IMAGINE Podcast, Episode 4: Sharing is Caring

12.10.187 min read

IMAGINE is a podcast exploring the brave new world of shared living, produced with Unsinkable Sam. The final episode of the season explores the growing trend of “co-living spaces”, looks at the results of SPACE10’s Playful Research project One Shared House 2030, which sought to find out what people are (and aren’t) willing to share, and considers how to create shared-living spaces that appeal to the many, not the few.

About 30 years ago, a Dutch newspaper ran the following ad: “House Community Kollontai is looking for a woman in her 40s with a child who is five years old.” “It was kind of like, wow, this is the place,” recalls New York-based designer Irene Pereyra, whose mother was a woman in her 40s with a five-year-old child. She and her mother duly answered the ad — and moved in to Kollontai.

With eight adults and four children living together under one roof, Amsterdam-based Kollontai is a good example of an intentional community. Its 12 unrelated individuals shared bills, meals and responsibility for things like cleaning and choosing new residents. “It functioned not unlike a small government inside our house,” says Pereyra.

Communities such as Kollontai remain somewhat unusual. But they’re on the rise — albeit with a new name: “Co-living is technically just a group of three or more unrelated individuals living together,” explains Pereyra. “In a very simple way you could say roommates are co-living. But co-living also has a lot to do with intent. It’s the intent of living together communally. Though we all know what communal living is, co-living is a modern take on that.”

Communal living 2.0 is exploding in big cities such as Berlin, London, New York and San Francisco. Instead of organic compost and kitchen rotas, today’s co-living spaces are more likely to have yoga classes, room cleaning and community managers.

But there’s another distinction to make between today’s co-living spaces and traditional types of communal living. Co-living has become a billion-dollar industry, with private companies launching for-profit spaces and renting out what are effectively spiffed-up dorm rooms and high-end lifestyle services.

Curious to understand the market better, Pereyra looked into many of these spaces to get insights about their residents. “The longest they tend to stay in their community is maybe a year. Very few stay beyond a year. Most stay less,” she says. “So the bounce rate, if you will, is much higher than in regular apartments.”

Pereyra’s interest in co-living came after she turned 30. She made One Shared House — a documentary about her childhood home, featuring interviews with some of the original residents of Kollontai. It landed Pereyra on SPACE10’s radar. To begin our exploration of shared living, we collaborated with her and her design partner Anton Repponen to launch a survey called One Shared House 2030. Designed as an application form for a hypothetical co-living space opening in 2030, it sought to understand in detail what people would — and would not — want  from an intentional community.

“So, for example, how big should your community be?” Pereyra says. “Should it be 10 people, or 50-plus people?” To date, more than 13,000 people from almost 175 countries have taken the survey. And that question, how big should a community be? Turns out most people would want to live in tight-knit communities of 4 to 10 people.

That’s interesting, not least because few, if any, of today’s co-living spaces are designed with that size community in mind. In fact, most co-living spaces are much bigger. The world’s largest co-living space is a 550-bed tower block in London called the Collective.

(A quick caveat. One Shared House 2030 isn’t a scientific survey. It’s a form of Playful Research designed to get people thinking about the future of living. It should be borne in mind, too, that the data is quantitative, not qualitative .)

The survey also asked respondents to choose what kind of ownership model they’d like. Would they prefer to rent or to own a stake in their shared-living community? “Most, if not all, co-living facilities that we know of are run by a corporation. There’s a management and you pay rent,” Pereyra explains. “You don’t own anything there.” However, the majority of respondents would prefer to have a financial stake in their community, rather than pay rent. “So that’s very different from the reality and the offerings in the market today,” Pereyra adds.

This isn’t so much about the financial implications of renting or owning as about how that affects our mindset as residents. “If I am forever paying rent to management, I don’t feel a sense of responsibility to the community, to the other people, to the space,” explains Pereyra.

In other words, changing the ownership structure of co-living spaces — giving residents the option of ownership — could trigger a greater interest in the housing model and help foster more stable, less transient communities.

Regardless of whether you rent or own, there’s little you can do about the biggest perceived downside to shared living: according to the survey, most respondents said they’d worry most about the potential lack of privacy and that they’d want to make sure their private space was off-limits to others when they weren’t home.

This suggests that most people prefer to have clearly defined spaces — in other words, to strike a clear balance between ‘my space’, ‘your space’, and ‘our space’. Perhaps the increasing popularity of co-living can be explained — at least in part — by our apparent willingness to share ever more aspects of our lives. Perhaps that’s why we want a physical space that’s private, that’s ours. A place, quite simply, to be alone.

Still, the point of co-living is to be around other people. Having enough privacy and being able to get away from people is one thing; living with the right people in the first place is another. The majority of survey respondents would want new house members to be selected by a community vote rather than by management, a leadership group or an algorithm. It’s clear that it’s important that current residents have a say — but apply to live in one of the new crop of co-living spaces, and chances are your application form will be scrutinised by a management board and not the community.

The One Shared House 2030 survey also asked people what they thought would be the most attractive aspect of shared living. The answer: the social life. Perhaps that’s not all that surprising. “Loneliness is also on the rise in this community and in this generation,” claims Pereyra. Indeed, though the data is complicated, studies consistently show that loneliness is prevalent throughout society. In fact, one recent study by the British Red Cross found that nine million people in the UK “often or always” feel lonely.

In any case, loneliness is enough of a problem that public health experts and policymakers are beginning to address it. Earlier this year, the British government even appointed a “minister for loneliness”. In this light, it’s not surprising that people might find shared living attractive. We are living in the age of the individual, an era in which traditional sources of community are in steady decline. Perhaps the majority of survey respondents want to be part of a community — to meet at the village well every day.

Despite the cookie-cutter look to many of the co-living communities being marketed in the big cities, shared living isn’t a one-size-fits-all lifestyle. For example, according to our survey, parents would prefer to live with other parents and their kids. You can see why. Not only would the parents be able to share the burden of childcare but their little terrors would be able to play with each other everyday.

Pereyra was curious to explore how her upbringing might have affected her development. She found a number of psychological studies that compared children growing up in single-family homes with those living in intentional communities. “Because they’re exposed to so many different types of adults with so many different types of interests and skillsets, they become more adept and just generally more capable of doing a lot of random, different things,” she says.

Thinking back to her childhood at Kollontai, this seemed to ring especially true. “We had a woman in our house who was great at fixing bikes, so I could fix bikes,” Pereyra recalls. “We had someone in our house who was great with computers, so I became great with computers.”

As well as spending lots of time with adults at Kollontai, Pereyra got to hang out with children who were either a couple of years older or a couple of years younger than her. In 2016, the Norwegian biologist Bjørn Grinde published a study examining the impact of household size on children’s mental health. He believes that living with other children has a positive impact on a child’s mental health, and that those other children don’t have to be related. The more time non-related children spend together, the better, he argues. “Not just for the six, seven hours of daytime community care, but living together.”

At SPACE10, we believe that shared living will become increasingly attractive as people search for adequate and affordable housing, and seek an antidote to social isolation and loneliness. We also believe it’s important to build the right spaces and communities. Spaces and communities that are in keeping with what people want, not what the people who build them want. “Right now, it’s not very broad, it’s not very wide,” says Pereyra about the contemporary shared-living landscape. “They’re all pretty much catering to similar types of demographics.”

Indeed, if shared-living communities are going to appeal to the many people, we need to design them differently. That means making them not only more community-oriented and community-driven, but also more cross-generational and cross-cultural. And with many countries’ populations getting older, it means designing shared-living spaces that support healthy ageing.

This, then, is why SPACE10 is exploring shared living. We want to gather knowledge and data that can inform better decisions about these future spaces. We want to see spaces that appeal to a broader spectrum of people than is drawn to shared living today. Spaces that foster community, encourage us to share resources, and generate a greater sense of togetherness and belonging. In short, we believe shared living has a significant role to play in the future of the planet — and that it’s crucial to take the many people into consideration before sketching the blueprint.