Co-living: luxury for the happy few or glimpse of the future?

City life? People love it. What would you sacrifice – and what would you pay – to live in the city? With the costs per square metre rocketing, urban space increasingly used as a ‘living room’, and the rise of 1-person households, how important a factor is space? In cities where square footage is at a premium and housing unaffordable, urbanites are embracing co-living. Making do with less ‘personal’ space and sharing the kitchen, living room and outdoor area. But is this driven by convenience, or a genuine interest in community? And what’s done to foster this sense of togetherness? Do current co-living concepts make big-city life a viable option? Or are they a luxury for the happy few?


In major world cities, there’s nothing unusual about living in a small space or sharing it with a roommate. The series Friends romanticised flat-sharing with friends in New York City in the 1990s. In the Netherlands, shared living often carries connotations of 70s and 80s communes. Chatting to people I know, it seems to be singles and digital nomads – those who, theoretically, can work anywhere in the world thanks to today’s technology – who’re enthusiastic about communal living. But others see it as a throwback to college flat-sharing days, or only viable if there’s no other way to live independently. Families with children are generally looking for space, preferably unshared. Dutch daily De Volkskrant recently ran an article on young families who are trading city life for the more affordable suburb, while in early November, NRC reported on the mass exodus of families from Amsterdam. As costs per square metre spiral in the cities, moving out seems the only option.

During the trip organised by The Pop-Up City on The Future of Urban Living, I visited a variety of co-living concepts in Amsterdam and London. After all, London’s in the midst of a housing crisis, and one of the world’s least affordable cities. So, theoretically, the UK capital might blaze a trail when it comes to radical co-living concepts. But in practice, things are a little different.


Co-living in Londen or Amsterdam?

The marketing and branding of The Collective Old Oak in West London create high expectations. With over 500 co-living units, The Collective is world’s largest co-living building. Having found a strip of underused land in London flanked by industry on one side and a sleepy residential area on the other, the developer built a co-living bubble. And yet, the concept isn’t functioning as well as expected. Why? Because the people who live there are attracted by reasonable rents and handy amenities. Community spirit is a bit of an after-thought. To foster a sense of togetherness, the building owner is currently developing a blueprint for community management, a handbook to be used by community managers at new locations in the future. People bring a building to life, so it’s the job of the architecture and interior to inspire a sense of community among a disparate group of tenants. But at The Collective, the smaller social spaces seem to be hidden away on each floor, while the larger communal areas on the ground floor simply aren’t inviting. The concept needs a bit of love and tenderness to really flourish.

The Collective Old Oak. Image: © PLP Architecture


To create an effective co-living concept from scratch, you need to think through all of the building’s functions beforehand. After all, you want to make residents feel welcome, and help to establish a sense of connection. Two Dutch approaches, both of which are modelled on a hotel-style format, are great illustrations of this: The Student Hotel and Zoku. Every detail of the concept and interior of The Student Hotel (which no longer exclusively welcomes students) is spot on. Each location has an amazingly welcoming social space in the heart of the building. And it’s clear to see people love spending time there. The Student Hotel chain has buildings throughout the Netherlands, and in Barcelona, Paris and Florence. More cities will soon be added to what’s possibly the planet’s fastest-growing co-living concept. Zoku is fairly new on the scene, and aims to open spaces at locations across the globe. The rooms are cleverly designed and the shared space on the top floor offers an inviting, cosy place to socialise. The rooms are small but stylish, and despite their modest size, feel more like a home than a hotel room. Both concepts attract a primarily international clientele who, especially in the case of Zoku, have pretty deep pockets.

Social space at Zoku in Amsterdam.


From boutique hostel to camping-living

Back to London. In Chelsea, one of the capital’s wealthiest neighbourhoods, we visited Roam, which boasts a very boutique hostel-type vibe. Roam claims to be an international network of co-living spaces. Typically, Roam’s permanent guests are thirty-somethings with an ample budget whose jobs involve extensive travel, or who work remotely. The community feeling appears to function better here because it’s on a more intimate scale. Although Roam’s shared spaces could be more welcoming. We meet with community managers in the Netherlands and London, many of whom live on location. It’s their job to help residents settle in quickly, and organise activities for them to socialise informally. Notably, only The Student Hotel and Zoku also support this online with an app for residents to connect.

An affordable form of co-living in London, which perhaps could be more accurately described as camping-living, is being developed by Lowe Guardians. Lowe manages unoccupied premises and wants to transform this practice of ‘guardianship’. They are currently raising funds for The Shed Project, designed by Studio Bark: wooden cabins that double as bedrooms. The idea is to build dozens of these Sheds in office blocks, for people to live in. For the moment, the project is mainly targeting young professionals, although this model could also be used in future to provide shelter for the homeless and refugees. Fun fact: The Shed is inspired by the Heijmans ONE, a container situated temporarily on a vacant city lot, which provides accommodation for a single resident.

The Shed Project by Lowe Guardians and Studio Bark in Londen. Image: © David Jensen Photography.


An evolved form of co-living?

Most co-living concepts seem to be aimed at the happy few. Co-living can hardly be called inexpensive. Which is understandable given that guests are required to pay for the array of services and shared spaces. It’s a style of living that’s available to students, singles, expats or digital nomads with cash to spare, looking for a fun environment, and the added bonus of connecting with like-minded people. But the burning question is: are they genuinely interested in becoming part of a community?

For the time being, you won’t find families in these, mostly short-term, co-living concepts. But all that could be about to change. Kraaijvanger Architects recently designed the perfect co-living solution for this target group: the 360°. The design provides families with 60 m2 of private space and over 7000 m2 of communal space. Of course, the project is still at an early stage, but could become reality in the not-too-distant future.

But, if the present housing market trend continues, how will we create tomorrow’s city, with housing that’s accessible to all? Co-living could offer a workable option, perhaps in a more evolved form of these hotel-style concepts. But there’s no need for the Dutch to look beyond our borders for inspiration. When it comes to co-living models, the Netherlands is slightly ahead of the game.


Gwenda van der Ham
BRAND The Urban Agency | The marketing agency with the city at its heart


Cover image: © Dezeen