Ryman Lofts

Program Summary:

Ryman Lofts is a 60-unit multi-family affordable housing project developed exclusively for artists in downtown Nashville’s Rolling Mill Hill neighborhood.

Program Statement:

Ryman Lofts is Nashville’s first and only affordable residential community designed with a specific preference for artists.  Exemplary of the partnerships that have contributed to Nashville’s growth, the idea for an artists’ community resulted in collaboration between the Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency, the Music City Music Council and Mayor Karl Dean.  In 2010, only months after Smith Gee Studio formed, MDHA hired SGS to design the project based on our experience with urban housing projects and our proposed creative approach to include artists in the design process.  Recognizing the potential social, cultural and economic benefits for Music City to serve its ever-increasing population of artists, the team was challenged with creating housing that uniquely appeals to artists on an affordable housing budget.

Located on a bluff overlooking downtown Nashville and the Cumberland River, Ryman Lofts is part of the rapidly revitalizing Rolling Mill Hill area, once home to the city’s General Hospital and motor vehicle fleet. The project’s namesake, Captain Thomas Ryman, owner of a steamboat line and builder of the Union Gospel Tabernacle (renamed Ryman Auditorium after his death in 1904), had a home nearby in the late 19th century. The Ryman Lofts development complements the range of housing choices already in place on Rolling Mill Hill, from high-end luxury apartments to workforce units. The location’s close proximity to downtown provides residents with convenient access to scores of artistic and performance venues.

Artist Focus Groups:

Prior to developing the design, Smith Gee Studio facilitated a series of Artist Focus Groups to further understand the unique needs of artists. Working with the Metro Arts Commission, the design team invited artists from various local organizations. Songwriters and musicians, painters and sculptors, graphic designers and photographers, ballerinas and opera singers all provided valuable feedback.  From these sessions we identified common needs among varying types of artists and developed a clear vision for the project.  When asked to rank images of buildings that might exemplify an artist community, overwhelmingly they preferred a simple brick warehouse-like structure with high ceilings and an abundance of glass.  One young insightful painter made it clear….”Don’t let the architecture compete with the art!”

Design Response – Tailored to Artists:

An architecture of restraint that complements, the art and spirit of the place emerged.  Simple in its form and rhythm, and reminiscent of nearby historic warehouses, the brick box is bookended by Mondrian-esque mosaics of bright colors signifying a unique home for artists.  The exterior of the building offers opportunities for a large wall mural and sculpture at the main entrance and smaller art niches along the Hermitage Avenue streetscape.

Flexible floor plans with tall ceilings, custom sliding “barn doors,” easily maintained finishes and fixtures, open commercial-grade kitchens in an environment that nurtures creativity were common needs of the artists and remained uncompromised in the design. Generous expanses of glazing provide abundant natural light and capitalize on the site’s views of downtown. Capitalizing on the opportunity afforded by the project, SGS engaged artisans to inject authentic handcrafted elements into the project. The artist-crafted custom steel towel racks, toilet paper dispensers and robe hooks were actually more affordable than their market-rate alternatives.  Interior corridors double as gallery space with spot-lit art walls that residents have curated with works of their own.


Consistent with Mayor Dean’s goal for Nashville to be the greenest city in the southeast, the project achieved LEED for Homes Silver Certification.  Smith Gee Studio’s team incorporated the following sustainable features into its design and construction:

  • Selection of materials and strategies that reduce the possibility of indoor moisture damage and are durable for a long life span with less maintenance
  • Limited turf areas with drought-tolerant plants and reduced overall irrigation needs
  • Reduction in local heat island effects, through the use of light-colored hard surface roofing and open pavers
  • Surface water management, through the use of permeable pavers and a bio-swell incorporated into the landscape/site design to help manage the runoff from the roof and other hard surfaces
  • Water efficiency through the specification of a high-efficiency irrigation system and high-efficiency fixtures and settings
  • Reduced energy consumption, through energy-efficient HVAC units and windows, and a well-insulated and airtight envelope to make the most of the systems
  • Materials and resource conservation, through specification of environmentally preferable products and construction waste reduction


Budgetary Discipline:

While a public/Housing Authority project, Ryman Lofts was privately financed and was required to be built to a positive cash flow pro-forma. As low-income housing, Ryman Lofts rents are afforded by artists making 60% of the Area Median Income or less. This required a low-budget design solution at $85 per square foot (vertical construction), totaling $5.6 million for the building. The design team catalyzed the constraint of a “shoestring” budget into a unique design solution that creates a model for artist housing in Music City.

The 60-unit, 53,500 sq. ft. apartment community includes studio, one- and three-bedroom units arranged in a simple repetitive rhythm at an 87.5% net-to-gross efficiency. Affordable rents allow residents to actively pursue their art, while floor plans ranging from 713 to 1,285 square feet provide ample space to nurture their creativity.

Project Success:

Almost immediately after plans were announced to develop Ryman Lofts in late 2010, MDHA began to receive calls from interested artists requesting details. The property’s application guidelines require that eligible artists “practice in the unique creation and public display or performance of visual arts, craft, sound and performance art, film and television, theater, dance, music or literary arts, and do so on a regular and progressive basis.” Illustrative of Nashville’s major role in music and the arts, there was interest from across the United States from individuals who wanted to be a part of the city’s vibrant arts scene and appreciated having an affordable housing option to assist them as they pursued their dreams.

Ryman Lofts is operated under the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program, so each eligible applicant must also establish qualified income and general eligibility status by meeting the income, background check, prior rental history and other eligibility criteria. The affordable rents are critical in a downtown residential neighborhood that has been heavily focused on market-rate rentals in the past decade.

Because of the anticipated interest level in Ryman Lofts, an online application system was developed and launched in October 2012. Applications began pouring in within the first days of operation. The first tenants moved into Ryman Lofts at the end of January 2013, with full lease-up by mid-February.  It has been strongly supported by the City’s creative community and economic development interests.

Unique in conception and execution, Ryman Lofts is a dwelling place tailored to its specific clientele; a hub for artists where cross-fertilization of ideas and energy across artistic disciplines is enabled and encouraged.  Within Nashville’s downtown core, Ryman Lofts is an incubator for Music City’s talent, enjoying close proximity to the entertainment district, arts venues and Music Row.