The social and physical architecture of co-living spaces
Architects and designers are reflecting more and more about how the structures, spaces and products they design react within their built environment, and it is no exception with shared living spaces. Beyond physical functionality and appealing aesthetics, co-living spaces are using design techniques that encourage social interaction, collaboration and connection, and some recent trends such as micro-units and modular design are being integrated into these spaces to redefine the notions of private and public space. The way co-living spaces design the built environment for residents has the potential to increase productivity and creativity, foster spontaneous encounters and improve the overall well-being of its inhabitants.
When asking the team at Ikea’s future living lab Space10 how they thought design can improve the shared living experience, project lead Jamiee Williams responded by saying the following:
“Architecture plays the essential role in facilitating not only the meeting between residents but also the activation and behavioral roles that the residents take on. A well designed, inspiring and quality driven space is proven to encourage better behavior whereby residents are more considerate and committed to the wellbeing of their surroundings and the people they share it with”.
PUREHOUSE LAB’s Space Research Forum Coordinator, George Green, expresses similar reflexions in his master’s dissertation, The Logistics of Harmonious Co-living, Exploring contemporary co-living through design interventions. Green’s dissertation analyses the design of several co-living spaces in London (including The Collective and Roam) through Living Lab workshops he conducted with residents of these spaces. Through these Living Labs and according to additional research, Green found that “design for diverse use, creation of opportunity for informal meetings, and integration of environmental heritage” were critical elements of shared living design and that it ultimately “increases interpersonal bonds and individual and collective well-being”. Different techniques can be used to create these interpersonal connections including the arrangement and function of the furniture and artefacts used, the spacing of the rooms and different room types depending on the need for privacy or ideation and collaboration.
Reimagining shared living through innovative architecture and design
Designing spaces that value face-to-face interaction is something that can also be seen in innovation and collaboration spaces such as makerspaces and co-working spaces, and the “changing nature of innovation is transforming spaces into open, flexible locales where separate professions and disciplines more easily converge”. The same can be said with shared living spaces, except that these spaces encourage convergence not only between individuals with different professions and disciplines but also backgrounds, cultures, lifestyles and worldviews. There are a few innovative design approaches and experiments to shared living that are worth highlighting, due to their efforts in the use of ecological and upcycled materials, their ability to balance private and public space through modular design and integrating new residents through interactive design.
One such example is Barcelona-based architecture studio MIEL Arquitecturos’ Piso Salva 46, a multipurpose shared micro living space that values ecology, restoration and up-cycling (with the recovery and replacement of the original hydraulic mosaic tiles). For the architects, Elodie Grammont & and Miguel Angel Borràs, this space is a “play of opposites in a world of conformists”; they claim that the balance of privacy and common space Piso Salva 46 allows for a “flexible co-existence”. Francis Aguillard, Rice University Architectural Researcher and Urbanist, refers to this balance as a ‘gradation of shared living spaces’:
“This (usually) non-dichotomous thinking also seems to give way to an idea that we need a gradation of shared living spaces. So it’s not just about my private bed/room and the public kitchen, common area, and outdoor patio, but rather about different scales of sharing: between my flat-mate and myself, maybe among four flats or a floor or a group of friends, and then lastly the whole house, building, and in some cases the broader public. This idea of different intensities of sharing is one that I think needs to be investigated further and is a good starting point for thinking about how to foster connection, exchange, collaboration, and vulnerability”.
Another example of this gradation was MINI Living’s ‘Do Disturb’ installation at the Salone Mobile Milano 2016, which “provides its occupants with all the security of inhabiting the space within their own four walls, but as the partitions are flexible, the installation blurs the normal boundaries between the private and the communal”.
In his master’s dissertation about designing spaces for harmonious shared living, George Green refers to a housing experiment by Hungarian architecture firm BatLab, called ‘3in1’, which uses vibrant colours to add distinctions between zones within the space, showing the “value of transparent engagement opportunities and considered methods of integrating and familiarising new residents”. Green also argues how physical artefacts such as modular shelving systems can shape human action and “modify our actions and experiences, challenge pre-conceptions, and generate new knowledge”.
An example of an urban co-living operator who focuses on livability design – architecture that encourages social connection as well as recuperative communing with nature – is Cohabs. Cohabs is a co-living network in Brussels whose spaces are sleek and modern looking, sourcing furniture from second-hand markets and using mostly wood for the design of their houses. They apply other sustainable approaches such as green appliances, rainwater harvesting systems, smart energy monitoring tools and they encourage locally and organically-made foods and composting waste. Cohabs also just recently acquired a 4,500 m2 abandoned theatre complex that they will reconvert into an “urban laboratory for thinkers, entrepreneurs, artists and doers from around the world”. This acquisition is an interesting use of vacant space in an urban setting, and if done correctly Cohabs could integrate the architectural heritage and social history of the neighborhood into the design of their new space.
Designing shared living spaces: for the community or by the community?
The convenience factor of having fully furnished rooms and common areas in co-living spaces is a very attractive sales pitch for many residents living in these types of homes. Individuals can make large savings by not having to buy furniture and kitchen amenities/supplies and are increasingly seeking access to experience and services rather than ownership. The idea of being able to move into a new home without having to own anything and not needing to purchase as many household items is appealing and there is somewhat of a trend of people moving into co-living spaces for these conveniences rather than community experience.
Although less ownership and fully furnished homes is an attractive and convenient offer, it does also reduce the potential for residents to personalize their new rooms and living areas. Since a lot of interior design decisions are decided by operators before residents move in, co-livers are left to reside in a home that may not fully feel like their own. George Green makes a similar reflexion in his master’s dissertation and argues that large co-living developments are not experimental enough in their design, which limits the opportunity for personalization and resident engagement:
“Unable to control the space around them, and adapt its function to their individual or collective needs, residents struggle to take control and build confidence in their immediate environment, which is being reflected in short tenancies.”
Although companies like Zoku in Amsterdam offer options for personalizing residents’ rooms by swapping art pieces that they provide, and most spaces allow for the purchase of the additional lamp or other necessary bedroom objects, this remains limited and residents may not feel like they have much say in the design of their home environment. Similarly, when looking at the results from Space10 and Anton & Irene’s One Shared House 2030 research project, 80% of people responded that they thought only the common areas should come furnished in co-living spaces and that they would furnish their own private space.
These contrasting positions on who should design and furnish co-living spaces are interesting discussions for the future of the co-living sector. Another finding in One Shared House 2030’s research initiative was that over half of the respondents agreed that architects (27%) and designers (34%) are the best suited to organize a co-living community, compared to individuals in the real estate, social work, business, community organizing, tech and government sectors. These findings may represent a call for a more user-centered approach to the design of co-living spaces, and although co-livers appreciate the convenience of furnishings and the provided services, they may also seek more decision making power in the immediate environments that they call home. With a creative use of space, co-living operators have the potential to increase the wellbeing and creativity of their residents by focusing on designing spaces that facilitate interaction, value ecological standards and regenerative design approaches and are centered around the needs of their communities.