The Future of Living: The Homes Millennials Are Choosing
Pioneering projects in Denmark point the way for new styles of co-living — but at a price.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Millennials are increasingly blurring the lines between home, work and play.
Nestled among the hipster hangouts of Copenhagen’s Meatpacking District, a team of 20- and 30-something design entrepreneurs is reimagining the future of how we live.
In a renovated former fishery, Space10 is furniture giant Ikea’s lab for testing prototypes and ideas for better and more sustainable ways of existing: from insects and algae replacing meat to indoor gardens for city dwellers. The underground workshop is filled with iMacs and digital manufacturing tools — Space10 is also exploring “open fabrication,” where designs are shared online and goods are made or printed locally using machines that follow digital patterns.
The lab’s mission is to ensure that Ikea will still have a successful business as widespread use of technology, population growth and urbanization create evermore rapid change. “How can we design new concepts and solutions that are future-proof?” asks Kaave Pour, Space10’s 28-year-old bespectacled creative director, over the whirring of a 3D printer.
Among the new frontiers for Space10 is “co-living.” An umbrella term for housing shared by two or more people who are not related, the idea is experiencing a revamp driven by young professionals in cities, who may be more digitally connected yet feel lonelier than ever. From New York and London to New Delhi and Shanghai, millennials are increasingly blurring the lines between home, work and play — sharing spaces to save money and time as well as make new friends.
Space10 — an external think tank working solely for Ikea — believes shared housing has the potential to overhaul not just the real estate world but also consumer patterns that have been in place for decades. The lab sees itself as an agitator, forcing a rethink in ways of living. “We want to move quickly and radically improve the idea of what is a better life,” says Pour.
Other entrepreneurs and their financial backers are also staking their claim on a business that sees space as a service — and one with a potential future value of tens of billions of dollars. The Collective, Common and WeLive in the U.K. and U.S. are among the best-known co-living companies that place a premium on convenience and community, and aim to take the notion of shared housing beyond the realm of hippies, students and the elderly.
They are not cheap. It will cost you around 1,000 pounds a month for a spot in the Collective’s 550-bed tower in Old Oak on the outskirts of London and more than $3,000 for a private studio in WeLive’s property in lower Manhattan. For this you can get shorter, flexible leases and the flat monthly fee includes rent, utility bills, cleaning and laundry. You also have access to fully furnished, smaller private bedrooms and shared kitchens, offices and recreational spaces — from bars and movie rooms to gyms and hot tubs. They even organize activities. The aim is to minimize the friction that often makes flat-sharing and city-living a misery.
These companies proliferated in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, coinciding with a rise in one-person households. Last year, to understand if this is what people want from co-living, Space10 joined New York–based designers Anton Repponen and Irene Pereyra to launch a survey. While not authoritative, the survey shed light on what younger people think.
Around 85 percent of the 7,000 respondents were 18- to 39-year-olds living in northern Europe, North America and Asia. Among the main findings published in November were that respondents wanted smaller shared houses (of up to 10 people of different ages), a way to decide what their home looks like and a means to choose their housemates. They also wanted to own, not rent, their home. The results suggested that existing co-living companies that control so much are struggling to get the balance right — between convenience and flexibility, and the stability that encourages longer-term commitment.
Grasping these issues is vital not only as millennials dictate current and future consumer trends but also as the world adds another 1.2 billion people over the next 12 years — with most expected to live in fast-growing cities in India and China. House prices are rising in almost every major city, according to research by financial services company UBS. Meanwhile, the International Monetary Fund says incomes have failed to keep up. When anxieties about job security and costly university degrees are added to the mix, it often means young people are enduring greater uncertainty and are putting off traditional milestones such as marriage and having children.
Space10 believes as younger people feel the pinch more than their parents did, they will lead the charge in sharing resources in the broadest sense. The so-called sharing economy — which brought the world Airbnb, Uber and Spotify — is now fully entering the home.
This is also partly because even as millennials’ digital connections grow, they increasingly crave human interaction. The U.K.’s Office for National Statistics found that people ages 16 to 44, renters and those less strongly attached to their neighborhood, were more susceptible to feeling lonely. Urban millennials often fall into all of these categories.
“Co-living is a potential answer for a lot of people who are seeking community,” says Space10’s Pour. This type of housing could also appeal beyond the urban and unattached, to people throughout their life. “Younger generations are not just thinking about how it would be great to live today,” he adds, “but also when they’re old.”
Product developers Ritu Jain, 34, and Sune Theodorsen, 38, set up their co-living and relocation company LifeX in 2017 after their own frustrating move from San Francisco to Copenhagen. They had wanted flexibility without signing a long-term lease, paying a hefty deposit or buying new furniture. For them, the traditional housing market offered little choice of affordable, quality properties and did not accommodate the needs of mobile people — particularly those not attached to big companies with a corporate housing budget.
“We thought there must be a better way to move to a different place and have a good landing,” says Jain. “Not only did we want convenience, we wanted a network of like-minded people. We wanted to create an environment where there was enough personal space, but also communal areas — not a dorm for adults.”
A co-housing hotel … is something you can do in a ‘smaller’ phase of your life. This kind of community you can stay in for a long period of time.
Laura Juvik, resident of Lange Eng, a co-living project outside Copenhagen
LifeX’s “members,” who are screened in advance, get bigger-than-average rooms. Alongside the usual amenities, they get shared groceries and a small budget for socializing together. The fully furnished apartments in Copenhagen and Berlin, with their pristine cleanliness and pastel upholstery, are almost like those in model homes. And, for a monthly fee of up to 10,000 Danish kronen (or $1,500), each apartment is assigned a hygge officer to ensure the Danish concept of being cozy is brought into each home.
The company rents underused luxury properties, originally intended for one or two people, and converts them into apartments for up to 10. (Better usage of space is one way co-living could challenge existing ways of renting and selling properties.) Most young professionals are not willing, or able, to buy such apartments. But Jain and Theodorsen wanted to give them the experience. And you only have to bring a suitcase.
“You feel like you are living in a home that you wish you could afford,” says Paul Sephton, 28, who moved from Cape Town, South Africa, to Copenhagen last year to work for soccer startup Tonsser. “Maybe it’s a projection of life in 10 years’ time.”
Another LifeX resident, Tim Aardenburg, 27, says that he is happy to pay higher monthly costs for now, for the flexibility, a good location and high-quality amenities. But, he says, “not owning the place is the biggest downside.”
The comments are revealing. Despite the constraints that modern lifestyles put on young people, it appears these have not diminished their aspirations of homeownership.
Vishaan Chakrabarti, an architect and expert on city living, says that if local planning authorities and governments encouraged experimental housing, not only could rents fall but so could construction costs, enabling more housing. While current co-living models are still restricted to the relatively wealthy, in time companies would emerge to help new models of ownership to thrive. “Ultimately, people not only want more stability, they want to build equity in something,” Chakrabarti says.
Collective living has been practiced across different cultures throughout history, but the modern concept of co-living was pioneered in Denmark in the 1960s. Writer Bodil Graae’s 1967 newspaper article “Every Child Should Have 100 Parents” popularized a movement that led 50 families to develop a co-housing project to ensure lifelong care and community.
Compared with those older communes, newer co-living projects and San Francisco’s bunk-bed-filled “hacker houses,” Denmark has since become home to more realistic models of shared living. The Lange Eng co-housing project outside Copenhagen opened more than a decade ago, and is the biggest of its kind. In Denmark, experts have spent decades testing the limits of bringing lots of families under one roof.
Kasper Pilemand is an architect at design firm Dorte Mandrup, which created Lange Eng. Community can be good, he says, but too many people or too few can isolate. Too many rules or too few can also alienate. Individuals have to make a conscious effort to be part of a community — it cannot be fostered by a third party. Owning a part of it also helps. “Co-living can only exist if it’s a choice every single time,” says Pilemand.
Lange Eng, a 25-minute drive from the center of Copenhagen, has 54 privately owned houses and apartments for 200 adults and children, all set around a large grassy enclosure filled with wildflowers. Each family has its own private home — but everyone comes together to have dinner, six days a week. Activities center around the large community house, which has an industrial-size kitchen, a dining hall, play areas, a café and a 20-seat cinema. Each adult takes turns to cook and clean in rotating shifts. Doors remain open and children run between different houses.
Participation is encouraged, but not enforced, unlike in some older communes. That is partly why Niels Uld and his girlfriend, Rine Riskær, both 32, moved to Lange Eng with their 1-year-old daughter. “It has a well-balanced community,” says Uld. Someone was always around to be an emergency babysitter or for a play date. Socializing too is easy and not contrived. “There are a lot of activities going on … without the need to plan them. You just go out your door,” Uld says.
Laura Juvik, who was in her early 30s when she convinced a group of friends to join as initial residents of Lange Eng, says the multigenerational housing complex more accurately reflects society. “I think a co-housing hotel where you work and stay and sleep over is something you can do in a ‘smaller’ phase of your life,” she says. “This kind of community you can stay in for a long period of time.”
Unlike the perfection strived for by newer co-living models — in cooking and cleaning standards, for instance — Lange Eng is much more realistic. “You have to be able to just let go,” says Juvik. She calls Lange Eng a “village.” As in other villages, neighborhood disputes take place. Couples divorce and new ones move in. Juvik’s son, who has autism, is often overwhelmed. “He needs more privacy. But if we leave, I feel I would be isolated,” she says. “But we see the same people every day. After 10 years, even I’m getting restless.” Ultimately — even in the most cohesive communities — things change.
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