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Commercial, Third Places

Creating Intentional Interactions Through Design

When we’re designing spaces like coffee shops, bars, offices, and even yards, it’s key to create a space where people can have casual and occasional interactions. Here’s a little about how we go about designing spaces that promote interaction between strangers.

November 21, 2019

Deep in the age of social media, how do people actually interact? This isn’t just a social question to be debated at dinner parties, it is an actual design problem.

When we’re designing spaces like coffee shops, bars, offices, and even yards, the problem becomes how to balance the needs of the individual, the small group, and the desire for new conversations to occur. We’ve all seen the giant communal table at coffee shops. That is an example of creating a space where people can have casual and occasional interactions and helps build some community. Of course, it can be overdone (sometimes you just want to sit alone), so it works best within a suite of options.

Here are some examples of careful design creating intentional interactions.

Prospect & Refuge

The image of the front porch is classic Americana. A green front yard fenced in and a generous front porch with a swing is a scene familiar to many of us. It is also, however, not the reality in urban environments where space is limited and busier streets make the front yard less pleasant of a spot to spend time. Designed creatively, a front yard can, however, work as a private space, a welcoming visual neighbor, and as a spot for neighbors to interact. The key is to provide separation of grade (often not more than 18” is needed), a planted setback, and careful study and use of lines of site.

Lighting in the trees. – Urban Yard at The Seattle Box – Board & Vellum
Prospect & Refuge

On the other side of the metal wall is an outdoor dining table with a banquette along the wall. Though it's just off a busy street, the slight elevation, set back, and plantings make it feel sheltered while still being able to see out and have a neighborly chat.

In this yard, a low 18” high deck was placed a few feet back from the street. This allowed for a planting buffer along the busy street and a seat along the edge of the wall. Under the canopy of trees, people can dine only a few feet away from the street. They’re largely obscured by plantings, which create privacy, but are also visible enough that neighbors can talk to each other easily. An arm over the edge of the wall and a head turned during dinner creates a great chance for neighbors to catch up on what’s happening that day without feeling like the homeowners are eating dinner on display. A fenced-in area adjacent to this is lower, creating a much more private area. Giving people options for how private they want their interactions to be allows for flexibility in the space and increases the chances the spaces will actually be used.

Considering the Weather

In cities with less than ideal weather (cough… Seattle… cough), having a spot to interact under cover from the rain, or away from the glaring sun is key. One of the most common bits of small talk with a stranger is something about the weather. Using this to your advantage, creating an outdoor space that feels comfortable even in inclement weather is a sure way of getting strangers to happily turn to someone nearby and comment, “Isn’t this great to be outside and comfortable even in such awful weather?” That little move creates a common bond, a feeling that the people there have “discovered” something special, helping elevate the space into something the person treasures and respects. Beyond just liking the aesthetics and the actual layout of the space, the person now has an emotional connection with it and a desire to spend more time there.

One entry to the lobby passageway at the Lucille on Roosevelt is flanked with a raised patio for café seating.
Sheltered Outdoor Space

Tucked into the building though open to the air, this café seating area is sheltered from rain and sun.

Here at the Armistice coffee shop we designed at the Lucille apartments, we were careful to create two outdoor spaces which are under cover, heated, and feel special. They’re elevated with a great vantage point of the street, lit with a beautiful installation from Graypants and warmed by a firepit. On any given day, you can see people working away here, or meeting with a friend and helping build a community at this coffee shop.

Factoring In the Hub

One simple way of allowing for interaction is to group seating around travel paths. Most spaces have either a central hub that people travel through, or a common pathway. Having comfortable seating around this allows anyone to not only people-watch, but to interact with a nod or a hello as someone walks by. This creates options for the user to either sit off farther away from the hub or closer in, depending on their desired level of interaction.

The lobby passageway at the Lucille on Roosevelt: view towards the linear fireplace. – Multifamily Amenities
Seating in a Hub

This open-air passageway through the Lucille apartments features seating, radiant heaters and a fireplace, encouraging people to linger.

Having something central in the space that people want to gather around is also key to making it work. At the Lucille on Roosevelt apartments, we designed a central “nook” on the pathway from the residential elevators out to the street. This is usable by tenants or the patrons of the coffee shop and co-working spaces in the building. A large, central fireplace and cozy bench with books creates a comfortable and welcome vibe.

We’ve all seen dead and lifeless ground floor retail and commercial spaces littering the new developments in Seattle. They’re basic shells and have nothing that draws people in. It doesn't have to be that way! With some creative design, you can create a space that people want to be in, and makes that space valuable not only to the landlord but to the community at large.

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