Great Third Spaces Give Residents Energy

Inspired by the term “Third Places,” coined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg in the late 1980s, I’ve come up with my own, more modern take on these easily accessible public spaces away from home and work where people can enjoy interacting. I prefer calling today’s gathering spots in residential buildings “Third Spaces,” where residents can form a sense of community by regularly gathering in inviting areas to socialize.

The need for well-designed common areas is greater than ever. In today’s society, many people go from home to work and back home, and continue the cycle day after day. Interaction is often limited to digital communication.

Breaking this cycle by creating lively “Third Spaces” within residential communities is a smart way to add value for residents. Prospective home buyers who tour our projects are inspired by the energy emanating from gathering point, and let this inform their buying decisions. Renters decide to extend their leases because they really enjoy the social fun.

At our Chicago-based interior design firm, our projects range from hip, urban condominiums to golf clubhouses and senior living communities. In all of these projects, we want to design common areas that people really enjoy using.

Features that make a great ‘Third Space’

So how do we use design elements to create energetic common areas that promote a genuine sense of community?

•    Apply warm colors and comfortable furniture to serve as a foundation for an unpretentious atmosphere. Soft edges are more inviting.
•    Balance large-scale and small-scale spaces, and make it easy to get to these areas.
•    Shared spaces must be adaptable, able to accommodate a small card game or a larger activity club meeting.
•    Load these areas with the latest toys like high-definition flat-screen televisions, docking stations for portable electronic devices and Wi-Fi access.
•    Create spaces for games that still allow for conversation, such as pool, cards or board games.
•    Use artwork and other decorative elements that are in context with the region. This provides a sense of place and lends ownership to the users.
•    Well-balanced lighting encourages people to stay longer.
•    Incorporate nature and/or magnificent views. For example, in our northern New Jersey Hudson Tea, the condominium’s common-room windows provide a view of Manhattan across from the Hudson River.

While these are general guidelines, designers and facilities managers must keep in mind the specific needs of different demographic groups. Tech-savvy young professionals may want to continue to be plugged in and want to be able to share video clips, music and news with their friends. Meanwhile, seniors who are no longer working may be spending significantly more time in a Third Space, so it should be stocked with more reading materials and hobby areas. Young children also need places away from school and home, meaning that activity centers loaded with games and toys are essential.

Well-being and mood

The mood in these spaces must be light and casual. These areas are an escape from stress. These are places where slightly unruly behavior or loud laughter must not be frowned upon. Guests must be able come dressed down and feel at ease in coming alone if they choose.

By creating a comfortable space away from home and work, regulars will start to inhabit the Third Spaces. The bar in the television show “Cheers” would be nothing without Frazier, Cliff and Norm. These regulars of your buildings will get to know one another and their camaraderie carries over into other areas of the building like the mailroom or elevator.

The time spent in well-designed Third Spaces helps people feel alive and gives a residential building a positive energy that goes way beyond its structural elements.

(Mary Cook is the founder and president of Mary Cook & Associates, an interior design firm based in Chicago. She can be reached at

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