown's definition of the loft as "flexible and adaptable to meet your needs" invited buyers to customize with a vengeance. And with starting prices pegged at $159,000 for 1,050 square feet, few buyers resisted add-ons. Forty units became 36: One buyer merged three units, positioning one to be split off and sold separately at a later date. Another, starting with a $220,000 unit, ended up spending $350,000. Oh, yeah--that nifty three-unit combo? It penciled out just shy of a million dollars for 4,700 square feet.

Customization reaches as far as personal tech. One resident, Brown remembers, chose Craftsman tool holders for kitchen utensils and left his garbage disposer exposed. "It looks great," Brown says.

Loft buyers are "incredibly diverse," Brown says, but generally fit the phrase "been there, done that." They don't want big yards. The single and the coupled, straight and gay, love the lock it and leave it aspect of loft living. Artisan attracted doctors, artists, photographers, and professional athletes, including a well-known star baseball pitcher.

Project: Lofts on Osborn, Phoenix; Number of units planned: 40; Number of units at build out: 36; Size: Nine plans range from 1,050 to 1,900 square feet (largest combined unit is 4,700 square feet); Price: $159,000 to $1,000,000; Builder/Developer: Artisan Homes, Phoenix; Architect: William Hezmalhalch Architects, Irvine, Calif.