Laura Mailander (right) from Cultivating Community, the nonprofit organization that runs the gardening and cooking programs at 409 Cumberland, teaches a class in the Portland, Maine, development’s kitchen. 
Laura Mailander (right) from Cultivating Community, the nonprofit organization that runs the gardening and cooking programs at 409 Cumberland, teaches a class in the Portland, Maine, development’s kitchen. 


1. Focus on People More Than Rooms

“In the past, it felt like enough to build and furnish a community room—if you build it, they will come,” says Dana Totman, president of Avesta Housing in Portland, Maine. “In reality, we’ve learned it takes much more to create a community room that residents use and that will benefit them. It takes services and programs. Avesta has increasingly invested resources that are more about building community and less about building rooms. Currently, programs around gardening (the outside community room!) and nutrition are very popular with our residents.”

2. Break Bread

At 409 Cumberland, Avesta Housing’s new mixed-income development in downtown Portland, the community space includes a commercial-grade teaching kitchen (pictured). The nonprofit worked closely with city planners who wanted the first floor to capture the outside sidewalk activity to create a level of vibrancy. With this in mind, the entire first floor is surrounded by floor-to-ceiling windows that bring the Portland sidewalks into the community space.
The first floor is available for community groups to use for healthful living–­related events and classes, many of which are open to the residents. This has been a way to bring additional programming into the building at no cost to Avesta or its tenants. In addition, there’s a rooftop community garden and greenhouse.

KTGY Architecture + Planning designed a room that gave residents at Heritage Oaks in Oakdale, Calif., the feeling of having their own garage.
KTGY Architecture + Planning designed a room that gave residents at Heritage Oaks in Oakdale, Calif., the feeling of having their own garage.

3. Think Tech

Community rooms still need the basic elements, but taking advantage of today’s technology can really engage residents, says Manny Gonzalez, principal at KTGY Architecture + Planning, explaining that things like a “trending wall” that display what residents are doing or are interested in not only lets them find other tenants with similar pursuits but assists management in creating relevant programs.
Gonzalez has gotten creative in his designs, as well. He and a client discussed what residents leave behind when they move from their homes, so they provided a patio and barbecue area. “I said I would miss my garage the most,” Gonzalez says. “So we provided the residents with a 400-square-foot garage with a roll-up door that opens onto that same patio, and it’s the most popular spot in the ­community.” 

4. Mix It Up

Consider having a mix of furniture and equipment to accommodate different groups and functions. Couches, comfortable chairs, and coffee tables are inviting for small, private groups. For larger gatherings, tables, chairs, and display monitors may be needed, notes the staff at CommonBond Communities. 

The St. Paul, Minn.–based firm offers a number of valuable programs at its developments. At several sites, the community rooms are used for the distribution  of biweekly food shelf deliveries.

5. Take Down Walls

“What we’ve begun to do is eliminate the notion of assigning separate rooms for each function by creating a single large space where all activities engage or overlap,” says Ron Lloyd, president and founder of RDL Architects. “For instance, we bring the kitchen out into the open, instead of behind a wall, complete with bar seating and coffee station for residents. With the introduction of personal mobile devices, the former computer room goes away and becomes part of this space, much like a bistro or a coffee shop.”
Lloyd has also been working to add features that promote intergenerational and community engagement. “We designed a facility for a continuing-care campus that has a bistro complete with a commercial kitchen. The bistro not only serves the needs of the residents but is frequented by staff and employees from the surrounding community.”