We have an exciting new coliving house opening next door to Embassy SF, and one of our guests will be moving into this house. Yesterday we stood around the kitchen and discussed whether there was any “hard” advice for starting a successful community. That is, a kind of pattern language for seeding new deeply communal living spaces.
Embassies (and many other wonderful communities with their own excellent culture) are community-managed, mixed-duration coliving spaces. Though houses that identify as Embassies are autonomous and independently run, I would characterize each of them as participatory platforms for creativity, co-designed governance, and sharing. They are spaces to prototype new ways of doing things, to incorporate social justice and innovation in their own image, and to share those experiments back with the outside world through events, activities, and operational transparency.
When we talk about “successful communities” we usually mean a community with great culture — one that is critically engaged with its own project as well as the world around it; is accessible, fun, and somehow conjures a sense of possibility and something bigger.
If there is just one thing that I think differentiates these ‘je ne sais quoi’ communities from others, it’s co-ownership. It’s agency over, and engagement with, the project of the community itself.
Choose with intention, and prepare for initial vacancy
At the Embassy SF, we borrowed money to get the house started. It was a 5 year loan at 5% interest from friends and family. We accounted for a 40% vacancy rate over the first 6 months in the amount we borrowed, expecting that it would take us a while to find the right residents. Building it into the loan meant that we could amortize the cost of that initial vacancy over many years, and helped keep our focus on the long game rather than stressing about the money in the short term.
Also once the house was up and running with a good culture, paying back the loan became much easier because the demand for long and short term accommodations was there.
At the Red Vic, the team took advantage of this vacancy by inviting artists to do residencies in the rooms.
Place, then People (not the other way around)
Often groups will recruit their residents while they search for the perfect place. In the absence of a physical space to focus on, the group spends a lot of time thinking about values and ideals. Expectations are set.
At this point it’s very difficult to agree on a house. Rarely do the set of people you have selected due to their abstract ideals map onto the people who would select a specific physical space. Groups can spend years looking for the perfect place before they ever get to the concrete business of living together. In many cases they just peter out.
The key insight is this: the total number of all people you might want to live with, is larger than the set of people that a given property will be suited to. If you start by getting very specific with the community, the probability that that specific subset will agree on the building selection, is quite low.
Start with a small group — 2–4 people, select a place, and then recruit the remaining residents. (As a side note, I would say 2 is the minimum; a single founding resident is going too far in the other direction — it’s very hard to distribute leadership if you start with just one person’s vision and energy.)
Design for sharing
Food is purchased centrally by the house, and residents simply pay a monthly fee. At the Embassy each person contributes $200/mo towards food, and we have a budget of $2500 — $3000/mo which feeds 15–20 people a day. We order from wholesalers where possible (or Amazon Fresh or Instacart) and all the food is delivered to our door. The veggies are mostly local and organic. We also build the cost of food into the pricing of our guest program. This means that anyone who stays in the house, guest or resident, has free rein of the kitchen and all its ingredients, and are invited to use it as they would use their own kitchen. It’s easy to share meals, to join someone else in cooking, to invite friends or colleagues over.
Space as Platform
Create reasons to spend time in the house. Find a place with good common space. Common space is where the collisions happen, the organic interactions and unplanned conversations.
If there’s no common space, it’s hard for this to happen. If there’s too much common space, it’s also hard for it to happen, because the density is too low for the unexpected! At Rainbow, about 40% of the ~5100sqft. is common space. At Embassy, about 60% of our 7500sqft. is common space. At Red Victorian, it’s about 25% of 10k sqft.
There’s something about diverse types of common space that is powerful also — we have many different nooks and corners the serve as behavior platforms for whatever is emergent. Some commons spaces invite intimate collisions, others large scale collisions; some invite formality and others informality, some invite alone time or group time due to size.
Expect a reshuffle in 6–12 months
Despite all the work you do interviewing, taking recommendations from friends, preference surveys, human spectrums, and bonding, the reality is always different than the idea. It’s pretty natural for a new community to have a kind of cohort shift after it settles into its identity. In my opinion this isn’t bad, it’s a sign of clarity. So don’t feel bad when it happens, embrace it as a chance to find new members of your community who will likely be even more values aligned.
Anchor in the Culture
Ensure sure there are enough long term residents to maintain a certain degree of continuity to the culture that develops. This is not to say that the culture should be stagnant, just that ideally it does not have discrete jumps. Communities develop extended communities, which in turn support and reinforce the central community’s culture. Open, participatory communities result in external members with pride and ownership over the space as well. This is simply not possible if the entire population is changing every 6 months.
Most Embassy spaces have guest spots, but even if you don’t, it’s worth thinking about your turnover. At Rainbow Mansion, we observed that an ideal ratio was about 65% long term residents. This was high enough that the residents had quorum to reinforce the core tenets of our culture, but enough guests to bring new energy and ideas into the house, and prevent too much insularity.
Be Big Enough
Relatedly, there is a minimum size for a space to be sufficiently generative. Below a threshold of about 7 bedrooms, the average occupancy of the house, even between guests and residents, is not high enough for emergent social dynamics — for the unexpected. The number of people physically present in the house is a function of travel schedules, work deadlines and social lives. If that takes out 50% of your population, with 7 bedrooms you might be talking about 3–4 people in the house on average. That’s just not big enough.
For us, including a hostel as part of our guest program did wonders for this. Not only did it increase our density, but it also provided an affordable way for people to stay with us.
Participatory Decision Making
Asking each other what the vision of the house is requires asking “why” — which in turn engages us with the broader question of our goals and ambitions, how our community can serve and amplify that, and how we can do that for each other. Without the “why,” we are simply consumers, and that comes through in the way we treat the space, the activities we host, and the care with which we strive to design and execute the structures that shape our experience.
Ownership over these structures creates a positive feedback loop between creativity and management, enabling residents to optimize the structures of their home for their current projects and needs. Participatory communities are more dynamic, and certainly more work, but also more closely aligned with their members’ values.
Participatory decision making can involve something as simple as meeting on a regular basis. Many communities now use tools like Loomio and Slack to facilitate participation by geographically diverse, part time, or extended community members, or those who simply communicate differently.
Many smaller communities that I am familiar with have adopted some variant of a “do-ocracy” for their day to day management. This can easily be misunderstood as “do whatever you want,” but in actuality it involves 3 core tenets: take action, yes, but only with transparency, communication, and reversibility.
Do-ocracy: take action but only with transparency, communication, and reversibility.
Do-ocracy combined with regular in-person touch points and a commitment to transparency is a pretty good starting point for a lot of groups that are comfortable with emergent dynamics. It is relatively low overhead, places agency with the individual, and keeps progress happening, while allowing for feedback loops and learning.
Design for Surplus
Many communities fail to engage deeply with finance. In some cases this comes from a fear or aversion to finance rooted in politics, other times a lack of experience and literacy, or both.
The key takeaway is this: Don’t design your budget to break even — design it to more than break even. This will give the community a set of resources to allocate together, providing opportunities for projects, collaborations, and to support projects you care about. Engineering for surplus creates engines of creativity. This is true even for not-for-profit communities such as ours.
At the Embassy and Red Vic, our guest program exists first and foremost for the sake of culture and collaborations. We don’t have the guest program for the sake of making money, but we still designed it to net out on the positive side financially. Sometimes we put that surplus right back into offsetting rent or guest stays for people who can’t afford it — but we’re doing so from a position of stability and control.
Your surplus needn’t only be financial. The Red Vic has an instrument library, a book library, and a maker space, all of which involve items that belong to other people. Our surplus of space (which, ok, is ultimately backed by a responsible financial model) has led to tools and instruments being brought together in ways that invite people to get creative and make new things. Not only is there access to a new abundance for those who wouldn’t otherwise have access to these resources, but for those contributing their own resources, they now have access to a community to make things with.
This collection is always evolving and I’ve certainly missed plenty. What design patterns can you recommend for seeding successful communities?