To create a community, start with stairs

Researchers find that ‘neighborhoods’ help both WeLive residents and WeWork members form closer relationships

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Can a simple internal staircase—where it’s located inside a building, how visible it is from nearby, which amenities it connects to—make all the difference in creating community?

That’s what Annie Cosgrove and Rachel Montana, then senior design researchers on WeWork’s fundamental research team, set out to understand when they started researching the staircases at WeLive—WeWork’s take on residential space that includes furnished apartments with flexible leases. Cosgrove and Montana looked at both WeLive locations: WeLive New York City on Wall Street and WeLive Crystal City, located just outside of Washington, D.C.

Both buildings are broken down into three-story “neighborhoods,” made up of three floors linked by an internal staircase with a communal kitchen and some common space. At Wall Street, there are 200 residential apartment units. The average number of residents per floor is 15, and about 41 residents make up a neighborhood. The assumption is that the staircases help connect people between floors. But do they work the way designers assume they should?

The idea for the study came when the team designing future locations of WeLive wanted to know how often the staircases were being used. Their first proposal was installing sensors that would count the number of users.

But Cosgrove and Montana had a better idea.

“We figured out that what they really wanted to know was the sociality of the space—whether or not community was being built at that neighborhood scale,” says Cosgrove. “We ended up coming back to them and saying that we weren’t just going to count the amount of people using the stairs; we were going to look at the structure of their communities and assess whether or not the stairs are making an impact.”

What made this project particularly interesting for the two women was the opportunity to pool their knowledge: Cosgrove’s background in architecture with Montana’s degree in psychology. Coming from such different areas of expertise allowed them to take advantage of a wide variety of research methods, such as conducting interviews with WeLive residents and using data analysis to compare the social networks of both communities.

Montana says that this was her “dream study” because they got to replicate research by groundbreaking social psychologist Leon Festinger. In the 1950s, Festinger conducted research on a college dorm to prove that physical proximity increases the likelihood of friendships developing. Montana says she was fascinated to see whether Festinger’s work on physical proximity still mattered in a world where everyone is digitally connected.

Creating new neighborhoods

WeLive New York City offers 16 floors of fully furnished apartments in a variety of sizes, ranging from studios to four-bedroom units. All the apartments have their own kitchens, but large communal kitchens with plenty of seating are also available. Other common areas include lounge areas, yoga rooms, laundry rooms, and outdoor terraces.

By studying WeLive buildings, Cosgrove and Montana confirmed previous psychology research showing that physical proximity increases the likelihood of friendships. More than 50 percent of friendships at WeLive are between people living in the same three-story neighborhood.

Stairs make this possible, but Cosgrove and Montana say where they are placed on a floor seems to be important.

Illustration by The We Company
Illustration by The We Company

“The location of the stairs is important because when you’re at the elevator at the Wall Street location, you can see the stairs,” says Cosgrove, explaining that such visibility encourages people to use them.

Stairs also provide “visual connectivity” between the floors. During interviews, WeLive New York City residents said they glance up or down the stairwell to see if others are using common spaces on adjacent floors, which gave them more incentive to socialize.

“If you take the elevator, you have no idea what you’re walking into,” says Montana.

This is in contrast to the layout of WeLive Crystal City, where stairs are located at the end of the floors away from the elevators. They are less noticeable, so residents are less likely to use them. And they don’t provide the same visual connectivity. Cosgrove and Montana say this could be why their research shows residents are less likely to develop friendships on other floors at that location.

The most popular areas for residents to congregate are the communal kitchens in each neighborhood. Residents say they most often use their own kitchens when they cook for themselves, but prefer the communal kitchens for group meals and socializing. They say they like working in the communal kitchens “for the same reason people prefer to work in commons or coffee shops.”

“It’s not just the fact that there are stairs, but stairs connecting these important places in the building,” says Cosgrove. “Every neighborhood has just one kitchen, which is making residents more likely to use that space.”

Theory put into practice

WeLive New York City resident Robb Stamm, the 23-year-old owner of a digital production agency, says the building’s design makes it easy to socialize with people on other floors. He lives on the seventh floor and spends most of his days working from the ninth-floor kitchen.

“It’s convenient that I don’t have to take the elevator to get to the kitchen or laundry room,” Stamm says. “In this section of the building, I can use the stairway to get to the laundry room, kitchen, terrace, and my own floor.”

Stamm says that on Friday and Saturday nights, a crowd always migrates to the laundry room, which doubles as a game room—complete with Ping-Pong, pool tables, and arcade games.

“It’s something to do with a friend if you don’t want to go out,” he says, echoing Cosgrove and Montana’s research findings that common spaces were most desirable when they have more than one purpose.

Stamm says that his friends in the building typically hang out in common areas rather than in their apartments.

“I didn’t move here to spend time in my room,” he says.

IT specialist Raviv Nadav, another WeLive New York City resident, says that he met his first roommates in one of WeLive’s communal kitchens. At that point he was a guest at WeLive, staying with a friend who had a spare room.

“I feel like I’m more open to talk to someone I don’t know at WeLive because people come here to explore,” Nadav says.

Ted Palm, the community manager at WeLive New York City, most often sees people using the internal staircases to get to popular destinations like the 10th-floor bar or—Stamm’s favorite spot—the ninth-floor kitchen.

It’s not just WeLive that’s experienced the benefits of the open-plan staircase. After studying WeLive’s staircase benefits, WeWork further invested in our own. Why? Because, as we’ve seen with WeLive, the nearness of people (proximity) might increase their likelihood of friendship. 

Thomas Allen, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management and author of many studies about workspaces, pioneered a theory called the “Allen Curve,” which calculates proximity between employees (specifically, between engineers, in his study). 

The Allen Curve revealed that there is a strong negative correlation between physical distance and the frequency of communication between people. The average frequency of interaction drops by half to 15 meters from five (49 feet to 16), and half again to 50 meters from 15 (164 feet to 49). Beyond 50 meters (164 feet) and you may as well be in another building.

This shows that people are energized just by being around each other. Confirming the Allen Curve, we found that WeWork members feel a stronger connection to those to whom they are physically near; in fact, physical proximity might influence the likelihood of people being friends. 

Community starts with people

Cosgrove and Montana hope that the data they’ve collected will extend beyond WeLive and WeWork. Their research shows that design can influence how people live and communicate with one another.

Staircases are already being incorporated into design for Powered by We, which brings WeWork’s data-driven approach to designing, building, and operating workspace to spaces belonging to corporations. UBS announced that WeWork is redesigning the lobby and key common areas in its Wealth Management USA headquarters in Weehawken, New Jersey. At the heart of the design is an open staircase that welcomes employees and visitors to the second floor, which will be the hub of the campus with a coffee bar, juice bar, and other common areas.

While not everyone comes to WeLive or WeWork for the community aspect, Palm says that community often becomes one of the more important reasons they stay.

“At WeLive, people walk through the building after getting home from work and hang out,” Palm says. “They actually care about each other here, and the more time people spend in the building, they’re really able to see that. It’s more of a feeling than something you can describe.”

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