After running a consulting firm out of her bedroom for three years, Renata Kowalczyk realized working from home was not the dream it’s sometimes thought to be.
Going solo was convenient; she didn’t pay for office space or drive to work. But the isolation was distracting and made it difficult to get things done.
“When you’re in this energy of other people working next to you, you just crank stuff out,” she said. “I found myself looking around and saying, ‘Where are the people?’”
Kowalczyk began seeking other options and soon came across a concept she’d never seen – coworking – a collaborative workspace model allowing professionals to share an office yet still maintain their own businesses.
Now the co-founder of Coworking LLC, Kowalczyk has partnered with Jessie and Mark Buehrer, owners of 2020 Engineering, to create Bellingham’s first coworking space inside 2020’s Wellspring Building, located at 814 Dupont St.
The 4,000-square-foot building is divided between 2020 Engineering, tenant companies that rent on a yearly or monthly basis, the coworking space – called “the pond” – and common areas including a kitchen, two restrooms and a conference room.
Jessie Buehrer said before she met Kowalczyk, she ran her company’s office building much like a coworking space without even realizing.
The parallel decor and dark wood desks in the main room of the Wellspring masks the fact the building houses more than one company. Tenant spaces fit into a tangram of desks, computers and partitions.
Common areas in the building are all shared, including two restrooms – one with a shower – a kitchen, a bike storage area and a conference room with a long desk that converts into a pool table for after-hours billiards.
The coworking cluster is in the back of the main room. Buehrer said the six-desk space was designed to be easily moved or rearranged for parties and networking events.
Coworkers enter a membership agreement for $225 per month, giving them one of the desks, which 2020 refers to as “pads.”
Membership includes extras such as high-speed Internet and use of the building’s conference room, along with wireless printing and access to a copy and fax machine.
Buehrer said a common theme for her tenants was a desire to run their small start-ups yet still get the benefits that come from working within a larger collaborative group.
“Everybody that’s renting here wanted to get out of their house. There’s too many other kinds of distractions at home,” she said. “Being in a working environment helps you work versus dealing with the kids, the dog, the dirty dishes, the laundry – whatever else is screaming at you.”
Mark Conover, a coworking member who develops mobile apps for the iPhone, iPad and Android phones, worked from home for 12 years.
He said most start-up entrepreneurs he knew who started from home offices eventually grew to miss the interaction from like-minded professionals.
“We find that we’re missing something,” Conover said.
Nomads lay down roots
Coworking spaces can trace their origins to San Francisco-based software developer Brad Neuberg, who began renting a shared space in the city’s Mission District to tech entrepreneurs in 2005.
The idea has expanded to other metro areas.
Kowalczyk estimates there are more than 750 coworking sites nationwide.
Susan Evans, co-founder and owner of Office Nomads, a Seattle coworking community with more than 100 members, said coworking is more than just desk rental.
The system is centered around an ethic of professional cross-pollination, where workers have freedom to partner, bounce ideas around and vent frustrations.
“It’s really set up with those values in place,” Evans said. “There’s something very powerful that happens there. It just helps people be more human again.”
Evans said a person’s fit with the concept depends less on profession and more on attitude.
Office Nomads has an array of members, including writers, researchers, salespeople and designers. The key is whether workers are open to taking advantage of the talents of those surrounding them, Evans said.
“The exciting stuff is when people start bumping into each other and start doing cool things,” she said.
Maintaining a creative, positive environment in the Wellspring has been a top priority, Buehrer said.
As a sustainable-minded civil engineering firm, 2020 Engineering has worked hard to keep an eco-friendly ethic among its tenants, she said.
Four years ago, the building was given a “green” makeover. Natural and full-spectrum lighting now flows through the office. Floors, walls and ceilings have nontoxic finishes, and sinks and toilets use low-flow water fixtures.
Buehrer said an entrepreneur, perhaps an architect or engineer, with an interest in sustainable living would likely fit well within the building’s coworking space.
The building’s current tenants include green design and engineering consultants, infrared heating and solar contractors, web designers, ecological service providers and construction consultants, as well as indoor air and water filtration companies.
Lukas Hovee, a Wellspring coworker who consults for a building energy analysis firm, said he was drawn to the idea of working among a group of individuals within industries so similar to his own.
Hovee said working within a building with other sustainable-minded professionals leads to a lot of chance networking he wouldn’t find if he worked from home or rented an office space elsewhere.
Kowalczyk said the Wellspring’s space is unique compared to other coworking environments.
It’s small, for one, but it also sits in a building that houses paying tenants and a large anchor company. Most coworking spaces, particularly in large cities, are set up solely for coworking, Kowalczyk said.
The unconventional nature of the Wellspring’s space is an example of the variation inside the coworking model, she said.
“It’s still a very young industry. I actually refer to it as a movement, because it doesn’t really have industry players or structures,” Kowalczyk said. “Every coworking space is specific to the community that resides in that space.”
With her new company, Kowalczyk said she’s hoping the synergic workspace model will catch on in small communities much like it has in major cities.
Having spent years as a consultant on Wall Street before arriving in the Northwest, Kowalczyk said many professionals are beginning to escape urban bustle and seek life in suburbs and towns.
The time is right to spread the coworking ethos, she said.
“It’s kind of easy to create a coworking space in a large city,” she said. “But I’m really intrigued by bringing that model to smaller communities.”
Evan Marczynski Photos