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“I spent the night in 3 different ‘co-living spaces’. Here’s what I learned”

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Emma Ledger
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First there was co-working – now there’s co-living. Stylist moves in to an adult dorm to discover the joys of never being alone…

What if you could rent somewhere to live and it would be… OK. Better than OK, even. Fabulous. These rooms exist and, what’s more, they’re in shared houses.

For too long, generation rent has put up with sub-standard conditions because there was no alternative. But thanks to a new-found appetite for sharing and collaboration, co-living developments are springing up across Britain to offer alternative, progressive ways of renting.

Inspired by the global success of the co-working model where people share workplaces, co-living is a hybrid of hotel and upscaled student hall of residence. You pay an all-inclusive rent for a private, furnished, en-suite bedroom but share kitchens, lounge spaces and other facilities – which might include a gym, spa, gardens or a cinema – with your fellow residents.

Already big news in America, where provider OpenDoor has an 800-strong waiting list in San Francisco, there are several ‘adult dorm’ spaces in London and many more soon to open nationwide. Manchester City Council has just green-lit a purpose-built co-living development right next to Piccadilly station, and there are plans underway for similar spaces in Glasgow, Liverpool and Leeds.

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Built in 2016 on barren wasteland overlooking a train depot in Willesden Junction in north-west London with 546 units, The Collective is the world’s biggest purpose-built co-living space. Tenants are typically young professionals drawn to the flexibility and convenience – not that it comes cheap. Rooms start at £245 a week, which includes bills, wifi, cleaning and use of facilities (restaurant, co-working spaces, roof terrace, games room, gardens, gym, library, cinema and even a spa).

It’s not exactly a sexy location, but when I visit, the industrial-chic foyer is full of millennials huddled over Apple products, like some sort of tech orchard, surrounded by Insta-ready exposed bulbs, trailing plants and neon signs.

Emma arrives at The Collective in Willesden 

Living it up

“It is quite far out [of central London], but there are so many benefits to living somewhere this big,” says Allison Kirschbaum, 26, who moved into The Collective four months ago. “I run my own marketing business and work very odd hours. There are so many spaces I can use and rooms I can book to record podcasts. Two people I’ve met here now work for me.”

Other residents I meet cite ‘natural’ networking and easy collaboration as big benefits of co-living, as the lines between work and play increasingly blur. The average resident age is 28, and during my stay I see groups of friends eating together, lots of pairs returning from working out, and one man filming another while he plays the piano in the foyer. I feel a very real fear they might force me to join in.

Obviously there’s no obligation to get involved – or even to talk to anyone else – but The Collective holds regular skill-sharing events to help those who do want to connect, with people offering anything from French to yoga tutoring.

Ed Thomas is head of community experience. “Everyone who lives here is encouraged to join our Facebook group, but what’s really great is how everyone just talks to each other,” he says. “This is not a hotel or a set of apartment blocks, it’s a thriving community.”

Research from Brigham Young University in the US suggests people who feel a sense of belonging and trust in their community have better health, while those feeling socially isolated are at risk of increased blood pressure, higher cholesterol levels, depression and even Alzheimer’s disease.

The rooms at The Collective are small but chic 

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Good neighbours

Selling a sense of community through IRL connection is what underpins the co-living model. The tagline of coliving.com, an online hub that advertises co-living spaces everywhere from Bali to Berlin, is “live, work and play with other inspiring people”.

Another co-living organisation called Norn has branches in London, Berlin and Barcelona, and is on a mission to be a real-life social network for young professionals. It’s my next stop.

The decor of Norn’s Georgian townhouse in east London is wealthy bohemian aunt meets Scandi-cool. There are only five bedrooms but the team host dinner parties and discussion evenings to connect members with the wider local community, billing itself as “a place where curious minds meet”. For around £1,550 a month, you get a room, which is cleaned for you, and an invite to all events.

I’m shown around by Victoria, 30, who has been living at Norn since May with her boyfriend while they hunt for a flat to rent. “I was drawn to the idea of meeting people I wouldn’t otherwise have the chance to meet and broadening my outlook,” she says. Anyone who feels a twinge of echo-chamber in their friendship group can relate.

One of the rooms in Norn, east London 

However, I feel a wave of scepticism when I receive an email about the Norn discussion evening I’m due to attend, asking me to prepare an answer to the question ‘What moment or experience has changed the course of your life?’ I’m dubious about how listening to strangers’ clashing monologues could be meaningful. But by the end of two hours of lively chat over cheese and wine, we’re all swapping business cards and connecting on Instagram. A DJ speaks to a designer about collaborating on an upcoming project, and a Spanish expat recommends the best tapas places nearby.

It’s clear that co-living’s growing success is partly down to it serving our changing social and psychological needs. Britain has been dubbed the loneliest country in Europe, after research by charity chiefs’ group ACEVO found that 83% of 18 to 34-year-olds are “often, always or sometimes” lonely. And despite being surrounded by people, those living in cities are the least likely to have strong friendships or know their neighbours.

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Co-housing schemes have long been used to fight social isolation and encourage interaction in older generations in the Netherlands and Sweden, having initiated in the Sixties. Now the co-living model is troubleshooting loneliness in millennials, and it can’t come quickly enough, says Sarah Murphy, associate director of advice, information and training for Rethink Mental Illness. The charity found that the modern loneliness crisis is exacerbating symptoms of panic attacks, depression, low moods and even thoughts of self-harm and suicide.

Even if co-living can’t guarantee you’ll meet friends, it creates environments where people recognise you, say hello, and ask how you are. In The Healing Power Of Doing Good, authors Allan Luks and Peggy Payne reveal that the neural circuits activated by such simple acts of kindness are the same ones involved in chemical highs, boosting general levels of wellbeing. It’s simple, but it works.

The exterior of one of Fizzy Living’s London complexes 

Community action

Fizzy Living offers fully managed, pet-friendly blocks of flats in seven London locations. In this model, you have your own kitchen but share a gym, gardens and work spaces.

Jess moved into Fizzy Living’s Lewisham complex with her dog Alfie in April, where one-bed flats start from £1,340 month. “Lots of people living here have dogs so I got to know them quickly,” she says.

“We go for walks and sometimes I’ll look after someone else’s dog. We have a Facebook group where we share things and plan events in the building, like doga [yoga with your dog]. I’m definitely happier living somewhere I feel a sense of community.”

Research shows we are choosing to wait for longer than ever before settling down with a partner. The average age women marry is now 30.8 years old, up over eight years from 1971, which partly explains the popularity of co-living. The Collective has residents who have lived there for over two years, some since it opened, and it’s currently 99% full.

But, throwing together so many young, like-minded people in the same space inevitably sparks romances. I notice there are condoms for sale in the shop attached to The Collective, and Thomas says, “It’s much easier for people to meet and start dating here than it is in everyday life. We’ve had one marriage and two babies born so far.”

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In a practical sense, co-living also frees up more time to dedicate to Netflix and chilling by allowing residents to shed much of the stress that comes with regular renting. As well as all-inclusive rent meaning there are no bills to sort, there are also no challenging landlords to deal with if something goes wrong. Instead, your on-site handyman will come and fix any issue at no extra cost.

All seven of Fizzy Living’s buildings have a dedicated property manager who is referred to as “Bob”, regardless of their gender. There are also no agents to deal with, no fees, no hefty deposits and Fizzy Living even pay your moving costs. And while their contracts are for 36 months (with a six-month break clause), at Norn there’s no minimum stay, and at The Collective, you can sign up for as little as four months.

There’s also the security of knowing your landlord isn’t going to suddenly turf you out by putting your home on the market. This sense of security and community really resonated with me, and after spending a night at Fizzy Living, the idea of co-living started to seem more appealing. The fact that you really know your neighbours struck me as a lovely thing. And being able to have a dog makes it all the more tempting, as so few landlords accept pets.

Security in every sense is a big priority at The Collective, where you need a card or wristband to gain access. There are also CCTV cameras covering all 900-square metres of communal space. Nominally it is for the safety of all residents, although disgruntled comments on forums complain about Big Brother-levels of scrutiny. But for many, there’s real comfort knowing that you’re safe, especially if you’re new to city life.

At The Collective, there is one kitchen per floor, shared between 30 people 

Bad habits

Other gripes will be familiar to anyone who’s ever lived in a houseshare: people not cleaning up after themselves in kitchens, food going missing from fridges. But there is a dishwasher and the kitchen is cleaned daily by staff at The Collective. There’s no denying you have access to everything you need – from kettle to spiralizer – without needing to actually own it. Plus, you can invite non-resident friends over for dinner or hire out the cinema room for a private screening of Bake Off.

Impressive sound-proofing means I can’t hear my neighbours at all, but kitchen smells are harder to control and competing dinners filled the air. And while rooms have radiators, there is only one window, so in hot weather the temperature inside can soar. During the recent heatwave some members of The Collective took to sleeping in one of the communal areas when it got too hot to handle.

But during my stay, my biggest problem is the size of the room. Measuring a snug 8.5- square metres, you get a TV, a bed that’s big enough for one person but wouldn’t comfortably sleep two, a small wardrobe, shower room, and some shelves. There’s no space to bring any more furniture than what is built in. Admittedly, I’m a documentary-level hoarder, but I would struggle to house even half of my shoes. There are 63 studio flats on offer which give a little more storage, but they are more expensive, starting at £290 a week.

If you are willing to sacrifice space and embrace The Collective’s ‘collect moments not things’ lifestyle, you get free fortnightly room cleaning and sheet changes. Although I’d love to never have to change a duvet cover again, it does feel a bit like regressing to my teens. 

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Co-living is not for everyone, but I think it is one solution to the loneliness crisis. It’s certainly something I’d consider if I was moving to another city and wanted to live somewhere while I found my feet and figured out which area I wanted to live in, and who I wanted to live with, but I don’t think I could cope with the lack of space longer-term.

Some critics have deemed co-living infantilising, saying it strips away responsibilities by encouraging people to “outsource the concept of parents” and prolongs the state of perpetual adolescence. They might have a point, but that fails to acknowledge the changing ways people live and the new challenges they face.

Now that getting on the property ladder is the stuff of fantasy, more and more of us have no qualms about embracing the freedom of being digital nomads – 1.7m Instagram posts are hashtagged #digitalnomad – bouncing between houseshares, travelling regularly or relocating for work. Surely having the option to live somewhere that promotes human connection through face time rather than FaceTime has to be a good thing?

Psychologist Dr Becky Spelman thinks so. “In an increasingly digital world, co-living can help to boost self-esteem by creating a tangible sense of community. We are sociable beings, and it’s valuable to feel connected and appreciated while also being able to close the door and have our own space when we want it.”

On a Monday evening at Fizzy Living Lewisham, residents from diverse backgrounds mingle in the rooftop garden as the sun melts over the city skyline. It’s a vision of inclusive and welcoming urban living that anyone would be proud to be part of. Especially as a lot of us know what it’s like to be surrounded by people and things, yet feel bored or lonely.

In our expensive, expansive cities where people yearn to feel a part of something and space is at a premium, co-living offers a solution. Albeit a tiny-spaced one. It may not be for everyone, but for those willing to try it, there’s a whole world of connections just outside your door.

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Why live when you can co-live?

Echo Street is a co-living space in Manchester 

Five options for communal accommodation – coming soon to a city near you.

The Collective, West London

There are 546 units plus a spa, gym, library and cinema, starting from £245 a week. A second site in Canary Wharf opens in 2019.

thecollective.com

Echo Street, Manchester

Plans are underway for 642 co-living units in a 24-storey building on the outskirts of the Whitworth Street conservation area.

echostreetconsultation.co.uk

Fizzy Living, across London

Fully managed, pet-friendly flats in seven locations, with shared gyms, gardens and communal areas. From £312 a week.

fizzyliving.com

Norn, East London

An intimate space in the capital (as well as Barcelona and Berlin), where you’re invited to join for an evening or stay for several months.

norn.co

SoCity Ltd, Leeds

Offering fully furnished apartments with 24-hour concierge, cinema and gym, this developer also has its sights on Sheffield, Bristol and Southampton.

ppg.uk.com/portfolio

Photography: Sarah Brick