We tend to think of our basic needs in terms of tangibles: housing, food, water, oxygen. But in order to thrive, humans need a lot more than that. The coronavirus pandemic has revealed just how much social connection plays into our happiness, and how deeply social isolation can affect us psychologically. Living in close proximity to others within a dense urban neighborhood doesn’t necessarily alleviate that loneliness in the modern world, and social norms, at least in the United States and much of Western and Northern Europe, don’t really encourage us to socialize with strangers.

What if we approached urban life from a different perspective? Architectural firm Framlab has envisioned a way to make cities much friendlier to live in with “Open House,” a concept they hope will serve as a prototype for housing that “foregrounds social inclusion, connection, and well-being.” First and foremost, the design addresses what they call the hidden epidemic of social disconnection.

The home is arguably the most important indoor environment in our lives,” they say. “A home is more than a shelter from the elements, and plays an important role for our social, developmental, and cognitive processes. This space is closely related to our senses of trust, safety, and belonging. However, in most cities today, housing is less treated as a human habitat as it is a financial instrument. While cities around the world are struggling to provide enough housing for their rapidly growing populations, quantity is not the only factor of this housing crisis. We also need adequate housing that can support, nourish, and enrich our social and cultural identity and diversity.”

Arguing that the pursuit of endless growth and the order of consumerism has shifted our focus from relationships to material pursuits, with technology worsening the situation instead of alleviating it, the architects propose adding a generous transition space between the housing environment and the street to maximize potential for social encounters between neighbors. A modular system that could be added onto existing buildings or used to build new developments, the setup creates a “soft edge” that blurs the boundaries between these two spaces, offering seating, planters, bike storage, and social areas that are open to the air but protected from the elements. Private areas outside each residence open onto the shared space, which also features vertical aeroponic gardens automatically misted with collected rainwater.

These spaces have been accentuated with seating, reading nooks, shelving, and art, and have been given favorable views and lighting conditions to encourage social engagement between neighbors. Studies have found casual encounters to be just as important in fostering a sense of belonging and trust as contact with family and close friends. The apartment entrance area has been given extra attention. Here, the ‘soft edge’ strategy is applied again to create a gradual transition between the common space and the individual units. This also allows each apartment to ‘spill’ into the shared space and express the individual and cultural character of the household. The partition is made up of a retractable wall, enabling the resident to regulate the ‘softness’ of the boundary.”

The result is a “soft extension” of each private unit. Crucially, there’s no forced interaction while performing basic domestic tasks like cooking, as you’d find in communal housing. Residents can choose when and how much to open their own spaces to the semi-private “in-between zone” and make themselves available for socializing. In the end, the modular multi-story semi-outdoor addition offers far more opportunities to meet new people — not to mention a lot more access to nature — compared to the average apartment building.

That’s music to a lot of urban residents’ ears right about now. The pandemic forced many of us into our individual apartments, which lack adequate access to spaces that are safe for socializing. And the additional multi-purpose spaces offered by “Open House” would be beneficial long after our coronavirus vaccines allow us to go back to normal life.