Blue Earth
Glazer's Camera

Build it and they will come


Despite humble beginnings as a dreary bicycle shop, a spacious studio emerged from the imagination of Amy Andersen and Jonathan Ross.

Creating space is a challenge every studio photographer ultimately must face. Seattle's Amy Andersen and Jonathan Ross knew the time had come two years ago, as they gazed around the tiny windowless studio they had come to call "the bomb shelter."

After spending years building a client base and socking away earnings from ever-larger assignments, Andersen Ross Photography had a hefty sum in the bank, and the husband-and-wife photography team knew they wanted to spend it on a bigger studio. They settled on a few simple requirements.

They wanted to find a studio that was sunny yet cavernous. It had to be fabulous yet affordable, with room to grow. And it had to be somewhere in Seattle's lively University District, although the city's red-hot real estate market seemed certain to price them out into the suburbs.

After 18 months of looking, they found their space, a landmark bicycle repair shop that was moving.

The couple says the shop was empty, dark and damp when they first set eyes on it in February 1999. At 9,000 square feet, the space was everything they wanted but about twice as much as they needed. The owner refused to consider subdividing the space; if they wanted it, they'd have to take it all and sublease part of it if they needed extra income. Meanwhile, they still had a year left on their lease for the "bomb shelter," so they'd have to find sublease tenants for it as well. Still, they decided to go for it.

Their move was a logistical nightmare, but financially it was a dream come true. They got the abandoned space for 10 cents per square foot—in an area that often costs 10 times that. They took over the space at the end of May and moved in on July 12. In between was a six-week, hair-pulling, bank-draining frenzy of planning, constructing and trade-offs that only recently has begun to pay off.

Deadline worries

The couple, parents of two small children, were shooting six days a week in their old studio while they searched for two sets of tenants and worked long nights on the $50,000 remodel of their new studio. All this during one of Seattle's July heat waves. "If I had to pick the worst month to do this, that was it," says Jonathan.

"The most stressful part was the timeframe," says Amy. "We were in such a rush to get it finished so we weren't paying rent in two places."

They had an assignment from a make-up company that had to be shot in their new studio starting July 12, so they had to move by then.

"We had no choice," says Amy. "It had to be done even if it meant only three or four hours of sleep."

Night jitters

With little architectural background, the couple sketched out how they wanted their new space to look and then went to work finding contractors. But because of Seattle's construction boom, they found that qualified people were in short supply at any price. Jonathan used his longtime Seattle connections to find crews willing to work most of the night, after they got off their regular day jobs.

The studio construction started with five days of demolition. Jonathan and four of his friends gutted the space, ripping down walls and tearing up linoleum squares that hadn't been moved for 50 years. They took apart a large raised floor deck of wood that was loaded with nails. They scraped up carpeting that appeared to have been laid down with Super Glue.

After the place was reduced to beams and walls, they had the framers come in, and then the sheetrock hangers. In a few cases, the rushed workers covered over nails and other imperfections in the outer walls, requiring the sheetrock to be rehung later. Then came the electricians, plumbers, floor guys and painters.

The budget ballooned as each contractor suggested improvements. The studio ultimately ended up with a kitchen, shower, new wiring and an $8,000 laminated wood floor they hadn't planned on.

Jonathan says he was hoping their remodel could be done for $30,000 but didn't balk at the cost overruns, as he had $20,000 in reserve. Still, it was difficult to keep track of the money that was, he says, "just flying out the door. The running joke was that everything costs $1,000."

To make up for such overruns, the couple consoled themselves by shaving corners in smaller ways, such as buying Ikea furniture and assembling it themselves.

Delays, delays, delays

Amy offers a few rules of thumb for those considering constructing their own studio:

• Make your best budget estimate, then add 30 percent.

• Pay your employees well and give them lots of pizza and beer.

• Don't be surprised by how sloppy they are or by the perennial delays. The workers focus on the finishing the project, not the cleanup afterward.

"Everyone took too long," says Jonathan. "People would say, 'We'll be there Monday,' but then I'd have to call them five times to get them by Wednesday. And on Wednesday they'd show up and say, 'I forgot something,' and then they could only work for an hour.

"I can't really blame them," he says. "It was really hot."

Deadline looming

Despite their best efforts, by July 9—the Friday before opening day—the wiring was still incomplete, the plumbing wasn't finished, and there was no furniture, counters, trim work or even outlets. And because of this, none of their equipment had yet been moved in from the old studio.

That weekend, he says, at least 16 people were working on their space 'round the clock. The team included four crews—the floor guys, electricians, framers and finishers. While it seemed impossible on Friday evening, by Monday morning the studio was finished, the gear was moved in and they were shooting their first assignment in the new space.

After a seven-week photo shoot, Jonathan was treated for pneumonia, an illness he ignored for three of the most difficult months a studio photographer is likely to encounter.

Room to breathe
Today, over a year later, life is very different. The rock group Cake is playing on the stereo, and there's a sense of calm in the airy, polished studio.

It's truly everything a photographer could want—large windows, a welcoming customer area, a kitchen, private offices, a bathroom with a shower, lots of storage, big floor area, ground-level entry and a great location. But creating this 4,500-square-foot dream space was no easy task.

"We have no regrets whatsoever," says Amy. "It's amazing how wonderful it's been. Everyone loves this space."
She says the new space hasn't really changed their business, but it's made doing business so much more enjoyable."It's more like icing on the cake," she says.

Bobbi Nodell
Story Author: Bobbi Nodell

Bobbi Nodell, formerly with MSNBC.com, is now a freelance writer based in Seattle.

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