Learning from community housing movements: The social potential of multi-unit building lobbies

Five design strategies for transforming a lobby into an awesome social space.

Photo of kids playing on couches in a common area of Little Mountain Cohousing, while one adult supervises and reads a story to kids.
Little Mountain Cohousing’s entry lounge becomes an impromptu play area after school lets out.

When you picture a multi-unit building lobby, what do you see?

People usually don’t pay too much attention to lobbies. They are entrances you pass through to get home. You might expect some aesthetic features, like a unique light fixture, but you likely wouldn’t think to linger in the space—and for good reason. Most lobbies aren’t designed to be fun or social places. 

Imagine instead, that as you enter your lobby, you find your neighbours having choir practice, kids rummaging through a box of shared toys, and your newest neighbour hanging an art canvas they painted themselves. This is what you might experience when entering the Athlete’s Village Co-op building in Vancouver, BC. 

Lobbies have untapped potential to make shared buildings happier, more social, and more inclusive.

In multi-unit buildings, where people live in smaller spaces and share amenities, the lobby is a crucial—and often overlooked—resource for facilitating connections between neighbours. 

Cohousing and cooperative (co-op) housing have been experimenting with social lobbies for decades, intentionally designing entryways as living rooms. In these buildings, the lobby reflects the character and the individual and collective needs of the community. It is a central hub where residents regularly bump into one another and chat. 

This article outlines five design strategies for the making of a great multi-unit lobby, drawing from Happy Cities’ research, visits, and interviews with members of six different co-op and cohousing buildings in Vancouver, North Vancouver and Seattle. 

This article is Part 2 of a four-part series on learning from community housing movements. You can read the series introduction here.

Design strategy 1: Connect the lobby to other shared spaces

Principles: Integration, co-location

The placement of the lobby relative to other shared spaces can make a huge difference in whether or not it succeeds in fostering social connection. The concept of triangulation involves designing multiple points at which people can see or do activities in a space. This strategy encourages people to pause and interact within the space, helping to build social connections. 

Putting this strategy into action:
  • From the lobby, ensure that occupants can visually see or access at least two other shared spaces (e.g. street, mailroom, outdoor patio). 
  • Connect the lobby to an active circulation element, such as a programmed corridor or staircase. 
Examples:

At Little Mountain Cohousing, residents must pass through the lobby to access several other social and service spaces, making it a very active area of the building. Although the lobby itself doesn’t include any particularly innovative design features, its location and role as a vestibule for the common house, parking, street entrance, and outdoor areas transform the entryway into a key area where social encounters between neighbours can occur. The lobby also includes visual connections to other social spaces, which allows residents to see what is happening around them. 

At Little Mountain Cohousing, adults volunteer to care for their neighbours’ children. The building’s entry lounge becomes an impromptu play area after school. The lounge is easily visible from other circulation spaces.

Design strategy 2: Size and shape the lobby as both a connecting space and a pause space

Principles: Co-location, transition 

In most buildings, the lobby primarily serves a functional role. Therefore, it is important to ensure that its sizing is appropriate for fulfilling various social functions. If the lobby is too big, residents won’t bump into each other and won’t feel encouraged to interact, and the space may feel unwelcoming. Conversely, if it is too small, residents won’t want to pause or linger, because they may feel like they are obstructing the entrances. As home deliveries increase (parcels, meal services, etc.), consider designing an organized system that can manage deliveries in the background, and complement the lobby’s social functions.  

In many cohousing buildings, the lobby is actually an exterior covered space that extends into the courtyard. These non-traditional lobbies serve their purpose as an arrival space, while forming part of an intentional sequence of social spaces that encourage connection.

Putting this strategy into action:
  • Ensure that there are at least three eye-catching features included in the lobby design, such as a seating space, mailbox, community bulletin board, little library, or artwork.  
  • If the building doesn’t have a planned amenity room, consider sizing the lobby to be large enough to accommodate a small group of 10-15 residents to gather and do an activity.
  • Consider the demographics of the building: Will people be using the lobby at the same time each day, or all throughout the day? For instance, a family-oriented building may need a larger lobby to accommodate strollers and space for kids to play.  
  • Include a secure and organized place for packages and delivery that encourages residents to come to the lobby on their way home.  
  • If a larger lobby can’t be accommodated into the design, consider creating an outdoor lobby that links to another social space.
Examples:

At Quayside Village Cohousing, the lobby message board is an important point of communication between residents, despite access to digital communication methods. 

At Capitol Hill Cohousing, the exterior covered lobby reflects the narrow size of the lot. However, it intentionally connects to the rest of the outdoor social spaces vertically, becoming an integral part of the sequence of social spaces.

Diagram showing the sequence of shared social spaces at Capitol Hill Urban Cohousing. Illustration: Capitol Hill Urban Cohousing, Schemata workshop

Design strategy 3: Prioritize comfort in the lobby

Principles: Evolution, fruition

Residents need to feel comfortable spending time in the lobby to connect with neighbours. Comfort includes physical elements, such as lighting, warmth, and acoustics, but also speaks to a sense of belonging—specifically, the feeling that one is not loitering. Residents should not feel that they are disturbing others while using the lobby, nor getting in the way of another activity.

Putting this strategy into action:
  • Design lighting, acoustics, and thermal comfort based on anticipated activities that residents will participate in the lobby. 
  • Importantly, if the space is loud and echoey, people may believe they will disturb their neighbours by being there and will be less likely to feel comfortable using it. 
  • Anticipate the inclusion of elements that enhance a space, such as plants and natural light. 
Examples:

At the Athlete’s Village Co-op, to make the lobby feel more welcoming, residents installed carpet to create warmth and improve acoustics. 

At Quayside Village, the lobby includes a fireplace with spaces to sit, creating an inviting atmosphere for neighbours to interact with each other. Residents host a weekly fireside chat in this space, which offered an important social outlet during the pandemic. 

The Quayside Village lobby includes a cozy fireplace and lounging area. Photo: Quayside Village Cohousing.

Design strategy 4: Allow residents (including kids!) to personalize the lobby

Principles: Evolution, fruition 

People feel more connected to a place when they can help shape it. When spaces are used by people of all ages, they are more effective at reducing isolation and building positive intergenerational relationships.

In cohousing, design teams are aware of the building’s demographics in advance, and so can consider future residents’ needs when making baseline decisions about different spaces. However, in typical multi-unit buildings, residents are unknown until the building is completed. Designers can mitigate this challenge by building in opportunities for future residents to “finish” the space, transforming an anonymous space into a lively one.

Putting this strategy into action:
  • Provide unfinished or informal spaces where kids can feel welcome without worrying about causing damage. 
  • Leave a portion of the lobby unfinished, such as a blank wall, or a budget for residents to create and install artwork and select furnishings. 
Examples:

The Athlete’s Village Co-op lobby includes a wall of residents’ art. Each resident that moves in receives a canvas to paint and display in the space. People can also store shared items in the lobby, such as a stroller and a box of toys. 

At Capitol Hill Cohousing, residents co-created a mosaic for the lobby entrance. The mosaic was split into sections, so that small groups or residents could complete each piece using a template. Residents of all ages took place in making the mosaic, and it is one of the first things people see when they enter the building.

Photo of a mosaic of colourful tiles showing a leafy tree with a yellow background full of sun. The mosaic covers a wall in the building's entrance.
The Capitol Hill Cohousing lobby displays a mosaic that was co-created by the building’s residents. Photo: Leslie Shieh.

Design strategy 5: Program activities to take place in the lobby

Principles: Evolution, fruition

Cohousing and co-op housing are intentional communities, where people choose to live together to feel more socially connected. However, for those who don’t live in cohousing or co-op housing apartments—which are often hard to come by—it can be difficult to find a multi-unit building that offers a sense of community. 

Property managers and developers of any multi-unit building can offer social programming to attract potential tenants who are looking for a home that will offer them more social support and connections. Programming can include formal planned events or uses, such as a regular co-working space or weekly gathering, or informal programming, such as spaces for kids to play or neighbours to chat over a coffee. 

Putting this strategy into action:
  • Design flexible furnishings and layout to ensure that programming can evolve to suit the needs of residents over time. 
  • Consider simple elements, such as a sink and a coffee maker or a storage nook, that could easily encourage social interaction and allow the lobby to serve as a social space.
Examples:

At the Athlete’s Village Co-op, residents have transformed the large lobby into a kind of recreation room. If you go at the right time, you might bump into residents having choir practice or kids playing with shared toys. Since the building has less amenity space than many cohousing projects, residents have been able to adapt the larger lobby space into an additional, flexible location for activities.

The lobby space at Little Mountain Cohousing welcomes kids to use it through design and programming. Kids use the space to play and build pillow forts, or engage in quieter activities such as reading.

Kids play together in the entry lounge at Little Mountain Cohousing, often building pillow forts or reading books.

Key takeaways

The intentional communities of cohousing and co-op housing understood long ago that the lobby is a key part of a building’s social life. Developers of multi-unit housing are slowly catching on, realizing the benefits of intentional design for social connection—decreased social isolation, and greater resilience, health, happiness, and overall wellbeing. The lobby has untapped potential to enable social interaction in all multi-unit buildings. The five design strategies and actions above are a starting point for thinking creatively and critically about lobby design. 

Share your examples with us!

Have you lived in a multi-unit building with a social lobby space? Share your examples with us on Twitter, Instagram, or LinkedIn!

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. 

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