The Sociology of Coliving: How WeLive Creates a “Third Place”

Courtesy of WeLive

Courtesy of WeLive

This article was originally published on Autodesk’s Redshift publication (formerly known as Line//Shape//Space), under the title “Live, Work, Play: WeLive’s Live-Work Spaces Reveal a ‘Third Place.’

According to urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg, people need three types of places to live fulfilled, connected lives: Their “first place” (home) for private respite; their “second place” (work) for economic engagement; and their “third place,” a more amorphous arena used for reaffirming social bonds and community identities.

This third place can be a barbershop, neighborhood bar, community center, or even a public square. The desire for these three separate spheres drives how human environments are designed at a bedrock level, but increasing urbanism-as well as geographic and economic mobility-are collapsing these multiple spaces into one. The result is a new hybrid building type: a live-work multiunit dwelling that is home, office, and clubhouse.

WeLive, an offshoot of coworking-space company WeWork, recently opened two such projects, one in New York City and one in the Northern Virginia neighborhood of Crystal City, just outside of Washington, DC. The company is making huge bets on WeLive as a way to meet massive investor expectations. Wall Street (where the New York project is located, incidentally) valuated WeWork at $16 billion, and the company is looking for WeLive to generate 21 percent of its revenue in the next few years.

WeLive senior designer Quinton Kerns says coliving spaces and WeLive will swell in popularity as cities swell in population. For him, increasing urbanization means “smaller living and more communal living,” he says. “I think this is what cities are moving to.”

Both WeLive spaces, at 110 Wall St. and in Crystal City, are multistory buildings with about 200 rental units, offering a range of studio to four-bedroom apartments that are furnished and finished down to wall art and silverware. Leases (called “membership agreements”) run month-to-month, and there’s a WeWork co-working space on the bottom floor of each building.

A social-media app tracks activities and interaction across the building-from a startup reaching out to fellow WeLive-ers for an impromptu focus group to a few neighbors picking out a dinner reservation together. It’s low-impact living for young professionals more attracted to a hive-like cluster of like-minded entrepreneurs than they are to any particular place.

Anita Shannon, a community manager at 110 Wall St., says only a handful of people there live and work in the same building every day, so the WeLive concept is less about “a collapse of the three [places],” she says. “You definitely still have that separation [between living, work, and social spaces].”

But the close proximity of these zones inside a single building means that the spectrum of private-to-public spaces needs to be nuanced and carefully articulated. That’s the job of Kerns, who describes the transitions between public and private spaces as “fluid.”

From bedrooms to large event spaces and communal kitchens, there are about a half dozen types of spaces that each cater to different levels of social interaction. Beyond purely private individual units, hallways have small lounge spaces and phone booth–style workstations.

Groups of three floors are branded and identified as “neighborhoods,” each with a different graphic identity. For example, floors seven through nine at 110 Wall St. have a synchronized-swimmer graphic wall-covering theme. And each neighborhood has a communal kitchen and larger lounge space. “We try to accommodate all aspects of live-work,” says Kerns, who lived at the Wall Street location for six months.

There are subtle differences between the two WeLive projects, but both have a matching aesthetic heavy on particle board, plywood, exposed ductwork, and subway tile. This sensibility correlates to the more than 100 WeWork spaces, which Forbes dubbed “reformed bro meets upscale IKEA.”

One of Kern’s biggest design challenges with WeLive was how to create furnished apartments that would encourage what he calls an “asset-light living situation” while still offering ways for residents to make their home their own. To strike this balance, he used a selection of customizable materials in strategic places that give residents a chance to color outside his lines: felt walls in bedrooms for hanging photos; pegboard in the kitchen to arrange shelving for a cookbook collection; chalkboard walls for scrawling down grocery lists; and modular, movable shelving systems. “It’s like building with building blocks within the unit,” he says.

This adds up to a stylishly appointed, if mildly anonymous, ready-made apartment-one with the potential to allow the personalities of the unit and the resident to align. “You can literally show up with just a toothbrush and clothes,” Shannon says. “Actually, we do give you a toothbrush.”

Shannon says residents want to use this kind of coliving space to engage in the kind of neighborly camaraderie that seems almost antiquated: borrowing cups of sugar and gathering a quorum to go see a movie. But residents don’t necessarily have to talk to people to make this happen, hence the app. “A lot of members are more comfortable communicating on a digital platform as opposed to knocking on a neighbor’s door,” she says.

The WeLive buildings are certainly an extension of its app, which contains much of the social interaction the company says is critical to its value. The wine tastings, family-style dinners, and art classes planned by WeLive residents attract a broader cross section demographically than you might expect for a building that almost requires you to have a smartphone.

The average age of residents is about 30, and there are a decent number of recent college graduates, but there’s also a handful of 50- to 60-year-olds and families with kids. Kerns says that attracting a diverse audience is a critical goal for WeLive, and his designs for various spaces (high-energy yoga studios and exercise rooms for younger residents and a whiskey lounge with more refined materials and a mature setting) reinforce this.

“The most core characteristic through all of the members,” Shannon says, “is people going through a transition.” This could mean someone seeking a conveniently furnished apartment after moving to a new city or one needing to cut back on infrastructure and labor in anticipation of a new business venture that might not be profitable over the course of a traditional lease.

For a certain class of worker, mobility and flexibility are critical needs not served by traditional living arrangements. WeLive is betting that as the information economy whirls people around the globe faster and faster, they’ll need more places to land softly-toothbrush in hand or not.

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