Happy Spaces

A wellbeing co-design pioneer

Ash Buchanan
Benefit Mindset


In early 2017, I met Matty Lawrence, the purpose-driven founder of Happy Group. Matty had recently launched a prototype co-working space in the bayside city of Hampton, called Happy Spaces, that put wellbeing, community, sustainability and adventure at the centre of everything they did. The space was thriving, and Matty had a vision to create a network of additional spaces that activated the local potential of people and place.

However, Matty also faced a challenge; rather than simply designing extra spaces for his community, how could everyone work together to co-design something purposeful together? So, in collaboration with Sara Rickards and Cohere, we crafted a community-led co-design process to achieve just that for their second happy space.

The beauty is in the unity

Matty’s interest in working together was based on his co-working community’s aspirations to create a vibrant space where personal, societal and environmental wellbeing could thrive. We supported the Happy community with achieving this vision by making three key shifts in the way we approached design;

  1. A shift from designing for to also designing with the co-working community. We did this by using a co-design process that invited Happy’s community members to be active co-contributors to the project.
  2. A shift from implementing a research-based theory of action, to also using a systems-based theory of action. This is based on the recognition that personal, societal and environmental wellbeing is a complex social challenge. Navigating this challenge not only requires good architectural design, but it also requires the careful development of a culture that is a genuine source of wellbeing itself.
  3. A shift from designing for features and strategies to also designing for experiences and story. What are the wellbeing experiences that uniquely matter to the Happy community and how can we design for them?

Adventure time!

To inspire the co-design process, we visited three places, including Co-create Cremorne, Fitzroy Community School and CERES Environmental Park.

“The adventure we were taken on delivered contextual and inspirational examples of how we could deliver to our objectives of community connection and wellbeing. The insight, approach and delivery captured the soul of our project and has given us the foundation and focus to continue to live our purpose in our organisation, with our community.” — Matty Lawrence

We launched the process by taking the happy community on an adventure tour to places living the future they wanted to create today. Also known as a learning journey, this time together offered participants the opportunity to step outside the boundaries of what’s familiar and immerse themselves in inspiring contexts. These mind and heart-opening journeys enable groups to experience what’s possible with their whole being; which can shake up our thinking and engender new insights. The process of journeying together also builds trust, deepens relational bonds and improves communication prior to engaging in design work.

Story of wellbeing

“Nothing has given me more hope recently than to observe how simple conversations give birth to actions that can change lives. There is no more powerful way to initiate significant social change than to start a conversation. When a group of people discover that they share a common concern, that’s when the process of change begins.” — Margaret Wheatley

On the following day, now that the group is full of meaningful shared experiences, we hosted a story sharing workshop. We did this because we wanted to give voice to everyone’s personal story, as well as surface the communities collective story. We wanted to hear the compelling narratives that represented Happy Spaces highest aspirations for themselves and their capacity to contribute to their local community.

And wow, did everyone wholeheartedly embrace this opportunity. For example, Founder of Girl Bosses Australia, Alicia Minster, shared this beautiful reflection;

“Yesterday I spent the day talking about the narrative for the new Happy Spaces coworking hub in Hampton. We deep dove into the stories that are important to us; at times I was close to tears, in awe of what they are trying to achieve just around the corner from me. They have undertaken a process of bringing these community stories together, to truly understand what the space should feel and function like before they start designing what it looks like. At the end of the day we all had to write the opening paragraph to our story about Happy Spaces, written in the future looking back at the seed of the idea. This was mine. “Have you ever felt moved by a concept, swept up in an idea? This was more, it had the authenticity, generosity, yet vigour and drive. We knew we were standing on the precipice of something wonderful. With a collective inhale of inspiration and exhale of motivation to move in the same direction we laid the foundations of what we all know today brought enormous change to our lives and that of our families and community.”

By the end of the day, after all of the stories had been shared, everyone’s hearts were full. There was an overwhelming sense that we had touched each other, and we had touched something beyond ourselves. That your story, flowing into my story, flowing into our story had somehow transformed us in some way and generated a profound and shared felt sense of purpose.

What made this felt sense of purpose so valuable was that the architect for the new space, Esther of So-Da, came on the journey and shared in this experience. So instead of designing against an itemised brief and responding to requests for functionality and square meters, she could design from the powerful felt sense of higher purpose she had experienced, as well as from the compelling stories that uniquely matter to the Happy community. The co-working space manager, Chris, was also present, and this session also gave him meaningful direction on how he could support the community with enacting the culture they wanted to co-create.

Finally, and most importantly, this sharing gave everyone the opportunity to put what mattered to them into words — and gave them a platform to have their stories heard by their community. This not only strengthened Happy’s social fabric, but from that moment on, everyone was empowered to take ownership of their wellbeing opportunities and lead themselves.

And what I find amazing is that we were able to generate a profound sense of shared purpose in just two playful days together.

The new space

“Working with Ash and Sara was an inspiring and engaging experience from the outset. Their passion and ability to understand the needs and values of our project meant that our collaborators were immersed in the process and became not only participators, but advocators as a result of the approach. They were part of our journey.” — Matty Lawrence, Director of Happy Group

12 months on, and the new space at Black Rock is here! It’s a space to be experienced, not only for its iconic bayside location, and natural beauty, but because of how authentically it weaves together the wellbeing aspirations of the happy community.

Want to bring wellbeing design to your project?

We think designing for experiences that matter is one of the most powerful ways to create spaces and cultures that evoke a profound sense of wellbeing. Get in touch and let’s work together if you would like to bring wellbeing design to your project.



Ash Buchanan
Benefit Mindset

Benefit Mindset I Wellbeing Design I Regenerative Development