Co-living: trend or fad; revolution or re-visitation?

I’ve been overwhelmed lately with how many people are talking about the co-movement, or co-revolution. It’s difficult to ascertain whether these are just new buzz words that have become popular – new phrases that have been coined for something that has always been around in some form – or whether there really has been a shift in attitudes and behaviours.

I believe it is actually a bit of both.

People in medieval Europe lived not only with parents and their children, but also various townspeople, poor married couples, other people’s children, widows, orphans, unrelated elderly people, servants, lodgers, travellers and other friends and relatives. In the not too distant past, grown up children in the UK would have most likely remained in the family home until they married and started a new home of their own with their spouse and indeed for some cultures this is still the case. Similarly, elderly parents were much more likely to have lived with their grown up children in later life. These cross-generational set-ups are forms of co-living – sharing space, experiences, chores, daily lives, responsibilities and meal-times together, with the intention of convenience, community and pooling of resource. Both have remained common in other European countries like Spain and Greece, and are on the rise again in the UK largely as a result of the expanding property affordability gap and changing attitudes.

Co-living out of necessity is still common: groups of young people rent together, often to pool funds. Purpose built halls of residence are popular at universities around the world, providing students with a (relatively) brief experience of co-living with individuals who are of a similar age and whose routines and interests are likely to be shared. The Student Hotel in Amsterdam takes community even further by combining student accommodation with guests travelling the world or for business. Likewise, communities for the elderly provide a purposeful co-living opportunity for residents at the other end of the age spectrum, who might otherwise begin to experience loneliness as result of changing routines.

So if the act of co-living is not in itself new, why the increased chatter? At Conductor, we believe the co-living movement has really gained momentum because of a change in attitudes: people, namely maturing millennials, who can afford to live alone, who are beyond the Higher Education phase of their lives and not close to retirement, are choosing to co-habit, rather than doing so out of financial necessity. Developers too are cottoning on to this trend and are responding accordingly. Meanwhile, the next generation of would-be tenants and buyers are ready to leave the family home, or student halls, with a real propensity for and understanding of the benefits of co-living.

The increasing popularity of the sharing economy sees millennials prioritising experiences over possessions, as evidenced by the success of Spotify, UberPool, Airbnb, etc. Just as urbanites don’t tend to have cars, CDs or DVDs, books in print, or overflowing wardrobes, the traditional goal of owning your own home is by no means as important to millennials as it has been for earlier generations. What is more important is location, with proximity to work; affordability; flexibility, as people move from one role to another quicker than in previous decades. Alongside an environment that fosters social experiences and community as these global citizens set up shop in new cities, and loneliness continues to rise and isolation brought about by social media. The arrival of the smartphone has radically changed almost everyone’s lives, but especially generation Z, who are affected in multiple ways from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health.

Developers, while recognising that people can’t be forced to make friends, have a role to play in facilitating social exchanges by the virtue of the way buildings are designed. According to Ryan Fix, who started co-living portfolio Pure House in 2012 and is now a co-living consultant: “loneliness and anxiety are still on the rise… the opportunity is to build environments with more points of collision.” This is evidenced by the trend that sees co-creation, co-working, co-…etc. at the centre of how we live today – “the co-revolution”.

Developments that have smaller, more affordable, well designed, safe and clean units for individuals who require them, need to be built, that’s for certain. For these to be purposefully developed as successful co-living buildings, they should also include these spaces where ‘collision’ occurs and communities can flourish. This is how community quickly develops into a place where, instead of new tenants retreating to their apartment on returning home, shutting the door, and spending the evening alone, people quickly get to know each other and authentic communities form and flourish. Nurturing a sense of community works in just the same way whether in cul-de-sacs or villages, or a newly built tower block in the middle of a city. The only requirement is that developments are built as intentional communities, with the sharing of resources and space in mind.

Ultimately, although co-living may initially be a decision an individual makes for financial reasons or the requirement for flexibility; the likelihood is that people will gain so much more in terms of quality of life than they imagined. Where people live is so important for their state of mind, for how they feel when they wake up, and for how they go through their daily lives. So, as long as developers get co-living right – not taking advantage of people who can’t afford the alternative, but finding that sweet spot between affordability and enhanced experiences of daily life – co-living is a trend, and a revolution, that I can see becoming the new norm.