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Mix Roundtable: is co-living the future of city dwelling?

From student accommodation to vertical villages, co-living has attracted global investors. But is this communal model really a dream or a dystopia?

Feature in partnership with Ege Carpets

22/11/2022 6 min read

Words: David Thame


Co-living is tiny. A few thousand units are in development in the UK, most in London and Manchester. Rather less are in operation. Yet co-living’s microscopic role in the UK housing market hasn’t stopped a super-sized response from global (mainly U.S.) investors, and from UK developers anxious to diversify from pure build-to-rent.

That the hybrid flat-share concept seems to straddle the boundaries of both purpose-built student housing and city living BTR makes it feel like a natural extension of existing residential trends. And there’s no denying a broken private rental housing market means there are plenty of potential tenants. Yet co-living is complicated. There is no agreed set of planning rules to cover the sector, and those that are emerging in Greater London and the major regional cities provide design and viability challenges. The planning vacuum in turn produces design challenges, challenges that some investors and developers will find it hard to overcome whilst remaining viable.

Then there’s the human-sized question: does anybody really want to flat share? Seven design brains gathered around the table at Ege Carpets’ showroom in Clerkenwell to discuss.

Is neighbourly community housing of the kind co-living offers the answer to the ‘loneliness pandemic,’ urban density and unsustainable development? Or is it an early-stage idea still in development? The consensus was that sociability and convenience were the twin appeals of co-living – although the dire state of the big city private rental markets helped make co-living appealing in contrast.

“What gets people through the door is the commercial proposition, but what keeps them there is the service provision and the way co-living looks and feels,” said Danielle Marshall, associate partner at ID:SR Sheppard Robson. “If there’s a choice, and the options are all at roughly the same rental offer, then what differentiates is design.”

“Something that needs to be flexible,” continued Ege’s Richard Strong. “Interior trends and styles are forever changing, so it’s vital that product is timeless, represents good quality and is durable.”

It’s not just commercial sense for some occupiers to prefer co-living to private rental. It might also be a choice, said Manuel Gonzalez, associate at Tigg & Coll. “Some people prefer to stay in co-living and we have to take those users into account too. What they want is to meet people,” he said.

Even so, a lot of the pressure for co-living comes from the miserable choice of alternatives. “The lack of private rental provision in London means you could build banal boxes and still rent them,” confessed James Teatum, co-founder at co-living operator Noiascape.

Promoting sociability – but allowing privacy – is the key design challenge, said Jake Johnson, co-living and architectural champion at Studio Moren. “People want defensible space,” he said, pointing to the need for privacy. “But look at the Greater London Assembly guidelines and they are too prescriptive. There isn’t a chance for operators to tailor their ventures to meet different kinds of need. So, to be defensible might mean giving residents a small cooking hob in their room – but a much better one in a communal kitchen – so they don’t have to go into the shared space, which operates at a different standard. You can do that throughout the building, offering different versions of facilities.”

Teatum agreed. “The people who stay with us actively want to meet more people. So we need places where they can feel comfortable alone, or in a group. The typology of the pub does that, a space where you can be alone or together.”

But what facilities do you need? “It depends on the external facilities. If you have a gym next door perhaps all your need is a free membership,” said Gonzalez.

For Marshall, the question she imagined tenants asking is: is this a place I can bring friends and cook a nice meal?

According to Teatum, finding ways to encourage accidental social interaction is the key in places where normal social rituals are performed – cooking, washing and so on. “You don’t need a cinema room, but you do need to have kitchens and workspaces,” he said, suggesting these are the places for social encounters. “We put laundry spaces next to social spaces, so you can have the kind of incidental encounters that build a community.”

All our experts agreed that shared workspace was essential if co-living was to work. “Workspace is critical,” said Matt Barrington, head of residential at Gleeds. “Wit is fundamental to co-living, but you have to be able to work in your own [private] space and to work elsewhere in the building.”

Javier Estevez, design manager Europe at Hines, said the most commonly used amenity in their global portfolio was workspace. “It is more used that gyms and cinema rooms. Although I would add gyms to the list of must-haves, because many co-living residents are only there for a month or a few months, and may not have local gym membership. A gym is important in the building.”

Several participants suggests workspace could be a place where the community outside the building blended with the community within it, through co-working hubs open to all comers.

According to Studio Moren’s Jake Johnson there are under-explored possibilities in laundry rooms and bike storage. “These are the most exciting I think for incidental meetings. People get punctures, or need to do a lot of ironing, and we tend to think of these spaces as technical requirements but they are actually spaces to make friends in everyday moments.”

If, as Gonzalez said, investing in amenities is investing in the oil of the co-living machine, then can you spend too much? Or invest in the wrong things? Definitely said the panel, pointing the finger at over-intrusive social policies and over-specified public spaces.

Teatum said: “It’s not complex. It’s simple things that enable people to stop, chat, wave. That’s what matters, not cocktail nights.”

There’s also outside space to consider. Strong spoke of the importance of simple but satisfying space, “perhaps a roof terrace maybe, but the idea of outside space with some facilities – it might just be a basketball hoops – or well-lit areas that feel safe at night.”

“Which is perhaps a question of wellness and wellbeing,” echoed Strong. “That’s just as important internally when we consider natural light, sound insolation, fresh air and the like. Carpet in common areas like hallways reduces impact noise and gives everyone a better night’s sleep; dust trapping abilities creates cleaner air.”

But behind the question of amenity sits the troubling problem of planning policy. Greater London has imposed various constraints on co-living, Manchester has limited the volume of co-living space, and in Liverpool it is all but impossible thanks to a new planning policy and a recent Planning Inspectorate decision. Clearly there are concerns about the viability of co-living, and the risk that co-living blocks become out-of-control houses in multiple occupation.

“The planning problem is the biggest issue for co-living and reason so few proposals come forward, because policy doesn’t support it, so investors can’t get behind it,” said Barrington.  “The design community has not done enough to convince investors and funders to be strong enough in decisions they make [about how co-living is configured] because a lot of planner cynicism is well founded.”

Teatum pointed to co-living in converted student housing space with rooms of just 9 sq m – far too small he said. No wonder planners were concerned, he said, adding that rigid space standards would not work either. “The Greater London Authority guideline of 18-27 sq m is probably about right, it gives some parameters,” he said. “But it’s not size that determines the experience.”

Barrington agreed. “Efficiently designed space really does help developers and funders see the viability of a scheme,” he said, whilst Johnson pointed to the scope for likening co-living to already successful formats like hotels and serviced apartments. Estevez said this had been tried in Spain with success: serviced apartments or hotel permissions could help planners to become accustomed to co-living. Marshall suggested that repurposing existing buildings – like the Olympic village in Stratford – offered a way to show planners how useful co-living could be.

Perhaps designing spaces that look less like student cluster flats, and more like connected studio flatlets, is the answer? The panel agreed. “Cluster flats are chosen because they are cheaper, not because people want them,” said Teatum.

Co-living is still a novel idea in the UK and in its infancy, but a weight of international capital is lining up behind it, and it is sure to grow up fast. How varied and successfully will depend on persuading planners – and residents – that many flowers should be allowed to bloom.

 

 

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