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Ben Provan, co-Founder of Open Door, facilitates a workshop on the ground floor of The Canopy near the Lake Merritt BART

The Canopy seeks to build a tech-enabled cooperative living space

on December 16, 2014

“What is happening in there?”

This is the question that Aubrey Vora, who has an unusual job title in a brand-new Oakland communal living setup, hopes people will ask as they walk by “The Canopy,” a tall building with barred windows four blocks from the Lake Merritt BART station.

Vora has been designated one of two “House Catalysts” for The Canopy, meaning that she will help steer the house culture and select its 7-10 new residents, who will move in next month.

“An excitement for learning,” is what Vora says she and her fellow House Catalyst, Carlin Gettliffe, hope to make the guiding principle both for residents and neighbors who want to attend and hold events at The Canopy. Vora, an educator and illustrator, and Gettliffe, a self-proclaimed “innovation sherpa,” say they hope the completed Canopy will “bring together people who are interested in offering their creativity.”

The whole project is the invention of two friends and business partners, Jay Standish, 29, and Ben Provan, 31, whose company, Open Door, is the business behind The Canopy. Over the last year, Standish and Provan have managed two other communal living residences in the East Bay, the Sandbox, which was disbanded last summer, and the Farmhouse. The Canopy is their third project, and the partners say they envision a network of cooperative living houses across America, connected so that members could easily travel and stay overnight in fellow “co-living” homes.

“We’re trying to create a sense that it doesn’t have to be a full time job to live in a community,” Standish said. “It can actually save time.”

The idea behind their company, Standish said, is to deflect “some of the heavier things” associated with cooperative living, such as long house meetings and financial management, by replacing them with technology and more efficient financial structures.

Standish and Provan met in 2012 while earning their MBAs in Sustainable Business from Bainbridge Graduate Institute in Seattle. They launched Open Door a year ago to inspire collaboration, innovation and community engagement through communal living.

“We’re not just creating a utopia,” Provan said. “We want to start changing the world.”

Standish and Provan are starting to take more financial risk to develop and secure properties, Provan said. Provan spends two-thirds of his time finding and developing property for new co-living houses, which, he said, is “the more work-intensive part.” He spends the rest of his time working with Open Door’s house members and recruiting potential residents. As Open Door grows, Provan said, “we will learn to balance these two very distinct types of work: real estate, finance and investment versus the touchy feely.”  The Canopy is the first property Open Door has purchased, rather than renting and then sub-renting to tenants.

Standish and Provan lived together in the Sandbox, their first co-living house, until their one-year lease ended. Having to leave the Sandbox due to a lease agreement, Provan said, drove him and Standish to purchase The Canopy to “secure the house long-term for co-living and be our own landlords.”

Oakland has a long tradition of community homes. In the 1980s, Geoph Kozeny, who, according to long-term Oakland housing cooperative resident Anaya Rose, “was central to the cooperative movement in the Bay Area,” founded what eventually became known as The Collective Networker, a newsletter about community living to spread “best-practices” and to create an accessible network of cooperative living.

Today, Standish and Provan say they want their technological innovation and overhead management to make community housing accessible to young professionals in the Bay Area. Open Door houses, Provan said, use several tools that diminish some of “the headache that previously might have been part of this lifestyle.”

For example, each house uses Facebook’s polling feature to make decisions; instead of voting in house meetings, the group is directed to the poll on the community’s Facebook page. Day-to-day decisions are made via group text messages, Standish said. Group-text decisions might include, Standish said, something like, “Hey, I wanna buy half of a cow. It’s several hundred dollars. Are you guys cool with putting that on grocery fund?”

Open Door pays rent and utilities in its name and bills the residents individually each month, Standish said, so that house residents do not have to deal with the process. Each house has a food program in which Open Door bills the residents a flat fee around $150 at the beginning of each month. That money, Standish said, is put into a shared account for residents to buy groceries. Other shared costs are managed by software called Splitwise.

To keep track of overnight guests, residents use customized online software that allows people to book reservations.

Provan said there are other differences between the Open Door approach and traditional cooperative living. Each Open Door house, Provan said, has guest programs and community events that are supposed to engage the surrounding community. “Rather than creating a nook or microcosm of utopia,” Provan said, Open Door houses have “more of an outward focus.”

Before Provan and Standish purchased The Canopy near Lake Merritt, the building’s ground-level garage space was a fabric store. Now the ground floor is planned as a mixed-use creative space for activities such as wood-working workshops and other “skill-shares.”

Weeks ago, 13 young professionals interested in joining The Canopy gathered at a workshop in a large, empty room on the ground floor to discuss ideas for its use. Ray Boyle, a tall woman with bouncy blond curls, proposed a program to teach people how to dress for their best selves in order to reach their career goals. “So many people want to convey a certain style,” said Boyle, “but don’t know how to get there.”

With Crayola markers, participants sketched other ideas onto posters that hung from fresh-painted walls: “food and drink events,” “rehearsals,” “skill-shares,” “open-mic nights,” “stories from the neighborhood.”

During a break from the workshop, almost all the participants stepped outside to get a feel for the neighborhood. “It’s important to recognize that right now, at 9 PM on a Tuesday night, the main source of light on the street is coming from this space,” Boyle said. “What does that mean for our community and the events we might have here?”

“Development represents change,” said Ilana Lipsett, one of the workshop facilitators, “which can be difficult for people as they watch their neighborhoods change and they don’t have a say in what is happening.”

Lipsett said projects like The Canopy might be able to pull neighbors more fully into the life of local group houses. “The Canopy is a blank slate,” Lipsett said, “a project where the developers are genuinely interested in creating a space that fosters community–both internal and external.”

Many residents of Open Door houses, Standish said, are on career paths that used to be regarded as non-traditional. “They are freelancers, social entrepreneurs, small business owners,” Standish said, “journalists, designers, people who work in healing arts and food–people who work on a project-by project basis.”

The Canopy, Vora said, supports “the idea that the human experiences takes place one step at a time.” Vora wants to build a home in which people can explore ideas, find the passion behind their visions, and locate the next practical steps.

One evening, when Standish and Provan were living in the Sandbox, a resident came home with an opportunity to work as a staff writer at the East Bay Express. At the time, she was working she for a chocolate company that she loved and, she had one night to make this “major life decision,” Standish said. “People in the house stayed up that night for several hours drinking wine and helping her make that decision.”

While that kind of encouragement can always come from friends, a house culture built to support young professionals making difficult career choices can be an attractive alternative to living alone. “A strong sense of community and tribe is incredibly rare in the world today, and it’s something that as human beings we evolved for. I think that its one of the things that essential to our well-being and happiness,” Gettliffe said. “The Canopy specifically is going to be supportive for people who are trying to bring something new into the world and want support.”

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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