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2016-04-01 / Features

Watch This co-space

‘Home for Changemakers’ is changing its residents’ lives
Robyn Passante | Photos by Matt Fern

If you came across news of the co.space a few years ago, you may have heard buzz words like “entrepreneur house” or “cave shower.” Created by self-starters Spud Marshall and Christian Baum, the funky co-housing project on East Nittany Avenue seemed at first to be a college-level offshoot of the trendy startup incubator New Leaf Initiative, which the two friends had founded just a couple years before.

And for a while, Marshall and Baum thought it might be just that. Founders of the co.space Spud Marshall and Christian BaumFounders of the co.space Spud Marshall and Christian Baum

“For the first year, the brand perception of the co.space was the space — everybody was talking about the house. We had tons of different events we hosted,” says Marshall, 28, of the gatherings they held to invite the community to check out the home, with its 20-foot-long custom-made dining room table and its cave-themed guest shower, complete with stalactites. “Also entrepreneurship was a big focus, and we became the ‘entrepreneur home.’ And we rode with that for a little bit.”

But as it nears the end of its third school year, it’s clear that the idea Marshall and Baum had for an intentional community of “changemakers” that would entice more enterprising young professionals to stick around after graduation has evolved to a point where the “space” is clearly secondary to the “co.”
“The ‘entrepreneur house’ story that the community understood us as trickled back to the house, and the people here who were not entrepreneurs felt like they didn’t belong. So you will not see that word here anymore,” Marshall says. “The impact we care about creating is on the personal level, the journeys people are on. And those are 20 individual-focused things. Yes, it ripples into the community, but it starts with the individual.”

Those 20 co.spacers — typically 16 Penn State students, two young professionals and two house managers — collectively form a uniquely intentional community, each delving into his or her personal passions but making those interests, struggles and fears known publicly so that the housemates can offer support and accountability.

“I never would have been able to define what an intentional community is before the co.space,” says house manager Dustin Betz. Betz was among the first class of co.spacers, moving into the house in 2013 when he was a senior at Penn State. That year the budding entrepreneur founded GreenTowers, LLC, a startup urban agricultural product design company, thanks in part to the mentoring and support he received in the house. The following year he stayed in the co.space as a young professional, working to build his company.

This year, as a house manager, Betz’s jobs include ordering inventory, making sure people are keeping up with their assigned chores, and sending invitations for programs and speaker events happening at the house. But his biggest role is to keep tabs on each of his housemates — not just what they’re up to but how they’re doing.

Each co.spacer has a “journey journal” to use as a guide and memory keeper throughout their time there.

Created by Marshall and Baum with input from past and present co.spacers, the journal helps residents Paul Girgis, a young professional who lives in the house, chats with co.space founder Spud MarshallPaul Girgis, a young professional who lives in the house, chats with co.space founder Spud Marshallcontinually pinpoint which of three areas — personal, professional or project-based — they’re most focused on and what steps they’re taking to reach their goal or dig deeper. Journal entries are regularly tacked up on the dining room wall so everyone can see how each of their housemates could use some support and encouragement.

“The journey journal is [Marshall and Baum’s] way of being really intentional about giving people the tools to dive headfirst into whatever it is they feel called to work on,” says Betz, 24.

Those journeys begin each semester with an off-site retreat, an intense two days of bonding and goal setting.

“The retreat is really important for setting a precedent for the house culture. We discuss what people are focused on that semester, ask them what kinds of things they want to see,” Betz says. “And it gets everybody in that mindset to start thinking about what an intentional community is, because I think you need that full 48-hour immersion of the retreat to realize these strangers are now your housemates. And they’re going to support you, and you need to do what you can to support them.”

Co.spacers apply for a slot in the 13-bedroom, six-bathroom home a year in advance, and Baum and Marshall hold in-person interviews with just about every applicant. “You have to be interested in creating positive change, whether it’s in your own life or the world around you,” Marshall says. “For someone it may be a specific passion, for someone else they might have no clue yet.”

Housemates pay $700 per month to live in the 5,000-square-foot, fully furnished home; house managers live rent-free in exchange for their efforts. Co.spacers are expected to attend group dinners twice a week, taking turns cooking for the gathering. They also each have chores to help keep the four-story home tidy. With 20 people — 10 males and 10 females — you’d think there’d be drama, but co.spacer Christina Platt says everyone gets along surprisingly well.

The impact we care about creating is on the personal level,
the journeys people are on. —Spud Marshall

“Something that’s so central to the house is truly being respectful of other people, and that’s something that keeps people from being at each other’s throats. We all understand that every one of us was hand-picked to live here,” says Platt, 22, a junior studying electrical engineering. “I mean you have drama sometimes, but ultimately it’s not a big deal. We haven’t had any big issues at all this year. The worst is like, ‘The kitchen’s really messy, and I’m upset about it.’ And then everyone goes and cleans.”
That kind of maturity and cooperative spirit isn’t coincidental. Everything about the house and its inhabitants is carefully selected, Marshall says.

“The guideline we use for living here is that if you can do what you want to do in any other house in town, go there,” he says. “If you want to have a rager, you can do that anywhere. But if you want to have a TEDx speaker dinner, you can’t do that elsewhere.”

He isn’t exaggerating. Platt recently planned and pulled off a dinner gathering for 16 speakers who were in town for the recent TEDxPSU, an event for which Marshall served as emcee.

“It was really cool. I love the fact that I was able to bring something like that into the house,” Platt says.

That kind of pride in contributing to the house’s collective experience is contagious. Each month the co.spacers have a $100 Pitch Dinner, for which everyone has 60 seconds to pitch an idea for something they want to create. Everybody votes, and the winner is awarded $100 and given a month to turn the idea into a reality. Betz’s hexagonal-shaped beehive built into the dining room wall is the product of a $100 pitch, as is house manager Shelby Caraway’s brand-new Little Free Library for the community, built out of a giant tree trunk and affixed to a concrete block in the front yard.

Penn State student Christina Platt has signed up for a second year in the house.Penn State student Christina Platt has signed up for a second year in the house.There’s also a rock wall on the second floor, an audio workshop in the basement, and a pollinator garden outside. The creative and comfortable vibe in the co.space fosters a sense of safety and an innovative spirit among its residents, along with the freedom to express themselves and truly become “changemakers,” Marshall says.  

“Being in a house versus a dorm is totally different. And feeling like you can contribute to it is important,” he says. “In the dorm you can’t knock a wall down; here they can. There’s a lot of freedom here, and I think that spreads into the culture.”

Each year only a handful of the group’s projects and house additions remain; the rest are “wiped” to give the new crop of co.spacers plenty of room to put their own ideas into action and make the house truly theirs. But the appeal of the co.space goes well beyond the trendiness of the place itself. It’s a lesson in respect, cooperation and self-awareness that sets them up for a more intentional life, Betz says.

“I wish it was mandatory for students to live in a situation like this. I know a lot of freshmen are assigned a random roommate, but I think the whole experience of living with a bunch of people who are different than you and reconciling opinions and understanding interests that are entirely different from your own, it’s a really unique experience,” he says. Betz, who’s currently looking for a job and planning to move out in the next few months, has some anxiety about leaving “home.”

“I’m actually really worried about [leaving],” Betz says. “I think always knowing you can go home and you’ve got 20 people who have your back, that’s something a lot of people in the real world don’t have. I know I’m going to miss it.”

Platt would be feeling that angst too, but she’s already signed up to stay in the co.space another year, and she’s excited about that role.

“Being a returning co.spacer, you have a duty to promote the ideals that this was all founded upon, to help people along their way. You kind of act as a mentor,” she says. “Obviously second-year co.spacers are still on their own journey, but they have a lot to offer.”

Platt’s desire to give back stems in part from how much she has already received from her co.space journey. The Holland, Pennsylvania, native spent her first two years in college playing trumpet in the Penn State Blue Band, so when she decided to leave that behind for a fresh start, it took awhile to get her bearings and make new friends. She was also grieving the loss of her father to cancer when she moved into the co.space, and living there gave her the support she needed to get through such a tough time.

Platt says she has bounced back from depression and is taking classes part time, working for a web development company a few blocks away, and tinkering with her passion for screenprinting, thanks to a donated screenprinting machine set up in the co.space basement.

“I’ve lived in a bunch of different places since I’ve been in State College,” she says, “and this is the first place that has felt like home.” •SCM

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