Jenn Chang of Common on how to design a design organization
Common is the nation’s leading co-living brand operator. That means it’s two things at once: a housing company and a tech startup.
Common’s designers bridge the gap between software developer and property developer clients.
It’s a unique role for an architect, and no one knows that better than Jenn Chang. Jenn started out as Common’s very first architect. Today, she serves as the company’s Creative Director.
Both Common and Jenn’s success has hinged on adaptability - and the ability to learn from lessons along the way.
Charting new territory as Common’s first architect
When you think of tech startups in the real estate space, you probably think of companies like WeWork where the main objective is coworking.
But at Common, their focus is co-living. That means they have two customers: renters looking for smart, affordable apartments, and developers drawn in by the tech-enabled property management platform and high-density business.
“Common sits at the intersection of technology real estate and property management,” Jenn said.
That unique combination meant that when Jenn joined, she was the first architect on staff and had to figure out where she fit into the company.
“They knew: we need to get an architect, we’re a housing company,” Jenn said. “But when I showed up, it was like, what is my job? And they couldn't really tell me. I really had to figure it out from scratch.”
One example of a learning curve? In her first week, Jenn asked for plans for the company’s 12 properties. She was met with confusion.
“People were like, staffing plans, financial plans, what do you mean, plans?” she said. “Like floor plans. And they're like, yeah, we don't have that.”
Thanks to her previous experience at SHoP Architects, Jenn was able to chart new territory step by step.
Now as Creative Director, Jenn spends most of her time balancing the ideas of her team to find the best solutions.
“I think you get exposed to different opportunities and you said, wait, as an architect, this is how I would solve it,” Jenn said. “Has anybody thought of this yet? And more often than not, the answer is no.”
She’s learned that people from different fields approach problems in vastly different ways.
The value of architecture in a tech-dominated company is that it can bring a fresh perspective.
The brand operator model
Common is less like WeWork or Domo and more like The W or Standard Hotels.
“We're a little bit different in that we don't own our buildings and we don't own the retrofit of those buildings,” Jenn said.
Instead, the brand operator model is more like those hospitality businesses.
“The Standard or The W, those buildings are owned by the developer. And they build a building, they go to the W and they say, Hey, what does The W look like?” Jenn said. “Can you come and manage my property and put your brand on it? Can you operate my building as a W?”
Both those hotels and Common work with clients to discuss design details and the financial potential of each building.
The exact level of involvement depends on the client.
“We are either on the lightest end design advisors where we sit at the table and help them along the way,” Jenn said. “Or on the heaviest end, we are hired as interior designers to do drawing sets. And so we're a hireable consultant as well, if you just want us to do the execution.”
Common also procures the furnishing for the spaces because developers typically aren’t dealing with furnished apartments.
Last but not least, they tackle marketing work such as visual content, photography, leasing plans, and other design-oriented duties.
If you're a company like Common, you need to learn how to embrace change and risk as you go. This will allow you to be flexible and shift to a better way of doing things when the opportunity arises.
When Common was first founded, they focused on the idea of building living spaces for digital nomads -- people who worked remotely and wanted to be able to share living spaces around the world.
Soon, they realized that they were looking at this type of housing from the wrong perspective.
“We at some point realized, you know what? There's actually a ton of people who already live with roommates,” Jenn said. In fact, like everybody. And the housing is just not built for it.”
There was a disconnect between what was being built by developers and what people actually needed in their living spaces. Living with roommates was not special or niche.
“It's actually not that special, and actually shouldn't be a premium product,” Jenn said. “So we've completely pivoted from using words like hive or like-mindedness or roommate matching. Things that are really cute and precious and idealistic we just tossed out the window. And we said, we're here to provide housing.”
Now their focus is high-density apartments in all different shapes and sizes to fit most people’s lifestyles and needs.
Optimize through data
Because of Common’s tech-driven approach to real estate, performance metrics are a key part of the business.
After they finish working with a client on a new property, they begin collecting data on what's working and what isn't.
“We measure all these metrics and we turn it back into essentially design guidelines,” Jenn said.
In addition to Net Promoter Scores, one metric they measure is sharing ratios. For instance, what’s the difference between two people sharing a bathroom and three people sharing it?
“You can actually measure that in performance and you can actually measure that in rent,” Jenn said. “You can actually say, somebody will pay this much to share or to not share, and have a private bathroom.”
Jenn said Common spends 15-20% of their time building up their knowledge base from property metrics so that they can design co-living spaces that people love and recommend.
Hire for internal aptitude
Common isn’t a typical design firm, which makes hiring the right candidates difficult.
Jenn said she looks for candidates that have the right balance of external knowledge from experience plus a clear willingness to gain internal knowledge.
“There's a lot of what we do here which is the application of our own knowledge base. It takes a long time to learn all of it,” Jenn said. “It's a lot of approach. It's a lot of thinking. It's a lot of knowing how the place works.”
It takes about six months for a new hire to get fully trained and for everything to click.
Jenn also looks for candidates who come with some external knowledge as well because they will need that to problem solve when working on large projects.
It’s not unusual for 100 projects to be split among Jenn’s team of 15 people.
Everyone is in a sink-or-swim situation, using their own knowledge and problem-solving skills.
This makes the balance of existing skills and internal aptitude important, since designers at Common work autonomously once they master the hefty internal skill set.
Advocacy opens doors
Jenn has learned that one of the greatest things she can do as a leader of a design team is to advocate for herself, her team, and the work they do.
“Advocacy is really the thing you don't think about. But you need to constantly communicate to other people in the company why what you do matters. What that does is you're opening doors,” Jenn said.
Advocacy means telling everyone what you plan on doing, why you’re doing it, and what benefit will come from it.
She said it’s also important to discuss how long something will take and your overall vision for the project.
“I think it's one thing as a leader to roll up your sleeves and do it, which is I think a super, super important quality as well, but I think to pick up your head and just constantly bang the drum and let everyone know what the hell it is that we're up to here.”
Just like in business, being assertive and marketing your assets can serve to motivate your team, unlock budgets, and win more clients along the way.
Join us on Thursday, December 3rd for Best Practice, a virtual fireside chat series dedicated to practice operations at architecture firms and beyond. From pain points to potential, hear how leaders in the architecture and engineering industry are innovating through new business models and managerial techniques.
We’re chatting with Jenn Chang. Jenn is the Creative Director at Common, the nation’s leading coliving residential brand and operator. Since joining the company in 2017, Jenn has overseen the Architecture and Interior Departments, in addition to leading research on shared living and the housing crisis at large. She also teaches with the Urban Planning Program at Columbia University GSAPP. Prior to her work at Common, she was a Senior Associate at SHoP Architects, where she led the design of several high-profile multi-family residential projects. Jenn received her Master of Architecture from Columbia University GSAPP. With degrees in both Architecture and Economics, her academic pursuits combine to reinforce her fundamental interest in drawing out the links between data, space, and experience. She currently practices in New York City.
In this 45 minute chat, we'll talk to Jenn about scaling and leading a design organization.
- How do you design organizational culture?
- What are key steps to scaling a design organization?
- How do you develop a leadership style?
- and More!
Founded in October 2015, Common is the nation’s leading residential brand and operating platform that designs, leases, and manages multifamily properties that appeal to today's renters. Through smart design and tech-enabled property management, Common delivers exceptional experiences to thousands of residents in coliving, microunit, and traditional apartments in cities from coast to coast.