Co-Living: Housing as a Service
We’re living through what seems like a perfect storm for new players in the housing market.
Young people, especially in cities are struggling to get on the property ladder and only recently have housebuilding levels shown signs of alleviating that.
In the meantime, a new set of factors from remote working to a decline of traditional sources of community, have meant that for many, urban living seems a lonely prospect.
It’s easy to be cynical when a rental-property developer suggests that people now ‘value experience over material possessions’, but as Reza Merchant, Founder of the Collective LLP, announces his second major co-living construction in Stratford, his is a housing model that warrants a more careful analysis.
Previously the preserve of cooperatives and local groups, co-living projects essentially tap into the idea that by pooling group resources into shared community spaces (at the expense of private living spaces), everyone gains access to a higher standard of living/working areas and facilities.
This is increasingly seen as good business by property developers ready to offer a solution to some of the emotional and financial constraints of modern life. Companies like Pure House, Common and Open Door are forging ahead with co-living projects in the US, whilst in the UK, entrepreneurs will be heartened by Government’s £300m commitment to delivering 13,000 ‘community homes’ by 2021.
Co-living is variously touted as a remedy to elderly loneliness, in-home care needs and the demands of a remote workforce, but its real sustainability seems to rest on its less tangible appeal, as a social, emotional and embodied experience. After visiting the Collective’s oversubscribed Acton site, I offer a few early thoughts.
The Collective’s plans for their new site in Stratford
A Liminal Space?
The resident who shows me round (there’s money off rent for doing this and other community centred activities) explains to me that this is a vetting process – you have to be ‘the right sort of person’ to ‘be invited’ to join The Collective.
This is standard; all co-living communities are selective to some extent and part of the appeal is that this reduces the risk of having to live with people you don’t get on with. The stated goal of these places remains the same though, to try to create an environment where people feel they are amongst peers, socialise with them and trust one another to maintain the space.
This vision is born out in the facilities on offer; there’s a communal restaurant, gyms, a bar, event space, kitchens and a spa, all giving the place the sense of an upmarket hall of residence. As a result, bedrooms are small, discouraging people from staying in them and attempting to force people to interact and use the communal spaces.
That said, there’s a jarring juxtaposition: co-housing is designed to stimulate emotional investment in social spaces and relationships but almost all the residents I spoke to suggested that their stay was only temporary. Co-housing, it seems, caters to a particular phase in their life where they were searching for jobs, more permanent accommodation or a sense of purpose more generally.
Studio room at the Collective Old Oak
Roam’s Co-living project in Bali – part of a network of worldwide properties that attempt to create a ‘global community’
James Scott, COO of the Collective recognises this as one of the reasons for the companies’ success:
“Where previously we moved straight from adolescence into adulthood, we now take our time to become more socially liberated and culturally diverse, experimenting to find out what – and who – we love, before committing to it in adulthood.”
In his mind, people are getting into co-living because they want the convenience of a maintained space without the commitment of buying, a short termism that seems at odds with the sense of emotional investment the interior architecture tries to furnish.
In the industrial chic lobby of the 500-room development there’s a sign that reads ‘You’re Home!’, a welcome that is similarly contradictory when considered against Scott’s other aim of “decoupling the function of living from the physical location”, creating an abstract sense of community that exists beyond the Royal Oak building.
In the lobby, the business logic behind this quickly becomes apparent. The Collective plans to partner with organisations to offer every conceivable add-on, from transport (Zipcar) to financial planning (Nutmeg) and serviced wardrobes.
The real innovation it seems, is in selling access to a community of people and their shared experiences, with the ambitious– if not implausible – goal being to deliver free housing, paid for by providing access to the home, social lives and data of residents.
And, whilst commercialisation of the home is nothing new, the overtness and scale of this business model, and its attempts to monetise group experience in such a focused way, is. It remains to be seen how people will react to it.
The Exchange at the Collective, Old Oak
Offering Convenience but Selling Community
The Collective finds itself in the strange position of selling a sense of community to residents that it concedes are looking for a more impersonal sense of convenience in their accommodation. As planners and architects evolve their thinking around this specific model of co-living they will need to develop ways to satisfy both aspirations.
How they do this authentically whilst letting brands and businesses into the living space will require a careful, embodied assessment of how far people are willing to blur the boundaries between their public and private spaces.
Anthropologist James Holston’s writing on Brasilia provides some framework for this kind of study. Regarding the construction of the city in 1957, he considers the effects of modernist architect’s attempts to force people out of the home into communal spaces by creating small private living spaces and large, well-appointed communal spaces.
What he found was people consistently subverting these attempts at social engineering, reverting to previous living practices. Living rooms made deliberately small were knocked through and maid’s quarters (a practice planners hoped would be abolished) moved to cupboards, further worsening their predicament. Moreover, the communal spaces (used for resident meetings and speaker events) were widely shunned and seen as places of work rather than leisure due to their obvious government association.
Returning to London, it doesn’t seem an exaggeration to say that the communal spaces of the Collective are treated with a similar apprehension – largely underutilised yet regularly touted as pivotal by the company in marketing and on social media.
Whilst the Collective is an ambitious and genuinely thought provoking disruptor in the property market it will need to broaden its understanding of residents’ lives and usage to remove the disconnect between the vision it sells and how it is experienced.