Shortly after launching Plexpod in suburban Kansas City, founder and lifelong entrepreneur Gerald Smith was approached for a second project: renovating and repurposing a beautiful yet dilapidated middle school.
Teaming with like-minded developers and working with historic preservationists, Gerald set about converting the beloved building into a thriving workspace to nurture a new generation of entrepreneurs. Merging coworking with coliving, Gerald is on a journey to create the largest coworking campus in the world, and it’s happening right in America’s heartland.
1. Tell me a little bit about yourself and what led you to open a coworking space. I spent 25 years building several significant businesses. In 2012 my companies were acquired and I was looking for something do.
During that process I discovered coworking and it felt extremely familiar and attractive. It seemed like a good way to create something special and pay it forward to today’s entrepreneurs who are growing the great companies of tomorrow.
2. What made you think the coworking would work in Kansas City? I had heard this is not something for the suburban areas. It's for the urban core.
But I don't see what I call the rising creator class or entrepreneurial spirit being confined to any geographic area. The big cities get the attention but there are thriving entrepreneurs everywhere.
That was my theory was and so we launched our first facility. It went to the capacity in four months. That was the start of Plexpod.
Later a development group had formed and they had brought in some consultants to help them identify uses of this property.
They explored all options. They went to nine or ten different cities and even internationally for ideas, but ironically, when they came back, their proposal was, “Have you seen Plexpod in the southern metro area? We think this is your best opportunity to explore.”
Those guys came and met with me and being a property owner myself, we just were able to connect. It was as though we were both sitting on both sides of the table.
3. What were the design goals in the space renovation? Plexpod Westport Commons was an historical junior high school built in 1923. This was a huge opportunity to blend historical and modern spaces and we think we accomplished that pretty well.
This is our second location and we spent a lot of time experimenting while launching our first location and we wanted to incorporate much of what we had learned.
Our key focus is discovery. By discovery we mean literally walking through a building. We don't want this room to look like the last room. We want people to go “Oh this is cool.” We take square spaces and we break them into angles and just try to create this unique space where people experience discovery.
4. What elements of the building's original use did you incorporate or repurpose? Everything that was unique to the original building we kept. There is a beautiful theater with ornate design. It features a massive proscenium that reaches from one side of the stage to the other in a complete pattern. It is stunning. Some of the crown molding is 10-12-inches wide.
On the first floor, right outside of the theater, we have called the grand hall that's got a barrel ceiling with very ornate embossing and glazing across the ceiling, marble floors, granite staircases. It's just beautiful. It's something that you could not afford to do today.
The school is a horseshoe: The hallways are 13feet wide hallways and have rows of lockers. Eight hundred and seventy-five lockers. We honored the historics in those hallways and they’re commons areas. So you have everything from ping pong and shuffle board and open enclaves. And people have access to the lockers and use them freely.
5. Did you break down some of the boxy classrooms? All the unique designs are within the classroom footprints. A lot of the classrooms we left original. You'll see a lot of spaces with original chalk boards and of course we added new technology and white boards but it's just this blend of old and new. It's a great vibe.
What's brilliant about this space is the classrooms are on the exterior of the horseshoe so every room in the building has great views out enormous windows and historics allowed us to remove demising walls between classrooms.
6. You have a lot of very large spaces. How did you adapt those for current use? There’s a beautiful Broadway-style theater with a balcony and full fly wall and so that's used for events.
Below that is the girl's gym. The gyms are extraordinary. They have these massive windows so everything is exposed with great sunlight We lowered the ceiling, did acoustical treatments, added windows and made it a flat floor event space.
The boy's gym we split up and we did a physical theater so that's where we built out the dance studio, the sport court, our fitness areas.
7. What challenges did you face in the process? The project utilized historic tax credits and throughout the process we were committed to honoring the historical aspects of the building and the main challenge was the cost to do that well. These older buildings need a lot of love.
And they include architectural features that we couldn’t afford to do today and yet we had to repair and bring many of those features back to their original majesty.
At the center of the horseshoe you have this beautiful historic theater and all this crown molding and it's falling down to the floor because of water damage and roof leakage.
Then below the theater you had the girl's gym and below the girl's gym at the very bottom you had the boy's gym with probably 4-feet of water. All the water came through the entire building -- this 80- foot structure -- and collected at the lowest level. It was a mess. Just an absolute mess.
To repair much of the water damage we had to bring in historical restorers that knew how to do that.
8. Speaking of discovery, were there any happy surprises? In 1923, they didn't have sound systems like we have today. As sound improved somewhere in the late 1960s and early 70s, they hung these huge sound clouds in the theater --big metal frames with cloth wrapped over them -- and put in these big horns for the PA system. It hid all of the beautiful architecture. When we got up there, all the architecture was still there. The first thing we did as part of the demolition was have all of that stuff removed. Then everything was restored to its original, but then we put in brand new technology and sound systems.
When we fired all that stuff up the first time, I about cried because it sounded so incredible. Somehow in my heart, I wanted the architects of 1923 to know they did well. We ripped out all of the “fix its” from the 1960s, 70s and 80s and we put in modern day technology with what they created in 1923. Suddenly, it was remarkable. That room acoustically is superb.
We also discovered an incredible mural that wraps the entire span of a room. It was painted by the students in 1948 and it is the history of Kansas City. When we discovered it we immediately knew that this was bigger than us, bigger than our project. This belongs to the community and we had to restore and protect it. We are very proud of the room. We have made it into a scheduled meeting room. Any small member-company at Plexpod who is making a pitch to guests from outside of Kansas City should certainly use that space for their presentation. In addition there are great views of Kanas City from every window in the building. To read more about the murals discovered at Plexpod, click here.
9. What makes your space different? We focus on the entrepreneurial profile. We are so much more than just desks and office space. We often say publicly that we are in the business of Space and Community, but secretly we say we are in the business of Eliminating Loneliness and Distraction. We believe that to be successful we need to grow companies and create success. We often say, “Whether you are a company of 2 or 20, this is your world headquarters. Now how can you leverage this to your advantage to position your company for success?”
10. How would you describe your vibe? Plexpod members are the best. I call them the rising creator class. We don’t talk about millennials as an age thing, we see a whole new generation of thinking that is terrific. We talk about being millennial-minded. Our vibe is one of amenities, convenience, and concierge. We want people to feel cared for, appreciated, and taken care of, so they can focus on building something awesome.
11. You’re calling this the largest co-working space in the world. Is there another phase? There were two schools and they sit across the street in the dead center of Kansas City. The idea was to add the high school as part of the co-working campus but explore several things like larger footprints for bigger companies of 60 and up. We're also exploring adding some co-living housing units, micro-apartments. All told, it would be 366,000 square feet which we think would take the prize of the largest that we know of.
12. What are you most proud of? My best day is when I walk by a conference room or a meet up enclave and I see principals from two different companies. There have been occasions where I've gotten so curious I've actually walked in and said “Okay what's going on in here?” But inevitably it's two companies that are getting together and they're taking on a client or a project they would have never done alone.
Or when I'm walking and wandering around the facility and I bump into people. We talk about their business challenges and I try to breathe in my experience and encourage them and give them ideas. I wish I could do that just all day long because it's the best part and I think it's why we started all of this. It's the most rewarding when someone comes back and says “Hey I tried that, it worked,” or “Thanks or introducing me to this other person, we're now working together on a project.”
That introduction or bringing people together is the best part of what we do because it's one plus one equals three.
As a former principal business owner and lifelong entrepreneur, it's the coolest part of what we do.
Name of space Plexpod Westport Commons
Location Kansas City
Original building use Junior High School
Budget $20 Million
Year building built 1923
Square footage 166,000
Date coworking space open Q2 2017
Number members Currently 300+ plus signed up. We can accommodate up to 600.
Number desks 50 Open Desks, 40 Private Desks
Number private offices 72 Private Team Spaces
Amenities/Special features Historic Theater, Sport Court, Dance Studio, Parks, Outdoor workspace. Roof top Decks
For a photo tour of Plexpod Westport Commons, click here.