Why your coliving design never works out the way you planned

If you thought designing residential homes was already difficult, try adding 90+ potential daily inhabitants into your space planning and design. The spoiler is this: nothing ever goes quite as you planned. Having worked as a designer for coliving spaces across Los Angeles for the past year, let me give you some insight on the pitfalls and mistakes I have personally made so you never have to repeat the same errors, or, at least you’ll know what you’re getting into along the way.

Everything has a Place

As a lover and believer of the Konmari method, my naive and grandiose goal when designing my first coliving home was that every object had a functional use and every object had its place. In my head, these items would return exactly to their homes, proudly on display for each resident to use on open shelves. I seemed to have forgotten one important lesson from her writings: people have their own favorite things and consequently, they also want it on display. All it took was the first 5 residents moving in for me to learn the hard lesson that the beautifully coordinated red bowls with proper spacing to provide a sense of “airiness” and “warmth”  was not going to last. Not only because of what residents would bring along, but also because these items were all functional, the sheer amount of use they received meant that by the end of every day, not one object was left in its original spot. To avoid this disappointment of seeing clutter and misalignment, I’d suggest a bit of a different approach. Adapt Marie Kondo’s method with architect’s favorite quote “form follows function” a little bit differently than that of face value. If you have open shelving, the function may just be to add beauty and order to the space. Choose decorative objects that add to the atmosphere and permanently live there. Then, in closed shelving, make sure everything still has its space. For example, in the kitchen: mugs go in one cabinet, plates in another, bowls, etc. That way, objects of similar purpose still have the proper spot to go, but they can also be customized to each residents wants and needs without disrupting the flow of the room you’re designing.

If the Shoe Fits, It Sits

You may think this is obvious, but there really and truly is never enough storage space in a coliving home. Even when you use data for the average person’s needs, give the typical closet dimensions in a standard family home per person, and think you’ve taken over every nook and cranny, you still don’t have enough storage, and they will still find areas you never considered to store personal items. One of the items I have made my life mission to eliminate seeing whenever I walk into the coliving homes is shoes. Remember how I said residents will find places you never even considered for personal storage? Here’s a big one: If you’ve chosen a TV cabinet elevated on legs to give some airiness to an otherwise tight space, underneath this cabinet will be residents’ shoes. If you try to solve this by having a shoe storage bin at a front entrance, it’s probably not enough room and there will now be shoes on the entrance floor blocking the proper door swing. If you provide an entire closet with 100+ cubbies dedicated for each resident to place their shoes when entering the home, it’ll be too complicated, and there will still be miscellaneous shoes under the welcome bench. I’d love to tell you I’ve found the perfect solution to the great shoe dilemma, but instead I encourage you to do this: Plan ahead in your design for clutter to occur. Having a variety of ways and options for residents to store their items to reduce the chances of them ending up in miscellaneous and thought provoking areas. Have storage baskets available, cubbies gallor, personalized storage options in closets, and compartments they can lock items away. Every resident is different in how they want to use the space and how careful they are with their personal items. And for one last tip, maybe accept that every once in a while, a pair of shoes will be left by the front door.

The Glass Will Crack

I often joke to my coworkers that we are a product’s test department’s dream come true (or worst nightmare, depending on if we happen to have a warranty). You want to know how long that blender will actually last in heavy use? How about how long that 30,000 double rubbed fabric actually can withstand the test of time? Or even better, how long does it REALLY take to get to the center of the tootsie pop (Just kidding, we’re more likely to hand our residents crystals before lollipops) Coliving design is its own weird hybrid of commercial and residential design, which makes the material selection a monster within itself. You have to plan for obsolescence of some products while balancing the longevity of others. In addition, you’re designing rooms to fit max capacity, so where you would gravitate towards using mirror, glass, and sheer objects to help keep an illusion of openness, you’re doing so at the risk of failure and breakage. My biggest suggestion is to break down your decor and furnishings into categories: Objects you know need to last, objects that need replacements/ refreshments, and objects that shouldn’t break. From there, choose your materials wisely. I’m not saying you need to get a vinyl, impenetrable sofa that you’d use in a hospital as your living room sofa, but do be aware of its cleanliness capabilities. Maybe trade out your shag rug for a Polypropylene one instead that you can take outside and hose down with a power-washer and some light amount of bleach for when the inevitable exploded burrito falls onto it. All fabric cushions, pillows, and outdoor seats should be machine washable with a zipper. You’re fooling yourself if you think these will not need to be cleaned on the daily. And if you’re going to decorate with a white fabric, go off-white, and be prepared to have a process ready for cleaning often. I include the last category of objects that shouldn’t break, because sometimes they will. The glass will crack on the mirror hanging from the wall and you’ll have no idea how but you’ll want to know exactly where you got that object so you can replace it. The biggest balancing act is after sorting these categories, have an honest conversation on what products will need to be replaced often, and therefore what objects you really should be spending your money on. That vintage, one-of-a-kind, ceramic soap dispenser may be beautiful, but all it takes is one accidental tumble to the ground for you to be out of a good chunk of change and too long of a wait-time to replace.

There’s no Thyme Left

Having a degree in both Interior Design and Architecture, and the practical experience to match, has left me a big believer in the importance and impact of biophilic design and its significance for humans. For those of you who may not know, biophilic design is defined as “a concept used within the building industry to increase occupant connectivity to the natural environment through the use of direct nature, indirect nature, and space and place conditions.” It has a number of benefits, including health, environmental, and economic, as well as supporting sustainability. With the data promoting biophilic design, it made sense to include as many plants as possible into the coliving spaces. We just seemed to forget one crucial detail when it came to including greenery in our designs: who is going to water and feed the plants? If you were thinking of the residents, you’d actually be mostly right. I have watched many residents watering the plants and trying to take care of them, especially ones in heavy-traffic areas. The problem is, over-watering your plants is just as harmful as starving them. Both result in the same consequence: death. Which really wasn’t the design aesthetic and mood we were going for.. So here’s some tips we have learned along the way to keep your Thyme alive. Number one is to create a drip system for most of your exterior landscape. Although we have a gardener come by on the regular, having this system ensures that our plants are getting watered for the exact amount each plant needs. This is the easiest system to set up. For indoor plants, there are a few solutions we have tried out.  Place a watering chart on the plants pot that residents can tick off for days that the plant has been watered! If it is an air-plant, include this as a chore item for either house parents or as part of your weekly “cleaning: schedule to dunk in its bath of water. And for anything that may need a bit less supervision, like a succulent or a cactus, get a self watering bulb that can be observed and filled with water as it empties.

Changing How you Plan

At the end of the day, if there is anything I am 100% positive about when it comes to coliving design is that there will always be new challenges and mishaps that need to be solved. The best advice in this new and growing industry is to be flexible and experiment with what works best for your community. Each step will lead you to a better solution for your residents to live better and more comfortably in their new coliving communities.