3 Strategies for Effective Common Spaces in Affordable (and Market Rate) Multifamily

If residents form bonds with each other, this strengthens their ties to the apartment community.

Creating good affordable multifamily housing is about more than just providing a place for people to live and sleep. It’s about maximizing human connections. If residents form bonds with each other, it strengthens their ties to the place and to the surrounding community. It extends their idea of home beyond their own front door and inspires them to care for the building and look out for their neighbors. If the developer, architects, and interior designers provide a well-designed mix of common spaces, then affordable housing can help people establish and nurture these bonds. There are three types of common space to pay attention to, each with its own unique function.

Crossings: Encourage Chance Encounters

Richardson Housing, designed by David Baker & Partners in San Francisco, Calif.

Richardson Housing, San Francisco, Calif. by David Baker Architects. Photo by Bruce Damonte

Crossing spaces allow chance encounters to happen—a conversation between two residents on a stair landing, a smiling hello at the mailboxes, or someone lending a hand with groceries on the elevator. Thinking carefully about the paths of intersection and making circulation spaces that people want to use support these kind of informal crossings and help spark friendships.

At the Drs. Julian and Raye Richardson Apartments in San Francisco, which includes 120 supportive studios for formerly homeless residents, the lobby entry has seating and mailboxes across from the reception desk. The waiting area for the elevator and the staircase to upper floors are both generously proportioned and detailed, providing pleasant places to stop a moment and chat.

Views across the building to the courtyard allow people to see each other from a distance, encouraging interaction. The resident lounge and community rooms are both located close to the lobby. Niches are placed within the corridors themselves,  so that as people come out of their units, they can easily have an informal conversation with a neighbor without blocking circulation or feeling cramped.

Station Center lobby, Union City, Calif.

Station Center lobby, Union City, Calif. by David Baker Architects. Photo by Bruce Damonte

At Station Center Family Housing in Union City, which includes 157 affordable rental units, the lobby is a high-ceiling space infused with generous natural light. Mailboxes located to the right of the entrance and a mezzanine level above provide more opportunities for people to spot friends and acquaintances. Service offices and a community room with a fitness center and small kitchen are conveniently connected to the lobby as well.

Richardson Housing, designed by David Baker & Partners in San Francisco, Calif.

Richardson Housing, San Francisco, Calif. by David Baker Architects.  Photo by Bruce Damonte



Connections: Create a Context for Meeting

Connection spaces are the places for deliberate encounters, where people go to be among other residents: a library, a common room with a TV, or a courtyard with an indoor/outdoor connection. Other options for this kind of space include a shared kitchen or an edible garden to build community through the love of food. Ideally, there should be places of different scales for gathering.

At the Richardson Apartments, the community room opens out to the courtyard with large glass doors that fold to the sides to make for a seamless transition from one space to the other. At Station Center Family Housing, the main courtyard includes a play area with two large gorilla sculptures that kids can climb on. The laundry room faces the courtyard, as do plenty of balconies and stoops, which further provide a sense of activity. The community room opens at either end, connecting to the courtyard and garden beds on one side and the outdoor swimming pool on the other.

Community: A Neighborhood Place

Station Center, Union City, Calif.

Station Center, Union City, Calif. by David Baker Architects. Photo by Bruce Damonte

Community places reach out to the wider population. Providing neighborhood-serving retail on the ground floor—a bakery, a restaurant, a café, a corner market—is one way to achieve this. Making a community room or open space accessible to the public is another. Having one or more of these components not only helps garner buy-in from the surrounding neighborhood when the project is initially proposed, but also activates the street once the housing is completed, improving safety and bringing vitality to the urban core. A café can become a popular hangout for residents and others in the area.

The Richardson Apartments has a bakery on the corner and a restaurant along one side of the building, which have both proven highly popular in the neighborhood. Station Center Family Housing includes a public entry plaza with bicycle parking, garden seating, and a dynamic play structure open to the larger community.

The quality of the common spaces creates the character of the building as a whole. To foster community, you need to get residents engaged with each other. If you spend time and budget on great common spaces and pay attention to all three “C’s,” good things will happen.

Amit C. Price Patel is a principal at David Baker Architects.