Interesting alternatives living and working typologies for co-living examined with background on a possible history
Last month I attended a SPACE10 forum led by New York-based design duo Anton and Irene on the resurgence of co-living. They suggest the financial squeeze of modern life combined with an upsurge in digital nomads is bringing the ‘sharing economy’ into the home. As 40% of the urban areas required by 2030 are not yet built—which means a city the size of New York needs to be constructed globally every month—it is crucial architects stay up-to-date with contemporary living patterns to respond appropriately to shifts in housing requirements. My last Archinect feature of the year will provide a short overview of the history and challenges that co-living has previously faced, discuss trends emerging from the ‘ONE SHARED HOUSE 2030‘ survey and speak to Dorte Mandrup, architect of the Lang Eng Co-housing Community, on how to approach the challenge of designing successful spaces for co-living.
‘Co-living’, an umbrella term for different types of ‘co-housing’ setups, can loosely be defined as a home where two or more people live together who are not related. While ‘co-housing’ is an intentional community created and run by residents, ‘co-living’ may also encompass shared accommodation initiated by an external agent, such as a developer or entrepreneur.
Aside from the investor rush to fuel co-living startups, concrete figures on the international co-living boom are not yet available. However, early indicators such as the UN now offering support to co-living initiatives within their sustainable development goals and last year’s prestigious Harvard Wheelwright architecture prize being awarded to a project innovating in co-living, suggest it is gaining traction. While it is indisputable that young people strapped for cash have always had roommates—think Bret and Jemaine from Flight of the Conchords—co-living is now simultaneously becoming part of everyday urban life and billion-dollar business.
I expect most people reading this who have lived in cities during their 20’s have experienced a houseshare, myself included. I rented a terrace with friends in Sheffield, moved into a Danish kollegium when I started my masters in Copenhagen and had a stint in a family attic while working in London. But rather than remaining a student necessity, increasing numbers of families and professionals are now opting to co-share. This also reflects a surge in the rental market, which in the US has jumped from 52% of total adults in 2005 to 60% in 2013. This is perhaps unsurprising with soaring urban property prices and take-home wages barely rising across the country, a pattern which is echoed in cities worldwide.
Last year Anton and Irene initiated ONE SHARED HOUSE as they became fascinated in how co-living seemed to be experiencing a cultural resurgence. The documentary maps Irene’s childhood experience of growing up in a communal house in Amsterdam. In the early 1980’s Amsterdam was facing an acute housing shortage so the government enacted a law ruling that 1% of all apartments had to be communal. In 1984 Irene’s mom responded to a newspaper ad for a co-share and moved their family into Kollontai, a communal house with 8 other women and their 3 children designed by the new brutalist architect Sier van Rhijn. In the film, Irene explains “they were feminists and non-conformists […] and many were rebelling against the traditional 1950’s families they had grown up in.”
“Whenever I would tell people I grew up in a communal house”, Irene explains to me, “it inevitably turns into a 30-minute conversation about the pros and cons of communal living.” To delve deeper into the subject, she contacted architect Sier van Rhijn about his experience of designing Dutch co-living spaces during that period. “It was fun,” he explained, “even though [the occupants] had no experience designing living spaces, they were very engaged and very idealistic. As an architect, it was sometimes hard to deal with their ever-changing demands, and sometimes it drove us a little crazy.”
It was fun. Even though [the occupants] had no experience designing living spaces, they were very engaged and very idealistic. As an architect, it was sometimes hard to deal with their ever-changing demands, and sometimes it drove us a little crazy.” Sier van Rhijn, architect
Modern co-living can be traced back to thoughts emerging from Denmark in the 1960s, which crystallized in Bodil Graae’s 1967 newspaper article ‘Children Should Have One Hundred Parents’. There was a consensus at the time that modern housing was unable to provide adequate wellbeing for occupants over their lifetimes, and that ‘bofællesskab’ (living community) should instead be the aim for future housing projects. In 1972, a group of families were inspired to create the Sættedammen co-share, realized by architects Palle Dyreborg and Theo Bjerg. The project is generally accepted to be one of the first contemporary co-shares, favoring both autonomy from powerful landlords and the Danish government. The living community approach was introduced to the States in 1989 by Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett in their book ‘Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves’.
However, co-living existed long before the 1960s—gathering one roof is perhaps the most ancient way of organizing community and ensuring survival. It was only after rooted settlements began to develop that the nuclear family structure influenced the construction of individual housing units. And there were many variants—those higher up in society might expect servants and slaves to live and work within their household or poorer families would find themselves living sharing out of necessity. The institutional typologies of the 19th century also brought new forms of co-living arrangements for those on the fringes of society: if you were too sick to work, had criminal history, were a young single woman, had lost your parents or had recently immigrated to a new city, you might expect to occupy shared living quarters.
Boarding houses catering for vast numbers of incoming immigrants sprung up in New York in the 1830’s and became key transition spaces where people adapted to the demands of industrial city life. Historians estimate that during the 19th century anywhere from 30% to 50% of Americans either took in or lived as borders during their lives. The boarding houses offered single workers a safe place to stay and two hot meals a day. They remained open and functioning until 1938 when a Multiple Dwelling Law reclassified a building with a shared bathroom as a brothel, a move which resulted in mass boarding house closures.
Perhaps many of the worst fears about co-living stem from the legacy of the Kommunalka (коммуналка), a mass housing construction project conceived by Lenin when the Russian empire collapsed in 1917. To accommodate labor arriving in Soviet cities and a worsening housing crisis, Lenin had state architects conceive of co-living spaces with two, and up to seven families, sharing a communal apartment. They were presented as being a ‘new collective vision of the future’: each family had one private room (which too often became both their living room, dining room, and bedroom) and access to shared hallways, kitchen, bathroom and, if they were lucky, a shared telephone. Despite the condemnation that Kommunalka was poorly designed and built and worsened social depravity and isolation, the housing model proliferated across the former USSR and stories of the horrors of growing up in Kommunalka spread far and wide. Since 1991, most of the blocks have either been demolished or privatized.
There’s a lot of baggage around the word commune, so part of what we’re doing is rebranding it.” Ben Provan
This vision of co-living could hardly be more different to the latest wave of co-shares borne out San Francisco’s cowork spaces, so-called ‘hacker houses’. The ‘hacker houses’ or ‘hacker mansions’, like HacknSleep, boomed in 2013 to house tech business travelers arriving in the Bay Area. “There’s a lot of baggage around the word commune, so part of what we’re doing is rebranding it”, suggests Ben Provan, a San Francisco developer. As a rule of thumb, hacker houses are furnished with bunk beds, communal living rooms and work-spaces which reflect a blurring of internet-based work and play. This brand of new for-profit co-living startups are now spreading nationwide and across the world. Companies such as WeLive, FounderHouse and Common are offering their property portfolios to tech-savvy young workers in major cities. For a considerable price, residents have access to a private room but also shared living spaces, bathrooms, kitchens and recreation facilities such as games rooms.
While almost all previous eras of co-living have had a housing crisis at their root, a key difference with this new wave is the nature of their proliferation—not through authoritarian pressure or grass-roots activism but via commercial appeal and developers supplying the majority of essential housing stock. Today, young professionals are also more urban than ever before, which is where co-shares have traditionally developed (disregarding back-to-the-land movements). The Economist also suggest the mismatch between stagnating wages and high rents has also opened a gap in the housing market for alternative housing options.
Perhaps new shared ways of living are overdue in our digital age, and co-living will enter the rental housing sector as co-work spaces have transformed the nature of the traditional office. The Goldman Sachs Millennials Report points to the emergence of a ‘sharing economy’, where ‘millennials’ (roughly those born between 1981 and 1997, and who are educated but financially limited) are moving away from a cultural desire for ownership of things. Despite their digital connectedness, millennials are also apparently feeling more lonely than ever before—at the forum, Irene suggested only 37% of millennials feel at home in their own house. She also suggested that from recent studies, they spend 70% of the time talking about themselves, compounding loneliness and creating echo chambers. Might the ‘loneliest generation’ benefit from the community which co-living promises?
Perhaps new shared ways of living are already overdue in our digital age, and co-living will enter the rental housing sector as co-work spaces have transformed the nature of the traditional office.
It was after the ONE SHARED HOUSE video went viral that Anton and Irene decided to take their co-living investigations further, in collaboration with the Danish future living lab SPACE10. To date, there has been little research on people’s preferences and whether existing co-shares were creating successful communities. “We thought it would be interesting to do a sort of sequel to our documentary, but this time make it take place in the future. That’s how the idea of ONE SHARED HOUSE 2030 was born,” Irene explains to me. “Our interactive survey maps respondent’s preferences. While the data is far from scientific—it’s somewhat self-selecting in that people who are interested in co-living are more likely to participate and there were no controls over demographics”, she continues, “it does gesture toward what people are looking for from co-living spaces.”
One project which exhibits many of the qualities of the next-gen co-shares I researched was ‘The Collective’, initiated by entrepreneur Reza Merchant. Like many other for-profit co-share startups, they refer to themselves as a ‘property company’, and they are a successful one—their multi-story co-share complex in London has been 97% occupied this year. In the Economist article ‘co-living is for hipsters not hippies’, Merchant suggests their co-living model will be continually updated as fellow developers figure out what offerings are most profitable. For example, in the new project The Collective is planning in the US, square footage of the private rooms will be increased as that is one of the main reasons residents give for moving on. CCTV is used in common areas for “good conduct and cleanliness”, as there are “too many co-livers to be able to know everyone personally”. A double room in a studio apartment at Old Oak would set you back $415 per week, or $1660 per month.
Co-living is for hipsters, not hippies.” The Economist
As an architect, the closest typology I associate with many of these for-profit co-shares is luxury holiday lets. Is this a reflection of the AirBnb-ization of our cities? When I ask Irene about the co-living developer boom, she seems optimistic that this is just a preliminary phase, and the co-living offering will diversify. “I think that just like ‘regular’ real estate, at some point in the not so distant future the will be a wider variety of co-living offerings that would cater to not only different demographics, but also to people from different socioeconomic backgrounds.” However, she is not uncritical of some of the attitudes exhibited in the rising co-living industry. “[Developers] have a sort of cruise-ship mentality to what is considered ‘communal’, or ‘fun’. This is of course perfectly fine for some people, but for me, it’s not something that is really sustainable in the long run, or particularly desirable.”
A different approach focused more on a family demographic is the Lange Eng co-housing community in Denmark, ‘the home of co-living’. Overall there are 54 houses and apartments within Lang Eng, home to over 100 adults and 100 children. All residents have access to a large community house with an industrial-size kitchen and dining hall, café, lounge, play areas and a 20-seater cinema. The communal garden, which is accessible from every home, has playgrounds for the children and a campfire. On their info board, a resident explains, “we cook and serve dinner on all evenings but Saturday. On any evening you can choose to enjoy dinner with your neighbors in the community house […] Regardless of frequency, all adults have to take their stint working in the kitchen every six weeks, for two-three consecutive days. […] Lange Eng is an unusual place for normal people.”
The main distinction from the Danish co-living tradition is the need for an increased division between private, semi-private and communal spaces. I spoke to architect Dorte Mandrup about how she approached the project. “Together with the client, that in this case were a group of the end-users, we programmed the project in accordance with their specific needs,” she tells me, “the housing units including the roof-terraces are private […] the point of this being that the community becomes an active choice, but not something the individual person or family are forced into.”
“The large communal space is divided into smaller areas,” she continues, “with ‘soft’ divisions of the spaces by plantation and paths, creating a sense of both the large scale of the total area as well as creating intimacy in the individual spaces.” I asked how someone might go about joining the co-share. “The community consists of only directly owned units, so in fact anyone can buy a house”, she explains.
The large communal space is divided into smaller areas with ‘soft’ divisions of the spaces by plantation and paths, creating a sense of both the large scale of the total area as well as creating intimacy in the individual spaces.” Dorte Mandrup
Web-based platforms are emerging to connect disparate parts of the co-living industry and facilitate the development of new co-shares. PurehouseLab calls themselves a ‘do-tank’ dedicated to informing and enabling the spread of the co-living phenomenon worldwide. “If space is the problem, then it’s also the remedy”, they suggest in their promo video, “our goal is a platform connecting people and spaces, globally, so that our members can realize dozens of co-living opportunities—you have a team, we have a space”.
I caught up with executive director Claire Flurin, formerly a civil engineer and city planner. She first got involved in the co-living initiative when she was helping the operator of Pure House Brooklyn with zoning code compliance issues, something that many co-living developments are forced to address. “Every new co-living entrepreneur had to reinvent the wheel when at the very same time we wanted to spread the word about co-living as a solution to the housing crisis for a segment of large cities populations. So we created the Lab, a central hub for knowledge and information on co-living.”
Claire sees the developer-led model as a positive step for bringing co-shares into the mainstream to become a formalized housing typology. “I think that if we are able to create a model that offers a better quality of life, at a better price point to a wide variety of people, while bringing revenues to a series of investors, that’s great”, she tells me, “in fact that is called social entrepreneurship, and it is a strong value of the Lab”. She hopes that formalizing home sharing will bring thousands of people informally sharing accommodation into the market. “That being said,” she continues, “we promote inclusivity, affordability and sustainability. Those values are the base of our entire work. […] We believe—or rather we know because we’ve done it—that it is possible to model a project that brings financial returns to both its residents and its investors.”
I think that if we are able to create a [housing] model that offers a better quality of life, at a better price point to a wide variety of people, while bringing revenues to a series of investors, that’s great” Claire Flurin, Purehouse Lab
Echoing my interview with Irene, Claire is also keen for the market to diversify. “There are so many other concepts, such as the shared home for retirees in Canada to the family-oriented Mokrin House in Serbia.” She tells me PurehouseLab is equipped and motivated to assist any multi-generational, diverse co-living project to develop.
I was interested in the feedback from ONE SHARED HOUSE 2030 which has now been coming in for almost a month. I went onto their site and downloaded the open-access data. As of late December 2017, initial feedback is as follows: only 4% of people would be unhappy to share anything and future co-livers would prefer to live in the city and with people from different walks of life. The most important qualities of a favorable house member is to be neat and tidy, honest and considerate. According to the survey, most think 4-10 people is the perfect size for a community, and new house members should ideally be selected by communal vote. They would prefer members to share equal ownership of the house and most would be happy to pay an additional service layer for housekeeping management.
In terms of architecture, respondents would prefer to access multiple homes which they could move between. The majority of respondents would only want common areas to come furnished and prefer to furnish their own space themselves. Clear boundaries of use are also important to the respondents, with predetermined private and communal spaces. They would rather have a communal kitchen and more flexible private space rather than each unit having its own kitchen. Overall, respondents think the three biggest pros of living with others is having more ways to socialize, splitting costs and getting more bang for your buck.
I asked Irene what surprised her most about the feedback so far. “How a lot of the results do not match what is mostly available on the market as co-living today,” she replies, “for example, in most co-living communities, management not only determines who gets to live in your community, but you also pay them rent. Our data shows that what people actually want is to control who they live with themselves, and have the opportunity to have a vested interest in the community by owning a percentage of the house themselves, rather than paying rent to some invisible management.”
Our data shows that what people actually want, is to control who they live with themselves, and have the opportunity to have a vested interest in the community by owning a percentage of the house themselves, rather than paying rent to some invisible management.” Irene Pereyra
It is also important to note that the majority of people who responded to the survey skewed a little bit older than the ‘millennial’ market, and some aspects which remained partially hidden by the average calculations were that older generations seemed to prefer to inhabit the countryside rather than the city, and, according to Irene, “think one of the great advantages in living closely with other people is the ability to ask others for help, something that millennials were not even considering. I think our needs change as we move through life and different important life changes like getting married and having children, and it is very fascinating to see how the data paints a pretty good picture of what those needs are.”
PurehouseLab is also active in co-living research, hosting ‘Co-Liv’, the first global gathering with a focus on co-living earlier this month in San Francisco. They discussed practical issues such as planning policy blocking the emergence of new co-shares and how to create a successful household economy. “The event has played its role as a central forum to hold conversations on what makes co-living worthy of our time but also difficult sometimes,” Claire told me, “we talked a lot about community, which is often the hardest part in a new co-living projects—how do you inspire this ‘village’ atmosphere, this sense of belonging?”.
All my interviewees mentioned that considered design had a large influence on successful co-living spaces— especially when considering the shared areas—right down to the smallest details. Irene suggested the example of the international co-living network Roam, started by Bruno Haid. “(Haid) told us how they were quite frustrated when they realized that the communal kitchen wasn’t really used ‘communally’. Instead, people would claim areas in the cupboards and then jam all of their personal groceries into one little space,” she tells me. “Therefore the design team returned to the drawing board and by taking inspiration from professional kitchens, altered the layout so that there were specific areas designated to tasks, like a ‘breakfast station’.” They also experimented with removing the cabinet doors. The result was surprising—“people started leaving personal items in various different parts of the kitchen to where it would make sense”, she continues, “a nice side-effect that they didn’t account for was that now that everyone’s groceries were out in the open, it also turned out to be a great conversation starter.”
Irene suggests that architects working with co-housing should look to the UX process for inspiration. For architects who might be unfamiliar with this approach, UX is short for ‘user experience’ and is ‘the process of enhancing user satisfaction with a product by improving the usability, accessibility, and pleasure provided in the interaction with the product’. According to Irene, “UX has the right tools to design something that is not only simple and effortless and puts real human beings in the center, but also make something that is beautiful and sustainable.”
UX has the right tools to design something that is not only simple and effortless and puts real human beings in the center, but also make something that is beautiful and sustainable.” Irene Pereya
An example of an execution of a UX process might be: begin with stakeholder and user interviews, conduct a ‘competitive landscape analysis’ and ‘benchmark analysis’, use them to influence design iterations, and reflect on whether the final proposal is truly suited to the needs of the people who will be living in the community. Claire Flurin also agrees users must be at the center of the design process. “I think the most important principle is to be user-centric, some even say guest-centric. Co-living is an experience business. When you build a co-living space, you create a lifestyle, a human-based experience. Of course, it takes place in a building that needs and deserves beautiful architecture, but the end goal is the life that goes on inside.”
PurehouseLab also have a number of ‘rules of thumb’ for successful co-living spaces: design for people to interact (“bumping in each other is good in a co-living space, it’s an invitation to talk”), but only when you have a comfortable private space (“the importance and amount of intimacy, by the way, varies a great deal from culture to culture”) and remember to separate the toilets from the bathrooms if these are part of the shared space.
One last thing is: “toilets are another important point! Life is much easier if they are separated from bathrooms, especially when those are shared.”
The success or failure of a community of any co-share is down to good housekeeping, and that does not exclude the architectural design process. It is essential to have a shared vision, suggests Dorte Mandrup, “in the case of Lange Eng, once the basis was defined from the client and end-users, the work with creating the most beautiful frames around these ideas became more doable. So the advice to pass on would be that as a rule of thumb, you need involvement from the end users from the beginning, for the project to truly succeed.”
So what is stopping you or your family from moving into a co-share like Lange Eng or The Collective? Many people express their concerns about what effect the ‘100 parents’ might have on their children, or fear how they would cope with the stress of constantly having to socialize, or the destructive implications if they ended up arguing with other members.
It turns out you might not have to worry about your children at least—in 1989-90 psychologist Daniel Greenberg conducted a survey across the United States of children in over 200 co-shares and noticed that community children had more adult roles as compared to those in two-parent households and were more exposed to informal learning experiences from an earlier age. This led Greenberg to conclude that community children were more “socially mature, confident, outgoing, competent, and verbal (and at far younger ages), than their non-community counterparts.” Irene’s childhood experience was also a positive one—“communities like Kollontai are amazing places to grow up. They’re good for parents, who get considerable help with childcare, and for kids, who get instant playmates, intriguing facilities, and role models besides their parents.”
While co-living is symptomatic of the global housing crisis we are experiencing in most major cities, it may also be part of the solution.
In her 2016 Harvard Wheelwright award recognition interview, Anna Puigjaner suggested that collective living was “deeply misunderstood as a tool for social transformation,” she sees its relevance to today’s housing dilemmas and possible lessons for “renewed domestic proposals for the present”. However, in the US there are some challenges for mass adoption of co-share typologies, including land-use zoning laws blocking their development, as has historically been the case in New York.
While co-living is symptomatic of the global housing crisis we are experiencing in most major cities, it may also be part of the solution. Co-living almost by definition demands fewer resources and has the potential to be flexible and adaptive with people’s needs as they grow older. Lowering resource use is critical in emerging economies that tend to have rapidly urbanizing and youthful populations. As has been explored, co-sharing may also combat some of the more socially-isolating realities of 21st-century living.
Still unsure whether co-living is for you? The good news is that whether you’re looking to own a single unit with common facilities, experiment with a temporary co-living complex, work around the world or start your own co-share from scratch with friends, there is more information and architects on hand to assist than ever before. And if the hype is to be believed, co-living will increasingly become a mainstream choice for many urbanites across the world.
To be part of defining what the next generation of co-living should become, complete the ONE SHARED HOUSE 2030 survey with your preferences. For further reading on co-living, check heck out PurehouseLab’s reading list here.