Some of the tenants are small groups of entrepreneurs working to start a new business, while others are established companies who need to expand into new office space, and some might just be remote workers who want a more professional space than a work-from-home office.
Together they form the daily community at CoLab, a pair of flexible shared-space offices in downtown Vancouver that offer month-to-month leases on individual desks, cubicles and offices within a shared professional environment.
The model has served CoLab well during its first few years, but co-founder Kylan Johnson says the company is constantly expanding to meet the needs of its tenants, and its two latest projects go beyond desks and cubicles: a video studio and an events center.
“This has been a pattern with the spaces,” he says. “As we get new members, new ideas come about.”
The video studio is currently taking shape in the basement of Pac Tower, the original CoLab location at 915 Broadway. The project is being produced by a partnership between CoLab and one of its tenants, a leadership development company called GenDev.
A corner of one basement room has been isolated by a glass wall, and the interior is illuminated by racks of specialty lighting. The last step is soundproofing, which will add a layer of sound-absorbing panels on the walls to counteract the basement’s normally echo-inducing architecture.
The total cost of the conversion was between $30,000 and $40,000, according to Johnson, and the goal is to have the studio up and running at the start of January.
“When we first opened, this was kind of just useless space. In a traditional lease, it would just be a basement,” Johnson says. “GenDev moved in in May, so that’s when the conversation started. We had a growing population of video and photography members, so they approached us.”
GenDev will be the initial primary users of the studio, but CoLab plans to rent it to anyone who needs it, including outside clients — although CoLab tenants will get discounts and priority booking, Johnson says.
The studio won’t be the last of CoLab’s additions. Half of the second floor of the Pac Tower is currently being renovated and will re-open in January as a CoLab expansion to supplement the original space on the ground floor.
The addition will consist almost entirely of private offices of varying sizes, in contrast to the first floor’s more even balance between private offices and open desk space.
That balance is something that Johnson says he and CoLab’s other founders struggled with when they first began planning the space. The first floor’s private offices ended up filling up very quickly, so the second floor was designed to meet that demand.
“What we realized is that there is no answer because (co-working is) still such a new model,” Johnson says. “We have to experiment with that balance.”
The second CoLab office, known as the Collective, has been undergoing an evolution of its own.
The Collective actually predates CoLab. It was opened as a co-working space by a company called Columbia Collective, which leased the second floor above Boomerang Bistro. At the time, Boomerang operated on the ground floor and basement as a combination coffee shop, bookstore and consignment store.
CoLab acquired Columbia early this year and took over the leases for both floors of the building. Boomerang was scaled down to just a coffee shop at the front of the ground floor, but was allowed to continue operating rent-free.
The remainder of the ground floor was redesigned into a flexible event center called Tandem Hall, which operates as a large-scale rentable space for CoLab clients and other groups in need of an event location. Boomerang and Tandem Hall are directly connected by a main set of doors and an internal garage door that functions as a retractable wall.
“It’s really easy to have combined events,” says Jill Meyer, who serves as the executive director of Boomerang and helps coordinate between the coffee shop and CoLab for Tandem Hall events.
Tandem Hall opened in September and has already become host to a variety of recurring events such as Vancouver’s Night Market, gatherings of the VanTechy meetup group and CoLab’s own happy hour events, as well as one-off events such as a technology discussion panel from the Columbia River Economic Development Council.
The basement underneath Tandem Hall is also undergoing a renovation, although the project is still in its early stages. Johnson says it will also be used as rentable space, but with more creative functions such as sound studios, turning the area into what he calls a “maker space.”
The Collective building is at 810 Main St., about two blocks from Pac Tower. The two spaces offer the same amenities and rental rates, but Johnson says the Collective’s building aesthetic marks it as more of a creative space, with lots of exposed piping and brickwork.
The original Pac Tower CoLab was founded in 2017 by Johnson in a partnership with downtown Vancouver developer Ryan Hurley and his company, Hurley Development, which is headquartered on the tower’s third floor. The tower and the Collective building are both owned by Ten Talent Investments, another Hurley company.
Columbia Collective and CoLab were among the earliest adopters of the co-working model in Vancouver, but the industry has experienced rapid growth in other cities in the past 10 years.
Across the river in Portland, several companies operate more than a dozen co-working spaces around the city’s downtown and east side, most prominently CENTRL and WeWork, the latter of which was founded in New York in 2010 and is now a global company with offices in dozens of cities worldwide.
Johnson acknowledges that competitiveness of the industry, and he says he expects to see a “thinning out” of co-working-host companies in the next few years. But he says he’s not concerned about CoLab’s future despite the bigger competitors like WeWork, because he says that the overall growth of the industry is helping to introduce the concept of co-working to the public.
He analogizes WeWork to Starbucks, arguing that smaller niche outfits can also benefit when a big company causes major growth in a particular industry. Johnson points to CoLab’s specializations like the video studio and Tandem Hall as the features that will set the company apart from the competition when the industry begins to contract.
At the moment, CoLab is also managing to undercut WeWork on pricing. The Vancouver company’s plans range from $150 per month for a single non-dedicated desk up to $2,000 per month for a private and dedicated six-person office. WeWork’s rates at one of its downtown Portland offices are listed at $295 per month for a nondedicated desk and $2,710 per month for a six-seat office.
CoLab has 290 tenants, Johnson says, of which about 70 percent are individuals or groups of just two people, while the remainder are larger teams. He expects the opening of the second floor at Pac Tower to push that number above 300.