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Monday
Mar162015

The Future of Housing: Co-Living for London's Makers and Creators

WeWork’s co-working environment ©WeWork

The shifting dynamics of the office has seen a recent proliferation of companies offering shared work environments such as WeWork and Level39. These co-working centres offer the services of a traditional office, while curing some of the isolation felt by work-at-home professionals and independent contractors. More than just providing a physical space for the virtual office, these environments are fostering networking, shared energy, and a sense of community. It is a cost-effective model that is successfully meeting the practical needs of today’s flexible professionals. What if this same model were applied to residential living?

Hines Riverpark housing

Co-living is the natural extension of co-working.

Co-living has existed since the first humans shared the same cave, eventually turning the efficient use of resources into cities and the large urban centres we know today. In the 20th century when Russians moved en masse from nearly eighty percent of the population living rurally during the Revolution, to almost the same percentage living in cities by the end of the 1990’s. This is when the government conceived of ‘communal apartments.’ In these large complexes families each received a small personal space, while the kitchen, bathroom, and living rooms were often shared. This experiment in social housing, which many would argue failed, took place under a different economy, to a different generation, and was imposed by the government. Today savvy property developers are starting a revolution of their own, targeting a new type of housing in London that combines private living spaces with communal services. For the makers and creators of London’s urban fabric this type of housing might be just the opportunity to find their first foothold in the London property ladder.

DePaul University.

One precedent comes from developer PocketLiving who offers affordable self-contained micro-flats with communal areas for socialisation. In 2014 they launched Marcon Place a 28-bedroom property in burgeoning Hackney designed at creating an entry point into the local property market for middle-income workers. As part of a partnership with the Hackney Council, the 400 square foot units were first available in May to "key workers" (teachers, journalists, nurses, chefs, web designers, vets and engineers) then in September ownership was opened to others who live and work in the Borough, make less than £66,000 per year, and own no other property. The entire development was nearly sold out by the end of the year.

Taking the concept one step further is The Collective which offers both co-living and co-working opportunities. With six properties in central London they offer medium-term leasing of private rooms that have communal facilities such as spas, game rooms, lounges, dining rooms, etc. Rooms come with their own kitchenettes, but communal kitchens are offered. With utilities included, WiFi, a concierge and weekly linen service this may seem more like living in a long-term boutique hotel or posh university dormitory. But for young professionals renting in the pricey London housing market this is providing a perfectly affordable solution.

Whether renting, buying, or a short-term letting (ala AirBnB), a rebellion against the status quo of the overpriced and overcrowded London housing market is under way. For those resistant to the sharing economy, have you ever borrowed a book from the library? That is sharing, and now you can do it with bicycles, automobiles, and even fashion accessories are being shared by people interested in economy, efficiency and sustainability all over the world. As our city populations grow to unprecedented levels, the tenets of economy, efficiency and sustainability become ever more important. These ‘key workers’ and young professionals are the makers and creators of our vibrant city. The makers and creators of London not only include the residents, but as evidenced here the developers and planners that conceive and construct the housing we have to choose from. Encouraging these unique models may be a piece of the puzzle that helps solve the London housing crisis and the intermediate housing squeeze. A unique element of this co-living model, although focused on the young professional here, can apply to many social demographics, from the boomer looking to downsize and share an active communal urban lifestyle, to the growing family looking to share resources, babysitting, etc.

However, while a small handful of developers seek to create such vibrant communities that appeal to many demographics, London’s recent graduates and squeezed middle are looking elsewhere to live and work. Within London’s current housing market, they don’t qualify for a housing benefit and they can’t afford to live in the city so they are leaving in droves. The London Chamber of Commerce has said that more than 40 per cent of London businesses were finding it hard to recruit staff because of the availability and cost of suitable housing with satisfactory transport links. Some London businesses are offering support to their employees on interest free loans for rental deposits, and also starting to talk to developers to do deals where they reserve a proportion of housing stock for their staff at a discounted rate. According to a Financial Times article, accounting firm KPMG recently signed a deal with Clydesdale and Yorkshire Banks to give preferential interest rates to its employees in the capital as a way of helping them on to the housing ladder.

Co-living is one of the most exciting innovations in urban housing in years, but what is its future? Could this model of shared ownership appeal to more than just the makers and creators? What other groups would benefit from shared-space living? Would specialised properties aimed at targeted communities such as seniors, LGBTs, or recent immigrants have appeal or would they create societal segregation? What are the inherent problems with collective habitation and how could they be addressed? Would YOU ever share your kitchen with your neighbours?

Jonathan is an architect with fifteen years of experience working in the residential, hospitality, retail centers, and mixed-use sectors and a regional residential practice area leader. He joined Gensler’s Los Angeles office in 2011 and has played a leading role on large retail and entertainment driven mixed-use projects throughout world. Now in London he is currently researching the London residential market as part of a Firmwide initiative RESIDE. Contact him at jonathan_breen@gensler.com.

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