Spatial Design for Coliving

While spatial design is something that I’ve always been curious about, it isn’t one of the reasons why I became interested in the Coliving movement. If I had to guess, I’d say this is the case for the majority of the people in the industry: they are curious about spatial design, but more interested in the community or purpose-driven living aspects of Coliving.

While there’s nothing wrong with that, I’m here to say that regardless of why you believe in Coliving, we should ALL be more interested in spatial design. After speaking with several architectural design experts, I am convinced that whatever the goals of a Coliving company, spatial design can be a powerful force to help achieve those goals.

For Big Tech, using spatial design to achieve your organization’s goals is old news. We’re all familiar with how the crazy office spaces at Google, Facebook, and Apple are designed to increase creativity and collaboration. On an office tour of Space-X offices, Elon Musk mentions that they operate with a very open floor plan because “doors limit communication.”

Want to encourage more face-to-face time and relationship building amongst your employees? No problem, design the physical layout of your office so people have no choice but to interact and learn from one another.

If some of the most innovative companies in the world are redesigning their offices to better fit modern working styles, why can’t we do the same with living environments to better fit modern lifestyles? Applying this idea specifically to Coliving’s dilemma between Community and Scalability, how can we design a 100+ resident Coliving building to capture both the scalability advantages of large operators AND the community advantages of small operators?

I personally don’t have the answer to that question, but I’ve recently had the chance to chat with some Coliving spatial design experts that are making a career behind answering that question. Below we’ll examine some extremely innovative design ideas from four Coliving spatial design experts.

David Chun, Cohaus

Our first Coliving architect is David Chun who is a co-founder of a Coliving company in California called Cohaus. Holding two architecture degrees from U.C. Berkeley and Harvard, David has a profound belief in how design can create better ways of living and he’s implementing his design concepts at Cohaus’s beautiful Coliving homes in Los Angeles. In fact, it was a very engaging email exchange with David that started the idea for this article in the first place.

Design Philosophy

One of the biggest takeaways from my exchange with David was the way he views spatial planning: “In essence the building is conceptualized like a city. Approach the building like an urban planner and create separate but well-connected neighborhoods.” I have a feeling that if we asked Dunbar or Dunkelman (from our discussion in Part 1) what they thought about “creating separate but well-connected neighborhoods” within a building, they would love the concept.

Most urban planners would agree that in order for cities to function well they should seamlessly connect the various pockets of residents (also known as neighborhoods). Within each neighborhood there’s also a need to connect and build trust amongst each city block, and even within each building. If this concept seems similar to Dunbar’s social layers, that’s because it’s more or less the exact same idea. David’s point is if these social structures work at a city level, they should also work at a building level.

So, what do you get when you apply urban design concepts to a residential building? David believes that future Coliving spatial design should create “sub-communities” that will act to “compartmentalize groups of 10-15 within the building which have some autonomy.”

Essentially David wants to crack Coliving’s dilemma by designing a building such that ten or more “small Coliving communities” can exist within it. When you think about the concept, it logically makes a lot of sense – small Coliving locations have better community so let’s group a few together in the same building. In theory this will allow us to maintain the closeness of community while also being able to harness the power of economies of scale.

Spatial Design Models

Now the issue becomes how to physically change the building blueprint to accommodate these sub-communities. For David two of the most important aspects for an ideal Coliving experience are access and privacy.

On the access side, David mentioned it is important to utilize many different access points to the building and to “eliminate long hallways that create a tunnel” like in hotels, traditional apartment buildings, or jails (which begs the question: why are our jails and living solutions designed in the same way?). Instead of narrow hallways the space could be better “activated by integrating intermediate spaces (semi-public/semi-private).”

According to David, designing different access points throughout the building will also allow for a higher level of privacy, something that shared living spaces oftentimes to struggle with. The design model comparison from Cohaus’s website will help to explain this concept better than I could hope to.

Traditional houses are designed in this order: entrance, common area, passageway, private space.

In Cohaus homes, however, the spatial design intentionally changes this order to: entrance, passageway, and then private space/common area. By redesigning the order, Cohaus is able to maintain a strong community environment while also creating more privacy for residents when they desire it.

Natasha Reid, Matter. Space. Soul.

Our next spatial design expert is Natasha Reid, founder of architectural research & design lab Matter. Space. Soul. whose mission is to “put wellbeing at the heart of how places are made.” Natasha holds two architecture degrees from Cambridge and London Metropolitan University and her company was recently selected to join the International WELL Building Institute’s Covid-19 task force.

Design Philosophy

Take a browse through Matter. Space. Soul.’s website and you’ll immediately understand Natasha’s design philosophy. She is all about creating human-centric spaces that truly take into account human needs, particularly their social and wellbeing needs.

One of the design standards that Natasha champions is called the WELL Building Standard that defines seven concepts that buildings should strive to uphold from air and water quality to access to fitness and light. The main idea behind WELL is for humans to rethink how we design and use buildings to better support healthy lifestyles.

Another framework that Natasha is currently working on is called the Compassionate Space Framework. The main aim for the framework is to measure “how having a sense of belonging and a connection to place impacts quality of life.”

As the global Coliving movement continues to expand, it must work alongside city governments to explain the benefits of shared living to create policy that will allow Coliving to thrive. In order for this to happen one of the most important elements is being able to measure the positive impact of Coliving, particularly the traditionally difficult to measure benefits such as increases in happiness or overall wellbeing.

Natasha plans to use this framework in some of her future research to actually measure the wellbeing benefits that can be attributed to shared living spatial design. I for one will certainly be keeping up with Natasha’s research on the subject as I’m sure it will have a majorly positive impact on the Coliving movement.

Spatial Design Models

One of Natasha’s design concepts that I found most intriguing was the “Cluster Model” that she recently presented at the Home for Londoners conference and is becoming quite popular in Coliving design circles. As you can see in the graphic from her presentation below, the model consists of 4-5 studio units that all have access to a shared living area.

Natasha has designed the space such that each cluster can function as one self-contained household with access to outdoor views, natural light, and fresh air. The entire cluster model is designed in such a way that wellbeing and the creation of authentic community are at its core. Natasha also mentioned that the cluster model is modular, meaning it can be used in a variety of ways and lends itself to easily creating what Natasha calls “clusters of clusters” that are particularly useful in high density urban areas.

The phrase “clusters of clusters” sounds a lot like creating Dunbar’s social layers doesn’t it? The analogy Natasha used was that each cluster of 4-6 people is like your family and then the larger cluster (that consists of four or five small clusters) would be about the size of a classroom, say around 30 people. Yet again we see another wellbeing and architecture expert advocating for multi-tiered community creation.

Natasha said this model would help create the strong ties AND weak ties that are necessary for an authentic community and I couldn’t agree more. Those that read Part 4 of the Case for Coliving series remember that the strength of weak ties theory is a powerful advantage of modern living and can lead to higher rates of innovation. If you have a few minutes I would recommend checking out Natasha’s latest presentation on Collective Models for Wellbeing, full of valuable spatial design insights!

Tom Manwell, Conscious Coliving

Next up we have Tom Manwell, founder of Wellstudio, an architecture company for wellbeing, and a co-founder of Conscious Coliving, a leading Coliving consulting company. With architecture degrees from Cardiff University, University of East London, and London Metropolitan University, Tom is a highly skilled architect that builds his practice around his passions for creative design, enabling social interactions, and sustainability.

Design Philosophy

Tom has been involved in the Coliving industry long enough to see it evolve and change over the past decade. He’s seen the industry quickly grow from a small group of idealistic pioneers to a semi-mainstream movement with a variety of different executions. Tom is obviously a big fan of the rapid growth the industry is currently experiencing, but he wants to make sure Coliving remains committed to connectedness and sustainability, in his mind two of Coliving’s core pillars (hard to argue with that).

The core values of Tom’s design philosophy are extremely apparent in both Wellstudio and Conscious Coliving. At Wellstudio the company’s mission is to “design homes that enhance your wellbeing, support interaction and connect you with nature.” Additionally, many of you might be familiar with the Conscious Coliving Manifesto which I believe is one of the best Coliving frameworks developed in the industry thus far.

As you can probably tell from the Manifesto graphic, Tom and his colleagues have a very wholistic view of the Coliving experience. This comprehensive approach was very apparent when Tom stressed the need for a full integration of spatial design and living experience: “Coliving is the built structure AND the people that live in that structure.” While this might seem obvious, I believe the idea it represents, namely that architecture and community need to be fully integrated, is oftentimes overlooked.

Spatial Design Models

The lens through which Tom views spatial design is heavily influenced by nature. Perhaps the most interesting concept that Tom shared during our discussion was his fascination with non-linear design. Although I had never really thought about it, nearly ALL architectural design in the world is based on linear models. If you look around the room you’re in right now, chances are most design elements are linear.

For Tom, the human obsession with linear architecture does not match the mostly non-linear relationships we observe in nature. If you walk around in a forest, you’ll be hard pressed to find a square insect or rectangular leaf. Tom even went a step further to argue that as humans we evolved in nature and therefore, we should aesthetically prefer curves rather than lines.

Heydar Aliyev Center by Zaha Hadid

I did a bit of digging and it turns out Tom is right. A 2013 psychological study showed participants a series of 200 architectural images –“half rectilinear and the other half curvilinear” – and measured their brain’s response. The results of the study demonstrated that “participants were more likely to judge curvilinear than rectilinear spaces as beautiful.” For a reader’s digest version, check out this quick video from Discovery Channel: Why Our Brains Love Curved Buildings.

With our love for curves in mind, Tom mentioned one of the spatial design models he prefers is one based on a cellular structure or a center space surrounded by a set of concentric circles. According to Tom the traffic flow of a cellular living arrangement, which history shows was adopted by many early human tribes across the globe, creates more crossover points which allows more opportunities for humans to interact.

Hana Ahriz and Franziska Heuschkel, Space & Pepper

Last but certainly not least is the extremely talented dynamic duo of Hana Ahriz and Franziska Heuschkel. Both Hana and Franziska have an impressive list of academic and professional international business and design experiences that led them to co-found Space & Pepper in 2018. Space & Pepper designs “human-centric concepts for the real estate and hospitality industry” and has already partnered with an impressive list of clients across Germany including Coca-Cola Company in Berlin, International Campus in Hamburg, and Adina Apartment Hotels in Munich. I believe a line from Franziska’s LinkedIn best sums up their drive: “on a marathon-mission to making a slow, human-centric space design the ‘New Normal’.”

Design Philosophy

When chatting with Hana and Franziska, their human-centric design approach is immediately apparent. The pair was quick to champion the design thinking process and mentioned that if “we look through the eyes of the user early on, we can create a more impactful product.” As I mentioned in the introduction of this piece, it’s about time we (as humans) start applying this user-centric approach to our living solutions and firms like Space & Pepper are the ones that are making this a reality.

Another focus of Hana and Franziska is creating spaces that can be used by multiple user groups and activated in different ways. Working on projects such as innovation hubs, coliving spaces, and coworking cafes, the Space & Pepper team has a wealth of experience in the small tweaks and changes in design that can make all the difference. For them, spatial design should be “less about how it looks in a picture and more about how it feels for the people.”

Design philosophy behind Boutik, a Lisbon café & concept store, Source

Instead of starting with square meters, spatial design should first consider the use cases and human stories that will occur in that space. In a coliving space, for example, is the communal space going to be used for nightly hang outs, monthly community happy hours, and weekly yoga sessions? If so, Hana and Franziska would want to interview all the people involved in these events at the very beginning of the design process and intentionally incorporate the wants and needs and stories of the end users into the design of the space. I think this makes it easy to see why in our conversation I found myself nodding along to their entire design philosophy.

Spatial Design Process

Hana and Franziska had the chance to walk me through the design process they follow to ensure the spaces they create are as engaging as possible. They ensured me that two of their first steps in the process, testing and then validating assumptions around the user, were the most important and ones that many designers will overlook.

What kind of assumptions are they talking about and why is it important to test and validate them? The assumptions are ones about the target group: the wants and needs of the end users as well as the local neighborhood. Hana and Franziska emphasized that you must take these first two steps in order to truly understand the unique requirements of each project before you can even start thinking of solutions.

My favorite part of our conversation came when the Space & Pepper founders discussed another part of their design process which is “holistically activating the space.” Off the bat they stressed the need for all the pieces of the space to work together in creating the desired end experience: the space itself, the staff, the community spirit, and the local neighborhood among others. For example, Hana mentioned, “if you want to build a community-oriented space but you only focus on building a beautiful space and you don’t have a superstar Community Manager, it won’t work.” In their work with their clients, Hana and Franziska make sure to consider all the different aspects of how a space will be utilized in order to make their final spatial design decisions.

Digging a bit deeper on the power of the local neighborhood, Franziska mentioned a point of view their team places importance on that I had never really considered: “how inviting and welcoming is a space from the outside?” In dense urban environments with a high level of foot-traffic, an empty entry communal space won’t attract the local neighborhood and could potentially damage the brand’s local reputation. If we imagine ourselves as a passer-byer, how would we react to the space? Is it attractive and inviting or dull and closed-off to the community?

I believe it’s this attention to detail brought by design firms such as Space & Pepper that can make all the difference in creating coliving spaces that are truly well integrated into their larger neighborhoods. If you get the chance, I would highly recommend attending one of the virtual events hosted by Space & Pepper (in collaboration with Co-Liv), that tackle a variety of themes across the Future of Work and Future of Living.

Conclusion

So, can we expect to see all future coliving projects incorporate the brilliant design ideas from spatial design experts such as David, Natasha, Tom, Hana, and Franziska? The short answer is no.

Unfortunately, there are a few big hurdles to overcome before new spatial design models will become mainstream. Certainly the biggest challenge will be the highly risk-adverse nature of institutional Real Estate investors who will need to see decades of data-backed proof that new spatial design models can lead to superior outcomes (namely superior financial outcomes, although superior impact outcomes are also gaining momentum), before signing up for anything new.

For the record, this is a completely fair and logical viewpoint for investors as modern Coliving is still relatively new and it’s impossible to tell the future viability of the movement. Due to this uncertainty, large scale Coliving companies must design floor plans that can easily be converted back into the safe, traditional multi-family apartments in order to attract investment. As the Coliving concept proves itself and the real estate world starts to wake up to the fact that Coliving is an ideal living solution for the 21st century (no bias here), then we’ll start to see large-scale buildings that are specifically designed for coliving with no intention to convert them into anything else.

So with that in mind, the long-term answer is yes, we will see more coliving projects incorporate the design models mentioned above that I believe will measurably increase both wellbeing outcomes for residents as well as financial outcomes for investors and operators. As the Coliving industry continues to experiment with creating better modern living solutions, innovative spatial design models will be tested, refined, and perfected all thanks to experts like David, Natasha, Tom, Hana, and Franziska.

Hopefully this article has been helpful to expose some of the amazing work being done by Coliving spatial design experts and my hope is that more Coliving operators will start to incorporate many of the ideas above that can create better communities and increase resident wellbeing. If you would like an introduction to any of the mentioned experts, don’t hesitate to reach out and I’d be happy to connect you!

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