Learning from community housing movements: Six principles for building happier homes

Feeling connected to our communities, neighbours, and friends is fundamental to human wellbeing. When we design buildings, sometimes we forget this. 

Birds eye view photo of the common courtyard at Capitol Hill Cohousing in Seattle. Windows face out into the courtyard, where kids are playing together with balloons and bubbles. Flowers hang off the railings.
Residents play together in the common courtyard at Capitol Hill Urban Cohousing in Seattle. Photo: Schemata Workshop

April 5, 2022

Transforming lost spaces for social connection in multi-unit housing

Humans are social. Feeling connected to our communities, neighbours, and friends is fundamental to our wellbeing. When we design buildings, sometimes we forget this. 

In his book, Finding Lost Space: Theories of Urban Design, urban design professor Roger Trancik defines lost spaces as those that are ill-defined, fail to connect elements in a coherent way, and lack a real understanding of human behaviour. However, lost spaces have untapped potential. With the right design and programming interventions, they can become highly-sought after places in our cities. At the housing scale, buildings are rife with lost spaces: sleek condo towers with cold and sterile hallways, apartment buildings with dimly lit lobbies, and amenity rooms that are tucked away and rarely used. Our apartment buildings don’t have to be cold and isolating. 

What might designing for social connection look like?

Vancouver developer Tomo Spaces is piloting a collaborative “cohousing lite” project in their new multi-unit development on Main Street, Tomo House. Their goal? To design a building that fosters social connection among residents, by drawing on lessons from the cooperative and cohousing movements. The cohousing lite approach streamlines the development process to overcome many of the financial and time barriers that often prevent cohousing projects from coming to fruition. 

In this written series, co-authored by Happy Cities and Tomo Spaces, we endeavour to rediscover the lost spaces for social connection in multi-unit buildings, and outline considerations for intentionally designing these spaces. We interviewed residents, architects, and developers of some of these existing cohousing and cooperative buildings to understand how intentional design and programming can foster social connection. 

This series is part of a CMHC-funded demonstrations project, in which Happy Cities will conduct a post-occupancy study of Tomo House. For more details on this research, please visit the project website. 

Cohousing and cooperative housing precedents

Tomo, which stands for “together + more”, is inspired by many other co-housing and cooperative (co-op) housing projects that came before. 

Cohousing is a housing model where residents own their individual units, but have access to enhanced shared amenities. Cohousing residents participate in and share the planning, design, management, and maintenance of the community, and engage in ongoing community-building activities. 

Cooperative (co-op) housing refers to self-governed, mixed-income communities. Co-op housing operates on a membership-based model: residents pay an initial fee to become part of the community, in addition to a monthly rent. Co-op buildings provide long-term security of tenure for residents. They vary in scale and in the level of activities that residents participate in together. 

We visited and interviewed residents, architects and developers from the following cohousing and co-op buildings: 

Why design for social connection?

In 2012 and 2017 studies, the Vancouver Foundation found that social isolation is highly prevalent in the city. The COVID-19 pandemic has further compounded this crisis, making it difficult for people to meet neighbours and friends. 

Many people are spending more time at home than ever. This only reinforces the need to address the loneliness crisis at the building scale:  people living in socially connected homes are happier, healthier, and more resilient in the face of challenging events. 

Research from the University of British Columbia reveals that students who regularly had brief social interactions reported higher levels of belonging and happiness than those who did not. In multi-unit housing, residents want their homes to provide more than basic shelter. They want to live somewhere with a unique sense of identity that gives them a sense of belonging. After all, life satisfaction improves with more social ties, and one of the easiest ways to build social ties is through encounters with neighbours. Multi-unit housing developers can encourage these encounters by intentionally designing circulation and social spaces with human behaviour and social patterns in mind.

Six principles for socially connected multi-unit housing 

Based on our interviews with co-op and cohousing stakeholders, and Happy Cities’ long-term research on wellbeing and the built environment, we’ve identified six principles that can help developers, designers, landlords, and operators offer residents more opportunities for social connections. By infusing the built form with these principles, housing industry professionals can increase positive social encounters and improve overall wellbeing among residents.

The principles are:

1. Integration:

Open the building outwards towards the neighbourhood to welcome interaction with the community. 

Illustration of a building that is open to the neighbourhood with semi-public entry spaces.

Why is this principle important? Buildings with intentional design and programming for social interaction can boost wellbeing not only for residents living directly in the building, but also for surrounding neighbours. These buildings can serve as hubs for community events or even emergency preparedness. Creating a sense of community is important to ensure long-term tenure of residents. 

2. Transition:

Create gradual transitions between public and private spaces to enable opportunities for both social connection and retreat.  

Illustration of people interacting at a building entrance with people on the sidewalk.

Why is this principle important? Residents need to be able to connect with the public realm while also feeling safe and in control of their social exposure. When people can control their exposure to social interactions, they are less likely to feel overwhelmed or overcrowded in multi-unit housing, and more likely to engage in positive social interactions with neighbours. 

3. Co-location:

Locate common spaces in the same area of the building, and along pathways that are part of people’s day to day routines. 

Illustration of a building courtyard

Why is this principle important? When common spaces are located near each other, it increases the number and quality of social interactions between residents. For instance, an amenity space with a direct connection to an outdoor garden allows for diverse activities to take place all year round. It can also facilitate intergenerational relationships. For instance, a courtyard next to a laundry room allows kids to play safely while their caregivers complete chores. 

4. Heart:

Ensure that the building has a “core” that can become the centre of community life. 

Illustration of a common space or amenity room.

Why is this principle important? It is important for residents to feel like there is a central space in the building where they can go to consistently experience social interactions. The heart could be a courtyard, a lobby, or an amenity room. This space should reflect the identity of the residents. 

5. Evolution:

Build with flexibility in the overall design and unit configurations to accommodate residents’ changing needs over time. 

Illustration of a shared social and play space in a building.

Why is this principle important? Residents’ needs change over time. For example, residents may add new family members or decrease their household size over time, which impacts their needs for both private and shared spaces. To ensure that spaces are utilized to their full potential, builders should design for flexibility. When buildings incorporate flexible design, it allows people to remain in a community long-term and build stronger social ties.

6. Fruition:

Build resilience and self-sufficiency over time by making group decisions to implement community-scale ideas together. 

Illustration of a multi-purpose shared room in a building featuring bike racks and a dog washing station.

Why is this principle important? When residents feel ownership over a space, it increases their sense of belonging and the amount of care they put into it. A sense of ownership and care increases trust, while decreasing maintenance and cleaning costs. Working together to rethink spaces and programming is also a great way to build community bonds between residents. 

Diving into the series

In this written series, we will explore these six principles through the design of three different space types: lobbies, circulation spaces, and amenity rooms. We believe that designers, developers, and other housing industry experts can learn from the intentional design and programming in cohousing and cooperative housing projects to create more resilient, healthy, and socially connected multi-unit housing. 

This article is Part 1 of a four-part series on learning from community housing movements.

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