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WeWork’s Communal Living Experiment, WeLive, Is Your College Dorm On Steroids

WeWork has built Dorm 2.0–complete with tiny rooms, community managers, and friends.

“Are we doing a real tour?” WeWork cofounder Miguel McKelvey asks as he enters the lobby of the company’s first residential building. “Then we have to start outside.”

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I follow him back the way he came, through revolving doors, to a plaza near the entrance of the building, which is in Manhattan’s Financial District near the New York Stock Exchange. “First you have to imagine that Hurricane Sandy just happened, and this place was under eight feet of water,” he says as we view the 27-floor skyscraper. “We started talking to Bill Rudin [the developer who owns the building], and he was like, ‘What do you think?’ And we were like, ‘we’ll make it awesome.’”

Rudin agreed to rent them the building, and WeWork–best known for its communal workspaces–spent the next three years transforming 20 floors of the office building into a new type of living solution for young professionals, who are flocking to cities at a higher rate than previous generations despite skyrocketing urban rent. Called WeLive, WeWork’s first residential building rents tiny bedrooms to tenants who are willing to trade personal space for access to shared amenities and the opportunity to live in a hot neighborhood. WeLive makes it easy for tenants to commit by forgoing long-term leases, and it eases the transition by equipping every room with furniture, free Wi-Fi, and even friends. “We’re not just going to give them the best price, which we will,” says WeWork CEO Adam Neumann. “And we’re not going to just give them flexibility, which we will. But we’re going to give them a social layer of community that has never existed before.”

WeLive is like Dorm 2.0: It employs community managers who welcome residents and guests at the front desk; offers an app that combines features from both Facebook and a real-life bulletin board to help tenants keep track of building activities; and hosts social events–the night I was there back in February, a taco party was taking place in the building’s common space. At that point, only three floors of WeLive were occupied, mostly by WeWork employees. But according to an investor pitch deck that leaked in August, WeWork plans to house 34,000 people inside of 69 WeLive locations by 2018.

Bill Rudin didn’t agree to remodel his building to suit community living just because he thought people should meet their neighbors. The business model works similarly to that of WeWork’s 52 workspace locations: Each square foot inside of a WeLive apartment costs more to rent than a square foot of an apartment in the building next door, but since each person’s personal space is so small, the price per WeLive bedroom is still less than a typical studio in the neighborhood. By touting shared amenities, WeWork creates a win-win situation: It makes more money than it would on traditional apartments, and its customers can afford to live in prime real estate (even if it’s only a teeny tiny piece of it).

To live up to its ambitions with WeLive, WeWork has to make the business work on more than paper. And to do that, it really does have to, as McKelvey put it, “make it awesome.” Nobody will want to live in Dorm 2.0 if it’s not cool–even if the alternative is subdividing a regular studio apartment with a curtain.

Part of that magic falls to McKelvey and his design team. They created “neighborhoods” on every three floors of WeLive to encourage residents to identify with each other as a group. The laundry room is also an arcade, and the mail room is also a bar. “It’s a trick to find the right line,” McKelvey says, “to have all the convenience of a hotel but still allow people to have some of their own personality.”He points to the black-and-white walls above a kitchen counter, which can be doodled on and erased as residents see fit. “We could have wallpaper in every room like we do in WeWork conference rooms,” he says. “But it was always a question–if we were more expressive, would people feel like it wasn’t the right fit for them?”

Check out the slideshow above for an inside look at WeLive’s brand-new digs.

About the author

Sarah Kessler is a senior writer at Fast Company, where she writes about the on-demand/gig/sharing "economies" and the future of work.

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