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Thank you for sharing

Amid rising rents and changing lifestyles, home ownership is beyond the reach of many young professionals in cities. Shared housing, or ‘living as a service’ appears to be one solution, but how might that impact on the future of residential design? Abi Millar speaks to PLP Architects and Miel Arquitectos, the firms behind two recent examples.  

When The Collective Old Oak welcomed its first guests in April 2016, the media reaction was mixed. The Guardian characterised the scheme as ‘tiny and £1100 a month: corporate answer to flatsharing in London’, while the Evening Standard billed it as ‘London’s most luxurious commune’.

Other outlets seemed torn between two ways of looking at the concept. Was The Collective a glorified form of university halls – a means of extending student living throughout one’s 20s and 30s, albeit at several times the cost? Or did it point up a template for redressing London’s housing crisis?

As the largest co-living space in the world, The Collective Old Oak is nothing if not ambitious. Situated near a canal in North West London, it is eleven stories high, with 550 living areas complete with bathroom and kitchenette. Its real draw, however, is the communal areas – large shared kitchens, dining rooms and living spaces, along with a restaurant, gym, cinema, games room, ‘disco launderette’ and even a spa. PLP Architecture, which designed the complex, has described it as a ‘thesis for the future of collective living’.

This isn’t ‘affordable housing’ in the most inclusive sense of the term. Prices start at £220 a week (bills included), which, if you’re an average earner, equates to around half your take-home salary. However, as a cursory glimpse at any London rentals website will tell you, this is firmly within the realm of expectation for zone 2, with most studios and one-bed apartments likely to set you back a similar amount.

As Andrei Martin, partner at PLP Architecture, explains, its real social objectives are somewhat subtler than ‘provide cheap housing’.

“The social aspect of the project is very important to us but it’s essential to understand the wider context,” he says. “Most shared accommodation happens by taking an existing housing stock and converting it to smaller rooms. This is an inefficient model that has a ripple effect in terms of housing prices, and a whole host of consequences when applied en masse. So we looked at it in terms of the benefits to the city – allowing the city to provide normal housing for families without displacing them.”

In a network

For the residents themselves, co-living arrangements offer something they couldn’t easily get elsewhere. In essence, it allows them to decide exactly how much time they want to spend alone versus interacting with others, giving them a ready-made social network as well as somewhere to retreat.

“What people want is changing,” say Martin. “They move to the city and feel incredibly alone – they want a sense of community, and that’s exciting to us. If we look at all emerging types of community, most are virtual and don’t exist in physical space, or they do so very superficially. What co-living has the capacity to do is bring people together in a tangible way.”

The Collective has been designed to maximise convenience, minimise commitment. It has short rental contracts, supplies the likes of toilet paper and washing up liquid, and includes concierge and cleaning services in the fee. If that sounds closer to a serviced apartment than a home, that’s part of the point – here your living arrangements are envisaged as a ‘service’ rather than being tethered to ownership.

“Graduates typically live together in ad hoc circumstances, with no guarantee of a level of service or an environment suitable for people of that age,” explains Martin. “When Reza Merchant founded The Collective, his idea was that more people would join and live together and that the shared living spaces would become the lifeblood of this community.”

While co-living arrangements have always existed in some capacity, today’s spaces have little crossover with, say, the idealistic communes of the 70s. In fact, they might be seen as a natural offshoot of the co-working movement, which is itself a product of the internet age. Embraced by freelancers, digital entrepreneurs and small startups, co-working involves not just shared space but a sense of shared values; a chance to forge communities and pool ideas.

Keep it together

A number of companies have already made the jump from co-working to co-living. New York-based startup WeWork, for instance, is currently testing out a ‘community-driven living concept’ called WeLive. It predicts that by 2018, the new venture will bring in a fifth of its revenues. Then there’s Soho House, known for its members clubs, which opened its first shared workspace in Shoreditch last year. In July, founder Nick Jones told Dezeen the group was “looking at the possibility of moving to an upgraded student living idea”.

These ventures target young professionals, who are poorly suited to existing housing models. For many in this bracket, home ownership is little more than a gleam on the horizon, unlikely ever to be realised by some. This is a mobile, transient population, moving not just from neighborhood to neighborhood but city to city and country to country. They are loath to accumulate possessions, keen to shore up experiences, quick to move on from jobs and rented flats.

“They might be students doing a masters, or travellers making a short-term stay – they don’t need too much space to store their possessions,” says Miguel Angel Borras, partner at Barcelona studio Miel Arquitectos.

In 2014, Miel Arquitectos designed Salva46, “an experiment in shared micro-living”. Measuring just 65 sq m, this apartment is designed to house two single people or couples, who can maintain their desired level of independence while sharing a living space. Despite the small scale, it faced the same challenges as any other co-living project: how can you encourage a sense of communality without surrendering privacy, and how can you work around the space shortages so prevalent in cities?

In this case, the architects needed to factor in not just spatial constraints (e.g. by creating mezzanine areas) but also the fact the communal area lacked windows. They resolved this problem by giving each unit two doors – one solid, to soundproof the area at night, and one translucent, to allow the passage of light during the day.

“Without sunlight there’s no quality of space,” says Borras. “That was the main purpose, not blocking the sunlight and to be able to isolate both apartments acoustically from the social space in between.”

The right order

For a project as large as The Collective, another issue comes into play, and that’s how you sequence the spaces throughout the building.

“It needed to feel active and lively but we also wanted to erase the effects of density,” says Martin. “The design decision we made at the beginning was to break down a large number of people into clusters and villages, and these were groups of people we felt would be comfortable in each other’s presence and able to self-organise as a community.”

Upon arriving at any given floor, you are greeted by a large amenities area, which leads into the residential wings. Each floor is conceived as a different village, with different architectural touches, and its particular identity derived from the common space. PLP wanted to foreground the building’s many uses, ensuring these activities are obvious to anyone passing and providing a point of contrast with halls of residence.

With around 90% of the rooms now occupied, The Collective Old Oak has tapped into significant market demand. PLP is currently working on its second project with The Collective, which will be based in Stratford, East London, and is slated to open in 2018. Like its Old Oak predecessor, The Collective Stratford will be based around a simple, pared down design, which nonetheless has striking moments of counterpoint – its amenities space visible and elevated above the city.

Despite the occasional snide headline, it would be hard to deny the appetite for these kinds of spaces. They might not directly ease the housing woes of lower earners, but for a subset of affluent young professionals, they promise something almost utopian – not least the fact they’re not going to be shafted by a private landlord.

“This is not a solution for all our housing ills – it’s really targeted at a population that’s in transition,” points out Martin. “But rather than looking at the project as an outcome of constraint, it’s important to look at it in terms of what it will do in the future. Buildings like this could not only begin to solve housing shortages but also deal with the capacity that’s inherent in cities. If buildings can be more functional and efficient, cities can be more functionally and efficiently used.”


This article appears in the 2016 vol 2 edition of LEAF Review

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