Launched in 2010, WeWork, which has garnered an impressive $16 billion valuation, as of March, has become known for designing communal creative office spaces tailored to meet the needs of workers at other nascent start-ups, companies that don't yet require large floorplates, freelancers, and other individuals interested in a collaborative, cross-business work atmosphere. Within the past few years, workplace trends have skewed toward making the office feel more like home, and WeWork has been able to achieve that ambiance so successfully that segueing into offering community-living spaces seemed like a natural progression. With two WeLive locations currently open, one in New York City and one near Washington, D.C., co-founder and chief creative officer Miguel McKelvey and his business partner, WeWork CEO Adam Neumann, now aim to change how people live in big cities. ARCHITECT recently chatted with McKelvey, who studied architecture at the University of Oregon.
ARCHITECT: How does your background in architecture impact your work as WeWork's chief creative officer?
McKelvey: The most important part is a rigorous approach to problem solving. I felt like what I learned in architecture school was that, regardless of the project, [I needed to be] willing to keep pushing and keep redrawing. I think that’s a great comparison to a startup: being willing to be open to the challenge of taking on anything, any problem that needs to be solved.
How is a WeWork space realized?
A test fit is usually our starting point because we have to come up with a general programming idea, and then we put that into the building to figure out the economic feasibility. WeLive is similar to WeWork in that both [WeLive] projects we’ve done so far are conversions of office buildings—that requires figuring out if there’s a way to use a floor space that wasn’t originally designed for residential [use] in a way that it’s efficient enough to make the building work financially. Once we have a general idea of layout, the next challenge is making a smaller space feel open, airy, and spacious. We’re going to ask you, as a member, to live in a smaller space, but how do we make that still feel comfortable rather than compressive?
What is the solution?
It sounds really simple but leaving the ceilings exposed rather than putting in a ceiling and being honest with the fact that, if there’s going to have to be fire equipment, you’re going to see the red cables running across the ceiling. It’s a trade-off. We wanted to accentuate the building rather than cover it up.
How many iterations does one design go through before it’s chosen?
I would love to say not as much as it did in both of these buildings. [The WeLive project in] Crystal City [in Arlington, Va.] is definitely simpler because it’s just a rectangle. At 110 Wall St. [in New York], nothing’s at a right angle. All of the façade pieces are off-kilter a little bit. So that is an atypical configuration with tons of iterations in the floor plan. You would make one move there and gain 2 feet in diameter, then all of a sudden we’d have to make tons of shifts in all of the units to accommodate it. You had this domino effect. There was probably 75 to 100 different floor plan iterations overall, if not more.
And have you adapted designs you’ve implemented in WeWork into ones suitable for WeLive?
Some things are shared. In WeWork, all of the walls are glass; that’s not something we can do in residential buildings. We still wanted to create those interstitial spaces, unlike in a normal apartment building where you would just have a hallway and then your unit. We wanted to make an in-between zone where people could exist outside of their apartments. That’s also something we do at WeWork: try to create spaces that are just rolling off of circulation paths. If you’re going to a meeting space at WeWork, you hopefully pass through a common area and maybe you’ll see someone you haven’t seen in a while. At WeLive, we made connecting stairs between each group of three floors. Hopefully, rather than going on the elevator, you’ll take the stairs and therefore build familiarity and then personal connections [with the other residents].
What has been your main challenge with transitioning from designing a work space to designing a living space?
The challenge would be less so in the [physical] design and more in the design of the experience. At WeWork, it’s been iterative. We did one building and another, and really learned from each. With WeLive, we had almost two years of planning and then we finally got to release the project to the world. It felt different both in terms of design but also in the sort of sequencing and the experience we thought people would have. We’re still in the design process of the experience. We’re responding to the users and are making adjustments along the way. We’re making programming changes to support their lifestyle.
What are important factors in your selection process for WeWork and WeLive locations?
With WeWork, it’s more of a vibe thing. Take this building at 110 Wall St. When we first came here it was shortly after [Hurricane] Sandy and it felt rather sad. But you could tell that the neighborhood was changing. The life of a building can’t just be inside—we really wanted to bring our members out and create a public presence where people would talk about what’s going on here.
It’s not just connecting people with their neighbors, it’s connecting them to the entire neighborhood. Is that the next step?
Yeah, idealistically. I think that’s a premise—we think about the impact on the neighborhood. And that’s true in WeWork projects as well. We felt like many of the buildings that have come into the neighborhood have really improved because of our being there. Rather than some office tenants who have a very traditional workflow, where everyone comes in at 9 a.m. and everyone goes at 6 p.m., our members seem to be, in many cases, much more integrated because they’re more flexible. They’re entrepreneurs, they’re startups, with people working there at different times of the day.
What other concepts are you currently or planning to explore at the WeLive locations?
One of the things that a lot of people have brought up is how you can expand this idea of community and connection across more age groups and family configurations. We didn’t design the experience around families, but as we grow that’s been something that we feel excited about because we think parents with young children are some of the most connected people. We will figure out how to direct that in a meaningful way, thinking about how do we broaden the community and make it even more valuable to people of all age ranges, experiences, and backgrounds.
Is there anything else you wanted to add?
We feel very fortunate to be in the position to engage in this discussion of how to address residential, urban living situations as people move into cities, and to think about density while trying to figure out how we make experiences awesome for people who are living closer together. We see it as an experiment that we’re at the beginning of and hopefully we will figure things out and replicate them as we do more projects. And maybe there are answers that are helpful to other people who are trying to solve these issues as well.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.