Connecting a multi-unit home to facilitate community living
Making it work in a San Francisco apartment building
From the editors: this is a guest post from Evy, who lives in The Village, a multigenerational coliving home in San Francisco (currently 15 adults and 4 children). The Village faced a common problem for those who want to live communally: how to turn housing stock that is optimized for single families into a harmonious coliving home. We love seeing this level of intentionality and hope their learnings can help you make the most of your own space!
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Finding a house big enough for an intentional community can be tricky. San Francisco is lucky to have several old Victorian homes and religious buildings that have 20-bedrooms and easily houses a sizable community. But the number of groups looking to live in community outnumber the available homes in the city.
Because of this, some groups choose to buy multiple units of a duplex or triplex and live as a community spread across the units. Though this setup can supply the number of bedrooms a community wants, it makes the housing search significantly easier, it has the chance of splintering the group. If each unit is fully equipped with a kitchen, living room, and washing machine, people can lose motivation to travel to other floors and hang out with housemates in other units.
At The Village, we live across three vertically-stacked units and we've set ourselves up such that many of us feel similarly connected to people across all units. There are several decisions we've made as a house and as individuals -- some intentional, and some unintentional but enlightening -- that have helped us stick together.
Making it easy to move between floors
One of the biggest barriers to visiting another floor is the effort it takes to travel there. Climbing stairs, being exposed to the elements, and unlocking a door can all make it feel less "worth it" to travel.
The friction of walking up or down stairs can get in the way of impromptu hangs. Several features of our house make moving between floors easier. Some were choices we made, but some are aspects of the house’s architecture that are difficult to add if not already present in a home. When looking for a multi-unit home to use for community living, look out for these:
There is a gate in front of our doors. This allows us to keep the doors behind it unlocked (they automatically lock at night) so that we can travel between floors without fiddling with a lock.
There is another set of gate-protected stairs near the back of the house that brings people between all three floors (and the backyard!) With two sets of stairs available, people are always near a pathway to another floor.
We also added rainproof carpeting to the back stairs to make them more comfy!
Making the middle floor the heart of the house
With so much space in the house, and some friction to move between floors, it was important for us to set up a single central common area where most of us would regularly visit and run into each other. We decided to gather around the middle floor, since it had the largest living room and kitchen, and is also the easiest floor to enter from the street. One pattern that’s helpful to know about community homes is that socializing often doesn’t happen because people seek it out, but because they move around the house for practical reasons and happen upon others. There are several decisions we made that have incentivized almost everyone to visit the middle floor several times a day, and this results in lots of great spontaneous conversations:
We agreed that the middle floor fridge would contain only communal food (other fridges can contain both communal and personal food). We also chose to cook and eat our house dinners on the middle floor. These intentional choices have helped the middle floor kitchen become the main place that many people eat and cook. The fridge contains lots of leftovers and anyone can eat anything they see there, which makes it extra pleasing to open. Many cooking ingredients are also stored in the big middle floor pantry. Having a central kitchen is a really important part of living in a house with several kitchens -- everyone has to eat, and where people eat often determines who people run into and where they hang out.
There is a large common space connected to the kitchen, which we set up with both a table for eating and couches for lounging. People hang out here to eat, socialize when they return from outside, and talk into the night after dinner. The kids also mainly play on the middle floor, so that space is sometimes where the cute chaos is.
This may seem small, but we put the biggest shoe rack on the middle floor near a front door that opens right into the big social space. Many people come in and out of that door even if they live on other floors, just for an excuse to pop through and say hi -- and they want to come say hi because they know it’s very likely that people will be hanging out there!
Each floor is unique and enticing (but each with a different purpose)
While the middle floor pulls the most people in, there are reasons for people to visit other floors (other than having a bedroom there) and people wander throughout the whole house fairly often. The top floor is more calm and quiet, with skylights and dozens of plants. There are board games in the living room bookcase, a norm of coworking during working hours, and a cushioned tea room tucked away in the back of the floor. The bottom floor, affectionately called "the garden level", has a fluffy cat and a big comfy couch.
We want to hang out together
Of course, we would probably find ways to make do on the floors we lived on if we wanted to. But the house culture explicitly values connection with each other, so we seek out time to spend together! We eat home-cooked dinner together almost every night, we spontaneously play music around the piano in the middle floor common space, we host craft nights and writing co-working sessions, and even use Donut bot to encourage us to spend one-on-one time with people. The house design helps us run into each other, which helps us get to know and like each other, which motivates us further to seek out each other's company. Yay!
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Thanks for these insights! We're almost one year into building a coliving community in three buildings (two connected, one detached). I can see some parallels to our setup in yours (you might label our three locations "quiet", "busy", and "cat"). I can also see some new ideas we could make use of!