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    • Please join me in welcoming Sophie Wilkinson, VP and Head of Design and Construction at Common, for a Cake Panel! This panel is open for questions.

      About Sophie: Sophie Wilkinson is the Head of Design and Construction at Common, the nation’s leading residential brand enhancing the quality of living for members and value of real estate for partners through convenience and community. Since joining the company in its founding year, Sophie has overseen every detail in designing and building the 800 rooms and over 29 homes in Common’s portfolio-- from real estate partnerships, to data-driven architectural layouts, efficient construction, purposeful interior decoration and brand elevation-- meeting the needs of modern renters across the country.

      Welcome Sophie!

    • Sophie, thank you so much for joining us! So you’ve had a fascinating and eclectic career leading up to becoming Vice President and Head of Design & Construction at Common: can you share with us how you got started, and some notable milestones along the way?

    • Yeah, sure! I studied architecture, business and project management: and then I worked as a designer, but I moved into general contracting (building). I didn’t feel as though I understood enough about how buildings were built, and wanted to get that experience. So it was about
      donning a hard hat and working these construction sites. Two milestones that stand out to me both involved moving to big cities: early in my career, I took an opportunity to transfer from my hometown of Adelaide to Sydney to work on a luxury five-star penthouse hotel. It was awesome, my first experience with an international team as the designers were out of LA. For Australia, the highest level of luxury in hospitality at the time. There was a lot of coordination, because the bigger the budget, the more elements can get involved. And the second milestone was when I left Australia altogether for New York. After working on the penthouse project, I wanted to experience more projects like that, and they’re less common in Australia, so I moved. Both of these milestones changed my trajectory. I think my first break, which I like to call it, was thanks to a female supervisor, who wanted to get me as far ahead in my career as she could. She was a great mentor for me - and her actions were memorable, and special. I’ve had incredible male mentors as well, but having a female mentor early in this business, stood out. 

    • I loved learning about your involvement in Apple's Upper East Side Flagship Store, on Madison Ave: what was that project like to work on? Were you still using the same types of tile that were mentioned in this previous Cake panel?

    • I saw that link, the story about the quarry is great. Working with Apple was a career highlight, and it was also one of the hardest things that I think I’ll ever do. I did go out to Italy a few times to hand-pick the tile. The store I built was a renovation, so the tiles we needed for that store were not the typical Apple spec.

      Given the Apple standard of excellence, though, I knew there’d be challenges we’d have to overcome. Something great that I took from the experience was putting in the work to align the goals of the various teams: there are a lot of companies involved in a construction project, and when you face challenges, you can get friction that wastes time and energy. Aligning the group towards the same goals and problem solving was my focus. It was my first real push of that in an extreme condition and I use it to this day. The store is gorgeous. It’s won a bunch of awards for historic preservation and interior design, and working with the best of the best on it was amazing. It was originally a bank, over 100 years old, a glorious bank in its day, but it became run down. When Apple got involved, of course they wanted to do it well, renovating it in the best possible way. I got to work with the best preservation experts in the city, probably the world, to bring the store back to the magnificent building that it was. It was a wonderful thing to be a part of.

    • Another big NYC project you were involved with was Harman's first Flagship Store: building another Madison Avenue flagship store must have been a huge endeavor. What were some interesting aspects of the project that people might not be aware of?

    • Building a flagship store, and in Harman’s case it was their first one globally, is a unique experience. It’s a communication between a company and their customers, allowing their customer base to experience the best of the brand in real life. I wasn’t very familiar with Harman before working with them, but they have some of the best audio technology in the world, for sure. The store has a record lounge, where you can play vinyl to experience it on Harman equipment, a private cinema, a working DJ deck, a mock living room so you can watch TV and hear that sound. I started working on that project, and those were the visions they had - my role was to bring that into reality. I still drop in from time to time to say hello and hang in the cinema. It’s a really cool store!

    • Common is an operator and a brand in apartment living. We operate the homes, but we specialize in co-living. And what we do is we prioritize the guests experience, while still offering great value. And we do that by leveraging tech, design, in a way that means it can still get built with the best square footage but the renter is also hitting a price point that’s of great value.

    • Moving and living in New York, I am hyper-aware of that poor experience in the rental market. There’s a housing crisis for sure. It’s a rite of passage to overpay and then live in housing where you’re not happy - especially at the lower middle of the market. You have luxury at the high end, but it’s a real struggle to find something decent at a decent price point. So the mission for Common is to solve that problem, and improve that rental experience. Why does it have to be this bad? When I heard the coliving idea, I got it, it resonated, and I wanted to answer the question of "why can’t we solve that?"

      When I first talked to Brad Hargreaves, who’s the CEO and founder of Common and co-founded General Assembly, it was early early days for Common, but the value prop was
      there, I liked his mission and the scale that he was thinking about, across the country - solving this in a meaningful way, not just with a few buildings, attracted me. Today, it’s still the same mission, and I’m still just as passionate about it. But now it is everyone I work with at the company, that makes it particularly exciting for me now.

    • You joined Common and then helped to lead the opening of their first home in Brooklyn in 2015: did you have any idea of how big Common was going to be, or imagine that you’d be overseeing every detail in designing and building the 800 rooms and over 29 homes in Common’s portfolio just four years later?

    • I had a feeling. I had a feeling we were going to be big. Which is part of why I joined. The opportunity and size of the market is obviously tremendous - housing is huge. And our approach is smart - we leverage tools, teams and tech that are new to the real estate market. But what I couldn’t have imagined in 2015 was how quickly we’d transition from doing row houses, brownstones, to doing ground-up towers. In 2015, I saw this as a lot of smaller homes, and maybe one day we'd be get there, but I didn’t imagine in four years we’d be where we are. 

    • I thought this was an interesting factoid from the Common website: “Common members save over $500 every month over a traditional studio apartment.” This isn’t including the fact that they come furnished and with no broker fees! Obviously design and what you do
      is such a big part of Common: what’s the perspective you bring to how good design adds richness and dimension to experiences? 

    • You can overlook what you spend on furnishings - until you check your bank account the following month. And it can tie you to a specific location, which isn’t how people often wish to live these days. We have interior designers in-house, experts making the decorating choices so
      roommates don’t have to - so no afterthoughts or fights. These are professionals, this is what they do, and we can leverage our size to make better purchases. So we are able to open that gap and pass on that value.

      We also bring down the price point by designing a home specifically for co-living. What typically drives up pricing in real estate is paying for unused square footage. If you’re not using the square feet to the highest potential, if you’re paying for private space that you would be happy to share, you’re driving up the price. If you bring design to that equation, and invite people to share, you can create value, to both the developer and the renter. You can also take
      that to add more value, by creating additional outdoor spaces, or community rooms. Design can add richness in the movement paths and the intimacy of the spaces created. 

    • With locations in New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Washington DC, and Seattle, where do you hope Common goes next?

    • Beyond my native Australia, which obviously I’d been keen for, I’m excited about Canada. We just announced we’ll be going there, it’s our first international market. It will be in Ottawa.

    • We hear that it’s quick and easy to move in, which is huge. My first rental experience I slept on the floor for a few weeks while I waited for a mattress. So that’s great feedback. And moving is the worst, it’s something you hear in New York daily. And I’ve also actually heard, speaking to a member, who credits the design of the space as to why they get along with their roommates. The design has lifted their spirits, they feel more engaged and happy, and that was just music to my ears. I asked if they were just saying that because I was the head of design, and they said no, we were just chatting! Of course, we get a lot of feedback on how we can improve, but what I believe is best is to track all the feedback so we can improve. My experience in New York is that your landlord doesn’t want to improve, but we have a whole team keeping track of what can be changed, how we can improve in future projects, so listening and feedback is a huge part of our company culture, which is something that's missing from the residential real estate market for the most part. It’s nice.

    • You’ve shared some of your design and decorating principles to maximize everyone getting along in a roommate situation in a past interview with Real Simple: besides sticking with a neutral palette, leaving room for personal touches, investing in durable basics, making private spaces where you can and avoiding duplicating essentials, what other tips and tricks would you share from your years of insight?

    • Yeah! So on the local level, in the apartment context, if you’re someone living with other people, the junk drawer is the worst - no one throws away anything because they don’t know whose it is, and broken pens can last FOREVER. So I’d really recommend a seasonal cleanse with roommates, make a few hours of it, donate or toss whatever you’ve got in there, so you can actually cleanse. That’s one tip!

      For someone in Common, your kitchen / community space / living room furnishings and decor are taken care of, so spend the money you’re saving there on our private space. It can be REALLY gorgeous. Sometimes people don’t bother, but this is your sanctuary , where you retreat to - some people have commissioned art online to decorate their private spaces at Common. I was chatting with a Common member who found an artist via Instagram and payed them $500 for a unique piece of original art for their bedroom! It’s hard to justify that cost if you’re buying a sofa, but if you’re not, I’d encourage you to make your space special. And lastly I’d recommend you’d invest in a really great robe. If you’re a roommate and you’re half-changed, I’d just say that having a good robe is a good tip. It’s something people don’t talk about, but it’s a good tip! If you want to grab coffee…

    • What design touches really excite you the most when tackling a new project - is it retrofitting an architectural gem? Utilizing natural light? Bringing in unexpected hints of color?

    • So retrofitting is always full of unexpected delights. You’ll take a strip of paint off something, and see a carved detail in all its glory, and even removing a top floor or a wall, you’ll find something special there. It’s like a treasure hunt. You can’t recreate some of these things these days, there are lost crafts, so preserving that is a special experience.

      I also love working with a developer who wants to make a good place to live. Unfortunately when some of these residential towers go up, the developer isn’t thinking about the needs of the people who will live there. So I love to have a seat of the table, so we can start to think about how every space works well, so that the layouts are intentional and not an afterthought. If you’re at the table, you can use finishes and interior design to bring life to a space. Real estate
      is a tough game, so it’s nice when you have someone at the table who’ll know how it is going to be used in the design process.