19 July 2018 Issue 23: Jun/Jul 2018

Co-living: Odd social experiment or the future of urban life?

At the latest Courier Talks, held at The Hoxton hotel, features editor Amy Lewin quizzed a panel of experts on the good, the bad and the ugly of co-living.

Co-living has its lovers – and its haters. For some, this new form of accommodation, offering residents a small amount of private space in exchange for access to big shared areas, all-inclusive bills and community events, is sheer inspiration thanks to pain-free move-ins, plus a social life and business network on-tap. For others, it’s a cunning ploy from property developers to eke more profit from every square foot of real estate, disguised with fuzzy promises to create communities amongst lonesome professionals.

Pioneered in the UK by The Collective, which opened a 546-person co-living site in Old Oak in north-west London in 2016, co-living has recently seen a spate of developments. In January 2017, boutique 34-bedroom co-living space Roam opened in Chelsea (it closed in February due to operational issues
and is set to reopen this summer), while in April 2018 an even smaller space, five-bedroom Norn, set up in a townhouse in Spitalfields, east London. These two operations are targeting (well-paid) globe-trotting creatives and techies: rooms at Roam Chelsea cost £2,400 per month. 

Even at the more affordable end of the market (rooms at The Collective start at £750 per month) can co-living spaces deliver on their promises to provide great events and meaningful relationships, on top of seamless, comfortable accommodation? And will they be able to win over enough renters – and planning authorities – to normalise this market? 

Courier: Who actually lives in co-living spaces?

Ed Thomas: At Old Oak, we typically target the young professional. High level stats: the average age is 29-years-old, median income is about £28,000 a year and 75% of our members are under the age of 35.

Kristina Barger: Roam is quite different. I think the average age there is late 30s – there’s a big range. It’s a different business model; people are there for a shorter amount of time, and the average income would have to be a fair bit higher. Some are just people who need to live in the city for a certain amount of time – lawyers on a case or professors doing a semester, that sort of thing. 

Ben Prevezer: The challenge for us is to dispel the myth that co-living is a stop-gap solution; that it’s for people who are just looking for an affordable, convenient product they can pop into until they find a better solution or they’re earning more money. People often reference co-living as a natural evolution from student accommodation, but we’re approaching it like a members club – a space that people want to live in and is aspirational.

I think that the industry, which is currently very much in its infancy, is going to see a number of different operators come into the space offering, much like the hotel industry, different types of products at different price points, offering different qualities of experience and therefore appealing to different types of people. 

Boutique spaces like Mason and Fifth or Roam are pretty pricey for a lot of people. What are they getting for the extra amount they pay in comparison to market rent? 

BP: Design, convenience and having a community around you. It’s about the ease with which
somebody can slot into a space: no need to worry about paying bills, sorting out the internet provider or dealing with Sky. 

KB: Community is a big focus at Roam. At each property there is a community manager who is really involved, trying to actively create bonds between people and create things for them to do that they wouldn’t otherwise. 

Roam’s also built this international community of really interesting people doing really interesting things, on top of the bricks-and-mortar community. For my networking and business purposes I think that’s also a really great aspect. 

Is there a danger with co-living models that work and personal life become even more merged, so you never stop?

KB: Obviously if you have no work-life balance, that’s not good. A lot of people are working at home anyway, but at least at Roam we have co-working and meeting rooms, which are outside of your private space. Interestingly, Roam is designed so that you can kind of peek in to all of the common spaces and see who’s there and decide if you want to interact. 

I think a bonus of the community is having people to say, ‘hey we’re going to dinner’ and you think, ‘oh I should stop working’ – or even perhaps, ‘maybe I should do a bit more work’.

How meaningful can these communities be, when there are 546 people in a space, or when people come and go every few months? 

KB: At Roam they try to maintain a balance between the two thirds of core people and the third of people coming in and out. But I think it’s about defining community and saying: ‘Is there value in having a friend that I only have for three months versus having no-one?’ ‘Is it better to eat by myself six days a week or to eat with a new person once or twice a week and the same four people several times a week?’ 

It’s a new way of living and making connections. In a society that’s broken down quite a lot, we need to see more of that.

ET: One of the things we learned really early on at The Collective was that as soon as you try and create community it doesn’t work. So we quite quickly altered our strategy altogether. And it was about facilitation as opposed to curation. We’ve got eight people in the community team whose function is to host the place like you would at a dinner party; they’re there to make people feel welcome.

If creating a really great community requires community managers, can that be scalable? 

ET: I hope it is – otherwise we’re fucked. We have a building of 550 people and it’s stayed 97% occupied since September 2016, and 50% of the people who lived there for the first year stayed for another year, so yes, I think it absolutely is. I think you need to think about how you define community.

I like to think of community as this idea of common unity – of going through this shared experience of transformation and change. Personal development is increasingly, I think, what our members want after sleeping well and eating well.

I envision that our buildings will become run more by the people who live in them than us. That is a true community, completely owned and run by the people who live there. 

BP: It’s about creating micro communities within a big space. So if you’ve got a building of 500 people, you break the areas of that building into smaller spaces which people can take ownership of and call their own. I think catering for different levels of privacy and the different wants and needs of the people living there, in terms of design, can really go a long way in  making this product scalable without the need for human intervention.

ET: We have an app, which we’ve just launched, and a Facebook group as well. Technology is an amazing leveller and one way of connecting in our building; it’s really great to rally people around, say ‘let’s go to this event’ or ‘hey, I’m selling this laptop’. But we all want to make a human connection. 

What have you learnt from running Old Oak? 

ET: Before you try and do any of the higher-level stuff, you have to deliver a building where people will get a good night’s sleep. We’ve not had that at times and people have moved out because we have failed. As soon as basic things like wifi and hot water don’t work people will be up in arms. We used to do a town hall. In the winter months last year, when things were not going very well, all the members would line up like a firing squad. We learned a lot from that. Going forward it will be about doing those things exceptionally well. 

Why are there not more co-living spaces in London? Is the challenge government regulation or that property takes ages to find and develop? 

BP: Firstly, decent-sized real estate takes a very long time. It’s not just about building; it’s about finding the spot to do it, speaking to the government to get permission, and going through all the planning. 

We are talking about a fairly innovative way of using space and, as any government would be, it is cautious about young professionals being taken advantage of in a climate where they don’t have much choice and don’t have much money.

Traditionally, everybody needs a bedroom, a bathroom and a kitchen in their personal private space. The minimum size at the moment for a one-bedroomed flat is around 37sq m. What we’re really trying to do is to educate traditional thinkers who are familiar with the market that there is a different way of living. 

But I think it’s just a matter of time before the mindset shifts. In December, the government issued its annual London Plan, which outlines updates to planning regulations, and for the first time acknowledged co-living as a plausible way of living.

ET: The pace of change is glacial with the local authorities and so we’ve spent years lobbying them to try and show the value that co-living brings. We have also partnered with universities in this country and abroad to allow their PhD and Masters students to come and observe, and learn how architecture shapes community. There is this perception that no one uses any of the shared spaces and the rooms are tiny. The rooms are small, there’s no denying that, but no-one complains about room size. 

The second challenge is capital. Back when The Collective started in 2013, trying to raise money to invest in the project was pretty difficult. We had to find investors that were willing to make what was at the time a very risky investment. Now we are seeing a big shift: institutional investors are coming to us and saying, ‘we want to invest’.

Look at the rise of co-working: in 2008 there were 160 co-working spaces, and by 2018 just under 20,000. I think we’re going to see the exact same trend with co-living. 

On the panel

Ed Thomas is head of community experience at London’s biggest co-living company, The Collective. Alongside its Old Oak building, it is developing two sites in east London and is expanding to the US and Germany.  

Kristina Barger is a member of Roam, a global co-living company with sites in Bali, Miami, Tokyo and, until recently, London. Kristina is a cognitive psychologist who lived in Roam’s London base for three months.

Ben Prevezer is co-founder of Mason and Fifth, a boutique co-living company, which is opening its first 28-studio space in Bermondsey, south London, in December this year.

This is a condensed and edited version of a panel discussion that took place on 11 May 2018 at
The Hoxton hotel, Shoreditch, London.

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