Shared space

At Caroline Collective, coworking movement thrives and takes new direction

At Caroline Collective, coworking movement thrives and takes new direction

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Coworking in the common room Photo by Geoff Smith
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Ned Dodington and Geoff Smith in the conference room Photo by Dyan Cannon
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The courtyard Photo by Dyan Cannon
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The common room Photo by Geoff Smith
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A work space Photo by Dyan Cannon
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As the Caroline Collective is the midst of an ambitious fall schedule, co-founder Ned Dodington and office manager Geoff Smith recently invited CultureMap to the organization's weekly Friday happy hour to discuss the history and current state of coworking – an informal style of working in which independent freelancers and consultants share a communal office space as well as ideas and talents. 

Coworking emerged as a proper social phenomenon sometime in the mid-2000s, with high-profile features on CNN and in The New York Times by early 2008. Fueled by swarms of independent tech-developers thriving in the now unforgettable boom years of the last decade, early collectives like San Francisco’s Hat Factory and Philadelphia’s IndependentsHall garnered much of the initial attention in offering a new office model for a new type of wireless labor force.

Coworking marked a sea change in attitude — a shift away from the '90s obsession with intellectual property rights to a more open-source model. To this day, coworking as a movement revolves around a popular wiki and Google user group.

 “This is not a get-rich scheme,” Dodington laughed when I asked about the beginnings of Caroline.  “It’s always been more of a labor of love.  We believe that people from different professions benefit from sharing an open creative space and vision.”

 As the first and still most thriving cooperative workspace in Houston, Caroline Collective has witnessed massive shifts in the city’s labor force since opening in June 2008, only months before the economic crash.

What began as a for-profit venture in communal working has evolved, over the past three years, into a highly-dynamic community of Houston self-starters — ranging from software developers to filmmakers to the staff of the Fresh Arts Coalition.

“This is not a get-rich scheme,” Dodington laughed when I asked about the beginnings of Caroline.  “It’s always been more of a labor of love.  We believe that people from different professions benefit from sharing an open creative space and vision.”

“If you have a question about a web page layout, there’s a web designer right over there,” Smith added.  “If you have a legal concern, there’s an attorney specializing in non-profit groups just down the hall.”

New beginning

Dodington was finishing up a graduate degree in architecture from Rice, when he and friend Matthew Wettergreen, a Rice bioengineering student, founded the Caroline Collective on the eastern edge of the Museum District with the help of early supporter Adam Brackman, co-founder of Rice Village’s eco-friendly hardware store New Living

After being profiled by the Houston Chronicle in an article on alternative workspaces, the two then-students we able to secure scores of volunteers and almost $20,000 in capital to renovate the small two-building compound at 4820 Caroline Street.

“When we talked about the idea of coworking to other people,” Dodington remembered, “they got it immediately.”  Over 1,000 people attended Caroline’s launch party.

Coming from two highly-collaborative and tech-savvy disciplines, coworking made sense to Dodington and Wettergreen, who left recently to pursue other ventures. The types of collaborative space found in an architect’s studio or science lab seem to echo throughout Caroline’s layout. 

A conference room, a small group office, a cell phone room, and two architectural drafting desks fan out from a central common area, offer varying degrees of privacy.

“I’m not a coffee shop person, so Caroline was on my radar almost immediately,” confesses CultureMap arts writer Nancy Wozny, who has held a Laptop Nomad walk-in membership for over a year.

She conducts almost all of her interviews and research from a quiet meeting room in the middle of the building, breaking regularly to socialize with fellow coworkers throughout the day. “This has become my second home; everyone knows where to find me.”

Mingling amongst the various happy hour attendees, the community aspect of the coworking has been the key to Caroline’s success. “Our guiding principle would be to not exercise too much control over the space,” Dodington explained.  “Members shape the collective how they see fit.”

C2 Creative

“This is a space geared towards small businesses and the self-employed and we focus on lending a hand to people losing jobs to the economy,” Dodington continued as he detailed future plans for C2 Creative, a nonprofit sister organization he founded with former Caroline coworker Grace Rodriguez in 2009.

The outreach and education wing of Caroline’s overall mission, C2 offers the guidance and resources needed to launch innovative revenue-generating projects.  While it currently offers numerous public events, the nonprofit organization will begin an application-based coworking residency this fall called the Creative Project Incubator Program.

“C2 will allow coworking to grow in Houston,” said Dodington.  “It will provide another tool to incubate the amazing ideas we see on a daily basis here at Caroline.”

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Each Tuesday night in October the Caroline Collectives sponsors a workshop. On Tuesday, the topic is The Square  Foot: Leasing Space in Houston For “Dummies,” covering the search for office and commercial space, leases, hidden costs and how to best prepare your space for business. On Oct. 24, Dismount Creative will lead a special Halloween craft night. For more information, click here.