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Wednesday, July 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 63.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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The new 'above the store'
Living where you work is a little different from working at home

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Walking into Raymond Neal and Soraya Willems-Neal's apartment feels a lot like walking into the home of just about any other couple with young kids. The living room/family room area is warm and inviting, despite, or perhaps because of, the army of Lego characters scattered on the floor. The walls are painted a fashionable shade of beige and decorated with smile-inducing wedding and baby photos. The door of their refrigerator displays the requisite collage of masterpieces by their two elementary-aged children.

There are lots of kids milling about in the lobby of their building, as well. These "kids," though, are tethered to their iPods, hosting study groups and waiting for the pizza delivery guy to arrive. This is because Raymond Neal is the "residence life coordinator" for Smith Hall, a UW-Madison dorm that houses over 400 freshmen, sophomores and juniors. It's a job that requires him and his family to live on site.

According to a recent study from the Telework Research Network, some 30 million Americans work from home at least one day a week. But Raymond and his family are part of a breed of workers that is far more rare, those who actually live in their place of employment.

The Neals have chosen to live where they work, and among college students, for their entire married life. "Actually," says Soraya, "it's this unique career and living situation that allowed us to be together in the first place."

When the couple, who met in Soraya's native Holland, tired of their transatlantic relationship, they discussed settling in the Netherlands. But employment opportunities for an American in post-9/11 Europe looked bleak, so instead, Raymond, who grew up in Milwaukee, decided to enter a graduate program at his alma mater, UW-Whitewater.

"When a friend told me about the opportunity to become a graduate-level residence hall coordinator on campus, I jumped at the chance to interview. I knew the tuition remission, stipend and the chance to live rent-free would finally make it financially possible for us to be together."

In 2003 Soraya moved to the States, and into Wellers Hall. They married less than two weeks later.

Raymond readily admits that while his initial attraction to residence hall living may have been financial, he quickly discovered how much he enjoyed making an impact on students' lives.

"So when I finished my master's program in 2006," he says, "I was confident I wanted to remain in the field. And since we knew we wanted to stay in Wisconsin, making a move to the UW-Madison campus made sense."

The couple spent their first three years in Madison living in Witte Hall, an older dorm, but jumped at the chance to move into their modern, newly constructed apartment in Smith in 2008. And while the Neals aren't necessarily promising to be dorm lifers, it's been a terrific living arrangement for the past 11 years.

"I love being around the college kids. Their energy is really exciting," says Soraya, who has no professional duties with the students. "And truthfully, it's unlikely we'd be able to afford to live in a spacious two-bedroom, two-bath place like this downtown if Raymond wasn't a residence life coordinator. We love being able to walk to the Capitol and the zoo when the weather is good."

Soraya is eager to list the numerous other perks of her family's particular live/work situation. Generally speaking, the apartment came furnished with items she really liked. But the couple are able to make changes as they see fit. For example, they traded out the single bed that came in the second bedroom for necessary twin beds for their two children (beds they purchased themselves). And the large, decorative gilded mirror that hangs on the living room wall, which adds much personality to the space, was also their personal touch.

If Soraya needs her husband for anything, she says, "I can just call Raymond, and regardless of where he's working in the building he can be here in a minute." And she admits, "Although it doesn't happen often, if I don't feel like cooking, we can always do carryout from Newell's Deli," the dining hall located right in the building.

For the Neals' first-grade son, living at his parents' place of work is really no big deal. When asked if his friends think it's cool that he lives in a dorm -- there's a vending machine in the hall, after all -- Marc answers with the unique wisdom of a first-grader: "You know, they don't really care. My friends are mostly coming over to play with me. And this is my home."

For Peggy Furlan, blowing off the cooking is not an option. At least not for the first meal of the day. That's because Furlan, along with husband Dave, owns and operates the historic Livingston Inn Bed & Breakfast on Madison's near east side. The couple live on premises with their children, Daniel, Joanna and Luke.

"Ever since we had kids, the idea of owning a home-based business really appealed to me," says Peggy. "But Dave and I didn't really set out to own a B&B, despite our years of experience in the hospitality industry."

The couple fell in love with the 160-year old William T. Leitch House, a Gothic Revival mansion overlooking Lake Mendota, after a private showing in 2008.

"Despite the fact that the property would need substantial work, we knew that purchasing the house and reopening it as a guest house would be my family's calling," says Peggy.

After several years of negotiating, the Furlans closed on the property in May 2011 and moved in the same day. The Livingston Inn, listed in the National Register of Historic Places, opened for business later that summer.

The Furlans' stunning home boasts nine fireplaces (including one in each of the inn's four guest rooms), 11-foot ceilings on the main floor and carefully restored architectural details both inside and out.

"For us, though, it's a little more like Downton Abbey," jokes Peggy, referring to the fact that the family sleeps in the three bedrooms located in the basement. "It's kind of funny. Each of the guest rooms has its own private bathroom, but all five of us share one."

The family enjoys spending time visiting with the guests and getting to know them. "But at the end of the day, it's nice to have our own space. And the guests need to feel like this is their home."

For 12-year-old Luke, living in his family's place of business certainly has its quirks.

"For the longest time after we moved in, I'd wake up in the middle of the night and hear strangers' voices. Sometimes it's weird to have people other than my own family hanging out in my house."

And as far as chores go, Joanna's pretty sure she's one of the only kids in America who can expertly use a mangle, an impressive-looking laundry press used to flatten sheets.

Peggy says she and the family feel fortunate to "have a job we love that's located in a house we love in a city like Madison. Yes, I'm sure for others the idea of living in the space where you work might seem weird. This is our normal."

More formal attempts at developing stand-alone live/work units haven't really taken off in the Madison area, says Jane Grabowski-Miller, director of planning and design for the Erdman Development Group. Erdman developed Middleton Hills, the 20-year-old suburban neighborhood based on the principles of New Urbanism and smart growth.

"We really wanted to provide a diversity of housing options when Middleton Hills was founded," says Grabowski-Miller, "and the live/work concept was selling like hotcakes in other cities."

Erdman had difficulties finding anyone local to develop the planned live/work units. Mixed-use building codes were seen as a complication, and some felt the units would be too costly. Eventually Erdman ended up developing the neighborhood's first units itself. But of the four it sold, only one ended up being used as planned, with the owners living on the second level above a business occupying the ground floor.

Grabowski-Miller still likes the concept of live/work units. "But I think most people in the Madison market really want a home with a business in it, instead of a business with a home in it," she says.

That one taker on the Middleton Hills unit is Aaron Harris. "Our business purchased the unit in 1999, prior to my becoming the full-time chief of the Middleton Fire District," says Harris, whose video production company, Station 1 Communications, remains the owner of the Middleton Hills unit.

"Our video editing suite was in the lowest level of the building, and we rented, and still do rent, the middle level to another video production company," says Harris. "My wife, daughter and I lived on the third floor."

Harris and family fully embraced the live/work concept for four years, just short of the birth of their second daughter, when, according to Harris, "we simply ran out of space" in the two-bedroom living quarters.

Harris now lives with his wife and three children in the town of Middleton but misses the efficient commute from "live" to "work."

"Some believe the lack of separation between your home and work would be a drawback, but I always felt the opposite," says Harris.

In an effort to try to duplicate the experience, he's moved his editing suite into an office space in the family's current home.

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