Principles of Community

A 3-step Framework for Building Community

In our San Francisco coliving community, we’ve focused on a basic question: How can human beings live together in freedom?

In other words, “How can I be me—without limiting you?”

Before getting around to all the great things communities can do, we wanted to start here. We wanted to find a balance—a way to harmonize the overlaping of many individual expressions.

Lean too far in one direction (free expression)—and people begin overstepping each other. Tip too far the other way (rules)—and people supress who they really are. Where’s the balance? And is there a framework which is simple, flexible and scalable enough for others to use?

Here’s an overview of our approach.

First Things First

Our first step was to clarify a key concept—the spirit of the house. This is the particular flavor, priorities and values of the community. It’s analogous to the German word zeitgeist, which means the spirit of the times. Likewise the spirit of the house (or hausgeist) is the defining ideals and motivations of the community.

Why is this so important? Clarifying the spirit of the house gives the community identity—and a certain unity. It lets community members tie-in to a common archetype.

When we started our community, it was a bit of “whatever.” We were living together, but our ideals were vague. Then we realized—we actually stood for things. We believed in things. We had principles. The more we articulated them, the better we understood who we were, and what we wanted from community.

This is how we describe the spirit of the house:

100 House provides a living space that encourages the fullest individual development, growth and expression of all residents — balancing the needs of each with the needs of others.

The spirit of the house isn’t abstract. It’s absolutely real. You can feel it, day-by-day and minute-by-minute. In some way, it’s part of every interaction in the community. You might call it the culture, but it’s more than this — it’s who we are.

Next, Agreements

It’s not enough to have a unifying identity. Living together involves countless, daily interactions. That’s not always easy. So once our “hausgeist” was clear, we moved to the next step.

It’s easy to say, “Let’s all live together with love, kindness and respect.” In practice, it’s not so simple.

People have different ideas about boundaries. What’s fine for one person may not be okay with another. And honestly, there are many times—for whatever reason—when we just don’t consider other people. We aren’t perfect. We aren’t always considerate.

Agreements are guiding principles for day-to-day communal living. They help us avoid grudges, disharmony and misunderstandings. We agree in advance how we will behave in certain situations. Instead of deciding how to behave on a case-by-case basis—which can be difficult when we are sub-optimal or stressed—agreements give us something to fall back on. Agreements reduce decision points.

These are our agreements:

Leave common areas better than you found them.
Respect quiet hours in mornings and evenings.
Inform house residents about overnight guests in advance.
It’s our responsibility to voice concerns about issues in the community.

We keep our agreements brief. No one wants to live under a tyranny of rules. We only have one “rule”—no dishes in the sink, ever—which we happily borrowed from Embassy SF.

What’s crucial is that agreements are upheld. And that’s everyone’s responsibility. We’ve noticed a significant, weakening effect on the entire community when agreements are ignored. We’ve transgressed what we ourselves agreed upon.

Now let’s move to the 3rd step: the ASK principle.

The ASK Principle

Agreements cover an important, yet small number of situations. What about everything else? How do we know if an action, event or guest fits with the spirit of the house? This can be confusing. So much can happen within a community. What’s okay—and what isn’t?

When we aren’t sure, we ASK. It’s simple.

ASKING is how we check-in with the spirit of the house. By asking the other community members, we learn how our proposal, idea or guest may affect other people.

In practice, it’s even simpler. We use a house iMessage group for many things, especially ASK. There are three typical responses:

Yes (no response equals yes)
I have a concern

In reality, the act of ASKING is more important than the response. It leads to engagement and makes others feel informed and considered. It often produces unexpected solutions, real conversations and a better understanding of each other.

Saying “I have a concern” isn’t a roadblock—it’s a opportunity to engage. Voicing concerns is actually one of our agreements. Our experience is that community is strongest when people speak up. Concerns prompt us to check-in with the spirit of the community.

Concerns are respected. They aren’t viewed as the expression of party-poopers or naysayers. They’re an active check on community drift.

For us, no outcomes are rare—we’ve only had two. Partly, it’s because people are invited into the community based on how they fit with the spirit of the house (in effect, pre-empting some polar disagreement). Partly, it’s because engagement of concerns works so well, allowing us to avoid no outcomes.

In the two no cases, we respected the no and it was final. That’s just our model, and it could be done differtly. But the way we see it, community isn’t about perfection—it’s about people. We can recover from not doing an event or inviting in a particular person. It’s much harder to recover from members feeling unheard or ignored.

In short, ASK is a simple decision-making process (similar to Embassy SF’s do-ocracy) that lets people be considered.

The beauty of the 3-step framework is clarity. Building community from the ground up is hard work. A pre-made framework saves time and effort. It lets community scale—use the framework in any new community, and you’ve got a ready foundation.

This doesn’t mean resulting communities will be the same. Far from it. It’s up to each community to develop its own identity and agreements.

The framework is designed to be flexible. Community (and life) is always changing. Likewise agreements can be revisited and revised. Even the spirit of the house can change—as members or circumstances change. Any changes, however, should be considered and not arbitrary.

It’s worth noting—the 3-step framework is participatory by nature. None of its parts are imposed from authority. At each stage—the spirit of the house, agreements and ASK—the community engages with itself, chooses its identity and decides how it operates.