In the industrial chic lobby of the Collective, a huge apartment block in the northwest London neighbourhood of Willesden Junction, a set of posters advertise its events series for residents. There’s a crystal-pendant-making workshop, a talk on the politics of body hair and another on mental health awareness. The most popular class to date, according to Jade Coles, the Collective’s head of events and experiential marketing, was on how to make a ceramic dildo. “That one sold out in eight minutes,” she says.
The 550 residents who call this building home pay a monthly rent starting at £1,085 to live in rooms that are hotel-sized but which benefit from a number of communal amenities, like the events. There’s a cinema room, a co-working space that converts into a music venue, another co-working space, a library that feels like a co-working space, a restaurant and a bar. There’s no fee to join, and you can leave with one month’s notice.
Benjamin Webb, 37, has lived at the Collective for eight months and likes it enough that he is now a “community ambassador”. He says co-living offered him a sense of freedom after two decades renting in London.
“I was looking for flexibility rather than being sucked into the cycle of letting agents, paying £2,000 each time you move and being locked in a contract,” says Webb, who works as a PA in the finance industry. “The Collective gave me that flexibility, but what kept me there – and I’ve extended my original contract – is the community and all the other things that come with it.”
Indeed, the Collective doesn’t market itself as apartments. It calls itself a “global living movement”, and is one of a growing number of “co-living” developments that cater to a distinctly millennial market.
In Berlin there is Quarters, a co-living developer that now has properties in New York and Chicago and has just announced a $300m expansion to build many more across the US and Europe. WeWork, the co-working behemoth, now runs WeLive: fully furnished apartments available for flexible rental in New York and Washington DC. The chic “digital nomad community” Roam has set up co-living and co-working hubs in San Francisco, Miami, Tokyo and Bali (with a new location in London and another in New York coming soon). It sells a dream lifestyle, that of a modern, flexible, “creative” worker who has bid farewell to the deskbound nine to five and instead jets around the world, dropping in to work remotely from exotic locations.
Each company presents its accommodation as a solution to the urban housing crisis. Here, at last, is a way to provide affordable homes for younger people cut out of the market, while at the same time pooling resources, fostering community and catering for an increasingly mobile generation. With 4.8 million Britons now self-employed, co-living is pitched as a utopian response to a rapidly changing society.
But what from one angle looks like a revolutionary proposition can just as easily be seen from another as a cynical ploy by property developers to cash in on a generation living in the “age of loneliness”, locked in a perpetual struggle to find a place they can call home.
Vlad Calus, 23, co-founder of the startup Planable, sees it the second way. He moved into the Collective with a business partner two years ago. “People were nice and friendly but we were shocked to see these ‘boxes’ being called rooms,” he says. “Unfortunately, co-living places are trying to squeeze every living space into the same building, which makes it unliveable for the long-term.”
Collective living has other downsides. Post-grad student Emma Kay, 32, who was among the first people to move in when the Collective opened three years ago, found herself unnerved by some of the ways the building operated, such as when she bought a drink from the bar and took it outside.
“The next day I got an email saying they’d seen me on CCTV with a glass in the smoking area and if I did it again there would be consequences,” she says. “It felt quite uncomfortable knowing whatever you do is being watched, and if you break the rules for a minor offence you’d get in trouble.”
To Matthew Stewart, a researcher and designer at the University of Westminster, co-living led by developers cannot be a radical alternative because it lacks the social intent of collective living. He points to bolder suggestions proposed by modernists almost a century ago to address the interwar housing shortage, such as the work of Karel Teige, a Czech theorist whose 1932 book The Minimum Dwelling proposed restructuring living space around community and collective domestic labour.
“The Collective make similar claims about solving the housing crisis but it doesn’t stand up,” Stewart says. “Teige was talking about a mixture of different ages, generations, classes – it wasn’t targeted at a specific group. It was more about democratising housing, rather than just having these enclaves of millennials who are being charged a lot of money. ”
Yet the Collective is far from the only vision of what “co-living” might look like. Marmalade Lane, a 42-home multigenerational “oasis”, was unveiled this May in Cambridge. A unique collaboration (between the K1 Cohousing Project and Cambridge city council, and delivered by developer Town, eco-house builder Trivselhus and architects Mole), Marmalade Lane was created through a participatory design process that involved its future residents.
It has a mix of homes, ranging from four-bedroom houses to one-bedroom apartments, with a central “common house” providing a focal point where the community can eat together and socialise. Everyone can also make use of communal laundry, gym, meeting rooms and garden, and the organisation is managed by its residents using consensus-based decision-making.
It’s the latest in a type of collective living that has its roots in the family-oriented housing coops of 1960s Denmark, an arrangement that has come to be known by a slightly different moniker: “co-housing”, rather than co-living. The idea is to structure and organise housing in such as a way as to put communities, rather than developers, in the driving seat.
“Co-living is purely a new way for developers to squeeze profit from an already broken housing market,” says Hannah Wheatley, researcher on housing and land at the New Economics Foundation.
“Co-housing in its purest form is about communities being control of their housing.”
In Barnet, North London, the Older Women’s Co-Housing project (Owch) has built a collection of 25 flats, all occupied by women older than 50. They are committed to participating in a community that shares space, resources and mutual support. As well as being an alternative to the existing home ownership model, Owch caters imaginatively for an ageing population, which is a growing need in many western cities.
Josie Pearse, 64, shows it off with pride. There is a communal courtyard and an allotment, where a group of women are just getting ready to “scatter some seeds”. The women fought to have assured tenancies for the eight social tenants, of which Pearse is one. “There’s power in this collective,” she says. “We’re kinda class warriors here.”
Although they were committed from the start to creating inclusive housing, the members of Owch were a relatively low-income group. The community was built with help from Hanover Housing Association, which found the site and funded the development, before selling it to 17 Owch buyers and Housing for Women, a charitable housing provider.
Maria Brenton, one of the founding members of Owch and the woman who proposed the idea back in 1998, is critical of new developer-led co-living projects that use the same language of community and inclusion as the co-housing movement.
“It’s misleading,” says Brenton. “[Co-living residents] don’t have any say in how the place is run. It’s like student digs: you move in, knock it about, then move on.”
Nevertheless, demand for co-living remains high. The Collective has received $800m to fund growth across the UK, US and Europe and now has 8,000 units operating or under development. It has just opened what it claims is the world’s biggest co-living development in Canary Wharf, with 705 rooms, a swimming pool on the 20th floor and a golf simulator. The smallest rooms are available from £100 a night (though a cursory glance at the booking system suggests rates are often £150 or more), £1863pm for a three month stay and £1430pm if you stay for 12 months. Its New York location (a converted hotel) is only available for short stays.
This focus on the higher end of the market might not be surprising given the Collective’s CEO is Reza Merchant, a 29-year-old who was educated at the £20,000-a-year Merchant Taylors’ School and was able to launch the Collective after borrowing £1.8m against his parent’s home.
Despite the lack of social tenancies or facilities for families, he maintains the Collective is a project rooted in providing community for average city dwellers.
“We’re very different to a conventional property developer,” says Merchant, who has said his inspiration for the Collective draws on experiences at Burning Man festival. “If our driver was pure profit, we wouldn’t be doing this. There are much easier ways to make money.”
Yet even if its approach “stems from a place of love”, as Merchant claims, it’s difficult to reconcile this service philosophy with the reality of what is on offer: a high price for short-term convenience.
If the Collective feels like accommodation, rather than a home, there may be a third way. Noiascape is another co-living developer that says it wants to sensitively use architecture and design to rethink the kind of “share house” in which 1.1 million Londoners already live – most of them Victorian terraced houses, which were not designed for renting, let alone for large groups of people to subdivide into rooms.
Building on research showing that, other than for sleeping, private space in the home is used at very low intensity (particularly in the “pre-family” demographic), the company has designed 10 homes for 2-4 people in London in converted terraced houses. The flats are designed to cater for the modern renter. Decent joinery and inbuilt storage spares residents having to buy flat pack furniture, while the living spaces, which all flow into an outdoor area, are designed to encourage communal dining and social interaction, as well as providing flexible work space during the day. Double height ceilings maximise the sense of space and light.
Noiascape’s latest project, High Street House, will be a block of 10 self-contained studio flats built into an existing building, ranging from 25sqm to 37sqm with prices from £250 to £350 per week, including all bills and utilities. Another, which will accommodate 100-200 people, is in pre-planning. These properties will also contain shared spaces for events, exhibitions or working, and residents will be able to access any of these amenities across the Noiascape “network”, no matter which property they live in.
Director Tom Teatum disputes the view that the “space standard” equates to quality. He argues that while coliving is easy to dismiss, it presents a “real opportunity that’s yet to be found”. By creating a new housing topography that caters more efficiently for people who require less space, he suggests that those 1.1m Victorian houseshares could ultimately be released back into the market, to be used for the families for whom they were originally designed.
“If we see a shared space – and a network of shared spaces – as being part of our rent – it transforms how you live,” says Teatum. “It’s a move away from the idea that your private space is the end of your living experience.”
This re-balancing of private and shared space within our housing arrangements is at the essence of what might feel wonderful – or dreadful – when we make a choice about how we want to live. Back at Owch, Pearse, who previously lived in a property with no central heating and a coal fire, is showing off her bright, open living space decorated with colourful ornaments, watercolour sketchbooks stacked to one side. The balcony looks over the communal garden where neighbours can be seen chatting beside a sundial on the lawn.
“The thing I love most about this place is coming home,” she says.
Kay, on the other hand, moved out of the Collective after a year to move in with her boyfriend. “It wasn’t the communal experience I imagined,” she said. “Co-living might work in smaller set-ups but there it was too big for any real community. It just felt like a hotel with rich students getting their accommodation paid for.”