How-To: Building a Community Space
Community space! Throughout my tenure at Hub, I’ve done four talks, been on countless panels, and given a million tours about this very subject. I love thinking about it now just as much as I did seven years ago! I think this is because building community space is the physical practice of creating strong, unified foundations so as to adapt to a complex and uncertain future. Communities’ needs are always changing, so the space needs to be systemized first in order to allow for the most human capacity and energy to go to considering the shifting needs of community.
Starting from the beginning: why is community important? Gathering in communities has always been part of our shared humanity. Today, community also functions as a social change tool; systemic social change can only come from individual behavioral change, which occurs when we are faced with fresh perspectives from others, to integrate those perspectives into our own. The civil rights activist Vincent Harding states that equity work is three parts: one part self-care; one part self-work, with others and alone; and one part action in community. Communities facilitate this type of cross-thought sharing, inevitably leading to widespread individual behavioral change.
A physical gathering space is a necessity in order to encourage community: places where people can stay dry from the rain, where they can make food and eat together, where they can have a coffee and sit down on a cosy chair and share the latest thing that made them feel angry or inspired or content. These walls and windows and bricks and cement and electrical circuits and ventilation systems and internet wiring and paint and blinds and furniture, all of these unimportant, inanimate things come together to create a shelter that becomes a living part of that community, by virtue of the activities that take place inside the walls. Appropriate care needs to be given to that space, because as the person establishing a community space, you are building capacity for others to grow and shift and think inside that space. This is your primary role, and therefore the space becomes your first priority.
There are two components to building a healthy and safe space for a community: Making money + operations.
Buildings are expensive! Care should be taken in constructing a revenue model that incorporates:
The space's limitations and opportunities (i.e. The natural assets and restrictions that the building comes with);
The constraints of reality outside of the walls (i.e. What does the current economy support? What will people pay for?);
The community’s demographics and needs.
Don’t consider a revenue model that follows current trends, like coworking or coliving or co-anything, really. Trends are just that - trends - and they will fluctuate over time, some rapidly, and some quietly evolving into another trend. Think about building a revenue model to support a multi-functional space, not just coworking. Coworking is a template; if you think about what revenue models support multi-functional spaces, you’ll be able to think holistically about the right revenue model and opportunity to support your space. If you go template and don’t do the market research, you’ll miss out on a lot of opportunity.
Since buildings are expensive and very, very concrete (you’re definitely not building an app!), you need to respect the needs of this space. Respecting the needs of the space means respecting the needs of community by doing your due diligence and research first. Be a scientist and an astute observer. Ask good questions: Who are these people? What does a community mean to them? What do they want out of life, what are their hopes and dreams? How do they make money? What kind of family dynamics are present in their life? Where do they live? What would help them make more money so they can do the things they really want to do? What are their different identities? The community will sustain your space, so build for them. If market research doesn’t interest you, you’re probably doing this for the wrong reasons.
Craft a revenue model out of these different puzzle pieces: the space and its limitations and opportunities, the changing reality of society and the community, and the long-term goals of your community, modified with a short-term revenue model. This is the fun part of entrepreneurship! Putting together the puzzle pieces can be difficult, but remember: complex problems rarely have simple, straightforward answers.
Building an operational model
In building an operational model, you are embedding a foundation that can largely run itself so you can spend the majority of your time and energy focused on the aspects of community that require the most unique attention: the people. Community is the goal, but first, the space needs to have your full consideration and respect.
Identify the limitations of the space. What are the functionalities of the space? What are the intended use functionalities? Functionalities include the core makeup of the space: HVAC, security, janitorial, trash, fire alarm, water, electricity, elevator, etc. Intended use functionalities may include: furniture, internet, printing, insurance, coffee supplies, kitchen supplies, etc.
Identify the resources already available to you. What are you already paying for? Generally, this is property management; secure a copy of your lease and building budget. What are the functions that property management already fills? Create a spreadsheet that lists out the different functionalities of the space and the vendors that already service these functions. Call each vendor to introduce yourself, ask questions and make sure that you understand the service they are performing, and create a calendar to track these recurring services.
Identify gaps that property management doesn’t fill and identify vendors to fill those gaps. Set-up meetings with no less than three potential vendors for each missing function (ideally small and local!), and choose one based on their level of expertise, their desire to work with you, and their values. Add these vendors to your spreadsheet and calendar.
Identify gaps that staffing needs to fill. There will always be building functions and needs that cannot be managed through outside vendors. For these, incorporate staffing to manage these lingering functions.
Create a daily operations system to ensure staff are not caught in a reactive cycle. Staffing resources are made up of two components:
Resources: Manuals, in-case-of-emergency call lists, daily checklists, and schedules make daily operations straightforward and simple. Identify the best way to create and store resources based on the unique company and staffing structure.
Training: Staff need to be trained on all space / operations procedures. Staff need to feel empowered to ensure the community's needs are met without compromising the absolute limitations of the space and company, and so training is meant to provide the foundation for staff to know where to look for answers if they don’t automatically know, and decide on questions by understanding the limitations.
Ultimately, your goal is to understand and build a foundation that regards a building’s nature, flexibility, limitations, and intended use, so the majority of your time and energy can be spent considering and responding to the changing needs of your community.
If you are asking lots and lots of questions, you're likely on the right path !