An Interview with Thomas Dolan, author of Live-Work Planning And Design: Zero-Commute Housing

Book Cover of Live-Work Planning And Design:Zero-Commute Housing by Thomas Dolan

An interview from Live-Work Planning and Design: Zero-Commute Housing by Thomas Dolan, which will be available in bookstores and online starting this week.

From the back cover of the book:

"As suburban models of separated-use zoning fade in importance, the ultimate mixed-use type is live-work, which offers both flexibility and zero-commute living. Live-work refers to buildings, projects and mixed-use neighborhoods that concentrate all of life’s functions in one place. Advances in computer and networking technologies allow more people work from home, leading to a renewed interest in this hybrid land-use and building type.

Live-Work Planning and Design walks readers through the entire process of getting live-work projects designed, approved and built. The author draws on more than twenty-five years of experience in the field, examining in detail a wide range of project types, including courtyard communities, flexhouses, housing over retail, artists’ studios, loft condominiums, and more. Numerous case studies and real-world examples highlight both successful and failed projects, with an emphasis on integrating buildings into the neighborhood to help projects succeed. Complete with hundreds of live-work photos and illustrations, this book:

·      Contrasts common and innovative live-work designs in diverse locations

·      Provides built live-work examples for both new construction and renovations

·      Advocates for live-work and zero-commute housing types that foster a strong sense of community

·      Discusses the market for live-work and how to continue promoting it

·      Describes how various municipalities have incorporated live-work into city plans

·      Explains a host of regulatory, zoning, and building code issues

Architects, urban planners, developers, and builders of live-work projects will find this book an insightful and highly practical resource. It is also valuable for zoning officials, urban planners and building officials working on planning and building codes and urban designs that incorporate live-work projects."

Book excerpt:

Building Live-Work, Building Community: An interview with Architect Thomas Dolan

Note: This interview by Pam Strayer was conducted in response to the successful community building already evident in the first few years of occupation of South Prescott Village (designed by Thomas Dolan Architecture), the first new construction courtyard live-work community built in the United States.

Q. Many multi-family and  multi-unit live-work buildings are designed with little attention to the possibility that they can facilitate community; what is your alternative to this?

A. Creating spaces in which casual, informal interaction between live-work residents occurs naturally is the most important element in encouraging a sense of community. The nature of those spaces can make the difference between an alienating structure and a fully functioning community. The entry situation—that transition between the moment one enters the complex and the time one closes one’s own door—determines whether one feels a part of something larger, something greater than one’s private, insular, often isolated life. This brief passage, however fleeting, offers the opportunity for interaction, the chance for communication with other residents. This, then, is the starting point of community.

Q. How does interaction occur in a multi-unit live-work complex?

A. In designing and later observing the residents of several multi-unit live-work communities I designed, I have discovered that three types of interaction take place between the residents:

(1) Formal visiting requires a definite intention on the part of the visitor, to which the response may be: “Come in,” “Go away,” or “Come back another time.”

(2) Meeting at a common destination requires a definite, purposeful intention to go to that common destination (laundry room, garden, pool, spa, etc.) on the part of two (or more) individuals who meet there. The actual meetings are usually spontaneous and casual.

(3) Crossing paths are meetings that though never planned, are the result of normal day-to-day comings and goings. Crossing paths leads to interactions that become more or less regular, thereby contributing to a sense of familiarity and even safety.

In my experience, the third kind of interaction works best at creating, at a comfortable pace, a sense of familiarity and the kinds of growing acquaintances that lead to a natural, voluntary sense of community.

Q. How can the desired interaction that creates community be encouraged?

A. Situations can be created that become comfortable settings for interaction as residents cross paths, specifically through the design of how and where people come and go through the common spaces. The architect’s challenge is to shape common spaces that are neutral and non-threatening and that invoke a sense of well-being, of comfort in greeting a neighbor, enabling one to pause, chat, and move on.

The architect who takes up the challenge of building a community does so knowing that the building itself is half the equation: the residents are the other half. It is through the practice of architecture, what Louis Kahn called “[t]he thoughtful making of spaces that evoke a feeling of appropriate use”1  that a feeling of communality among inhabitants can be encouraged. When the design succeeds, the result is a functioning community, a union of people and place.

Q. Why is the design of a live-work complex such a great opportunity to encourage community?

A. The activity called “live-work” is simply a term meaning that most of one’s life is centered in one place (much as farmers, housewives, and villagers have done forever) and that one’s work is often a solitary activity pursued in an isolated space. As distinct from those who work outside of their homes, live-workers are not interacting with peers during their typical workday. They tend to spend their days working alone, or perhaps in close proximity to a mate or family. This solitary isolation in both work and life eventually gives rise to a need for contact with others, a need that is often not perceived until after it has been met and embraced.

Q. So, design can facilitate community?

A: Absolutely. I have discovered that the special needs and constraints of live-work have created unique opportunities. Over the years, residents of the multi-unit live-work complexes I have designed have remarked repeatedly on a new kind of richness and an unexpected openness in their lives. Ironically, many have told me they had no sense of what they were missing until they became part of a live-work courtyard community.

[5-3.jpg] Figure 5-3: Interaction in the garden at South Prescott Village, Oakland, California, where two courtyards supplement the central garden as places where residents cross paths as they come and go about their daily lives. 1988, Designed by Thomas Dolan Architecture.

The artists of South Prescott Village regard its courtyards and gardens as a fundamental part of their work space—not that they actually use these areas for studio space but rather, their interaction with other artists has exerted a tangible influence on their work (see Figure 5-3). For some, the collaborations that have arisen from such contact with others have changed the course of their work and their lives.

Something seems to be working here, something new, and something old: a post-industrial form of socialization, perhaps, or the simple pleasure of meeting at the village well. Those who carry on the activities of both working and living in the same place do more fully inhabit that place: It will ever be thus. People fully inhabiting a place means a greater caring for that place and for the other people with whom they share it. This may be the great lesson of live-work communities: the rediscovery of the power of fully inhabiting a place, of the well-being that results from it, and of relating to the surrounding community as a community.


THOMAS DOLAN, is the principal of Thomas Dolan Architecture in Oakland, California. An architect, landscape and urban designer, and development and code consultant, Dolan designed the first purpose-built live-work complex constructed in the United States. He was instrumental in the development of the live-work building code for the city of Oakland. Dolan is active in the Congress for the New Urbanismand is the founder of the pioneering website, which has been a resource for practitioners and users of live-work since 1998.

Thomas Dolan will be speakiing at CNU 20 on a panel entitled The Reality of Live-Work Today at 2:00 on Saturday, May 12th.


For more on upcoming book tours, Thomas Dolan’s speaking engagements, the book blog, free excerpts, a project photo gallery, and other book-related information and events, visit:

 Also, follow Tom on Twitter  @TomDolan5



For more on CNU's

For more on CNU's Live/Work/Walk initiative, please visit


Write your comments in the box below and share on your Facebook!