Trend Alert

Trading Spaces

written by Katherine Tom

As the way people work and live continues to change, and as square footage in San Francisco becomes increasingly more valuable, it's time to reconsider what an apartment lobby or lounge can be.

One of the sad realities of San Francisco real estate is that while it’s one of the most expensive cities in the world to live in, those big bucks don’t really get you a big space. A recurring feature on Curbed titled “What $x amount rents you in San Francisco right now” points out this disparity with results that often veer into the tragicomic. Sometimes the disconnect between the tiny, cramped quarters and eye-popping price tag is so egregious it actually makes news headlines elsewhere in the country—a form of real estate schadenfreude.

With living space at such a premium, lounges, work-spaces, and other communal rooms become more and more important. Creating a welcoming shared space can foster feelings of community and decrease turnover. And with luxury high rises offering bigger and better facilities, remodeling your common space can offer the best return on your investment: for the cost of redesigning one space, you provide a benefit to all of your tenants.

When designing high traffic spaces, you will definitely want to consider wear and tear. Durable, low-maintenance materials like concrete and terrazzo have been making a steady resurgence in popularity and have long been used in public spaces like schools and airports. Plywood is another cheap, sturdy material that has been showing up more and more in modern interior design. Canvas and leather are among the more hardwearing upholstery options. Look for fabrics that are able to withstand between 100,000 and 250,000 double rubs. For floor coverings, sisal is the most durable natural fiber, with the added benefit of being very budget friendly. Wool is a more upscale option, though it can be harder to clean.

One easy way to add life to a space is by bringing greenery in. Plants are very much having a moment in design right now and they bring a beautiful, organic element into your common space. Choose easy care plants like sansevieria, pothos, zz plant, or rubber plant, which generally only have to be watered once a week. Ikea is a great place to stock up on plants cheaply, with the added benefit that most of the varieties they carry are fairly low maintenance. And you can get creative with your outdoor space as well. As the city’s park-lets demonstrate, you can squeeze a pretty charming little picnic spot into the size of a parking space.

When it comes to stylish common spaces, the new guard of boutique hotels has many ideas worth stealing. Hipster havens like the Portland-based Ace chain and Saint Cecilia in Austin have perfected casual comfort with just enough personality to feel like a home away from home. The classic Ace look has inspired countless copycats in the hospitality industry and beyond, and consists of an eclectic mix of periods and styles, with furnishings often showing their patina proudly. For the design of their hotel in New York, Arch Daily reports that “Pipes also appear in the bath accessories and the desk legs showing how stock materials can be re-appropriated to make something elegant but simple, unfussy and ultimately anti-design.”

There’s also been a trend to re-imagine traditional hotel lobbies as social spaces. In an article for Hotel Management magazine, one of the brand directors for Moxy Hotels states, “The line between work and play in public spaces is the space has to be comfortable for both. How do you transition so you can play and have drink and a connection? When the laptops go away, how does the space come to life?”

Another great source of inspiration is the rash of stylish new work-spaces popping up around the city. New York’s The Wing recently opened a San Francisco branch and The Assembly in the Mission is a wellness clubhouse located in a converted church. Both spaces cater to women and describe themselves as “sanctuaries” from the gritty, noisy, dirty urban environment in which they’re located. The Assembly boasts a sort of bohemian California coastal vibe, with unpainted oak cabinetry, white Fireclay Tile, and an assortment of kilims and other vintage-y textiles. The Wing is a little more polished and playful—all rounded corners and velvet upholstery. According to Domino magazine, the architect who designed the space “relies on patterns and texture to define the various zones along with statement lighting throughout.”

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg: between WeWork, Covo, Eco-Systm, Bespoke, The Vault, and at least a dozen other places, it’s safe to say that many San Franciscans are looking for a good place to get some work done outside of the office. Most of these spaces boast ample natural light, ergonomic seating, high-speed wifi, and bottomless coffee (extra points for a local brand like Blue Bottle). Another thing to consider is some kind of soundproof space for phone calls. Room and Zenbox are just two of the companies offering these privacy pods, which start at around $3,500 and have been adopted by companies like Nike and Salesforce.

Some start-ups have even popped up that promise to create co-working spaces within existing multifamily properties. Texas-based Craftwork has already created three such locations in Forth Worth, with 16 more in the pipeline in Austin, Houston, and Dallas. Their offerings are meant to cater not only to the building’s tenants, but also non-residents who purchase day passes, creating an additional revenue stream out of previously underutilized spaces. BisNow reports that “At WorkFlourish [one of Craftwork’s acquisitions], up to 85% of co-working members were not residents of the building, and within one year of operations 25 leases were signed at the apartments via the co-working space, either by members or by people coming for meetings with co-working members.”

Restaurants in expensive cities like New York and San Francisco are increasingly renting out their spaces when they are not in use, either as event venues, to pop-ups, or sometimes entirely different sectors altogether (SF workspace Birdnest is housed in Hazel Southern Bar and Kitchen’s space). In the future, as space in San Francisco becomes even more valuable, it’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which apartment buildings find new and more innovative ways to maximize their common spaces, many of which may be going unused during the day.

When laying out public space, take a page from the designer of Common co-living. In an interview on their blog, she states, “I believe that the key to a well-designed co-living space is the concept of layered privacy. For every space that is provided we ask: how is it used for and how many residents have access to it?...Successful layering of sharing ratios can provide everyone access to more types of spaces, all while using the same total amount of space.”

Instead of taking up an entire room with bulky exercise equipment, consider keeping things more open-ended with free weights and yoga mats. With a folding table and some lightweight chairs, the same space can be transformed into a conference room. Think about designing rooms that are flexible and multi-functional, and consider creating multiple zones so more people can comfortably share the space.

As the way people work, travel, and live continues to change, and as square footage in San Francisco becomes increasingly more valuable, it may be time to reconsider what an apartment lobby or lounge can be. With flexible floor plans, creative layered zones, and multi-functional furnishings, these spaces can be re-imagined to meet the needs of many more people.

Katherine Tom is a San Francisco-based freelance writer.