Cohousing is driving housing innovation by changing way we live

LONDON: A shared desire to live more communally could encourage greater housing diversity, according to Adam Haddow. Here, he looks to student housing, “build-to-rent” multigenerational housing models, and the new WeLive project in the USA for cues on how to conjure an alternative.

Cohousing is defined by the Cohousing Association of the United States as “an intentional community of private homes clustered around shared space” – where the dwellings themselves are much the same as any other and the shared space constitutes anything from a common room to a kitchen, laundry or recreational area. Less obvious in this description is the essential ingredient – intent. That which turns a simple group of dwellings into cohousing is the desire to share not only part of your physical space but part of your daily activities. Sharing may encompass simple things, such as tools and lawnmowers, or more complex things, such as caring for the young and elderly. Often an important element involves meals – it is not uncommon for cohousing projects to host weekly dinners where each of the residents has a role.

Cohousing is housing supported by an ongoing management structure that facilitates a connected community – to a certain extent, imagine a small country town with an active and well-funded council. There are virtually no edges to what can be considered cohousing from a typology perspective, the only constant being a desire by the inhabitants to live more communally. Emotionally, cohousing could be understood as the dense, inner-city version of the 70s suburban cul-de-sac. In my memory the great suburban cul-de-sac experiments existed when everyone’s backyards, swimming pools, swings or BMX jumps were shared. It seemed as if parents made personal investments in their backyard environs with a view to what else was within walking distance for their kids. Cohousing is perhaps just the urban cousin.

While this type of housing is able to accommodate both bottom-up and top-down procurement processes, it is not a housing form that has gained much ground in Australia. I would suggest this is partly because we don’t have funding, governance or taxation systems in place to support developer involvement and partly because land costs (inflated due to the housing crisis) prohibit the participation of community-based organizations.

The flood of new private sector student housing offerings is an example of the delivery of cohousing. The days of getting together with your mates to sign a lease with the elderly owner of a terrace house seem to be long gone, mostly as a result of the abandonment of the traditional student suburbs by the students themselves, who rejected their parents’ idea of suburban nirvana to live closer to the action. The free market economy came into play and private student cohousing projects have popped up to fill the void – a top-down development model owned and managed by investors. The benefit to the student of this new model is a high level of flexibility and amenity coupled with a low level of risk. So could the model of cohousing leveraged to provide student housing offer a solution for broader housing challenges of supply and affordability?

Imagine that the average two- bedroom apartment in Australia is seventy- five square metres and the average occupation of a two-bedroom apartment is two people – sometimes friends, sometimes lovers, sometimes a parent and a child. Each of these groups has different spatial needs. The friends need more privacy, with split bedrooms and separate bathrooms, but hardly use the living and dining room during the week – they’re too busy at work building their careers or living in the city with dinners and movie dates. The lovers really only use the second bedroom when a relative or friend occasionally comes to stay or when they work from home once a month – the rest of the time it’s the additional robe space they crave. The parent and child could really do with a bit more living space at the expense of a much smaller second bedroom – what five-year-old needs a room that fits a king-size bed anyway? Then imagine this. Instead of each group getting the same apartment, they each get one a little more tailored, and this tailoring comes about by reducing the space within their apartment walls – pushing it down to fifty square metres, and investing some of the difference, say ten square metres per apartment, into common space. This then enables an awesome play space for kids that is continually observed, a visitors’ apartment you can book for guests, a meals area with a commercial kitchen so you can live out your MasterChef ambitions or just a really great laundry so you never have to buy a bloody washing machine again! But where does the additional fifteen square metres per apartment we saved go? This saving goes towards the overall management of the building and residents, so that there is always someone there to accept your Amazon purchase or organize the washing machine repairer – without you ever knowing that it broke in the first place. This is the latest cohousing model popping up in the United States, with one such example called WeLive. It’s a kind of student housing for adults, complete with a doorperson, a concierge, a cleaner and the occasional yoga instructor.

Our industry has been awash over the last few months with ideas about the potential of cohousing projects. The name being used is “build-to-rent,” but in essence it’s the same thing. There are developers jumping in headfirst and there are others who are cautiously optimistic, waiting for the right economic conditions. Either way, build-to-rent looks to become a player in the rental market. Build-to-rent is in direct contrast to our national preoccupation with build-to-sell, which has fuelled the property market over the past decade, with particular help from specific tax incentives. Build-to-rent takes a longer-term view on housing, with institutional investors such as industry super funds or private equity stumping up the dollars and ultimately owning and operating the asset. It’s not such a bad idea – if you own the building you’re probably going to be more interested in the longevity of both the product and the community, which has the potential to deliver better buildings and to enable more active, engaged and happy residents.

This model is also perhaps evidence that as a society we are changing, that a significant number of us, given the right building, location and management structure, would be happy to rent. WeLive comes to you from the owners of coworking company WeWork and is based on a similar plan – provide high-quality housing with all of the “add-ons” that cohousing relies on to build a community, along with a heavy overlay of management. On a recent visit to the New York WeLive, I was seduced by the quirky apartments, the generous communal spaces and the opportunity to meet and connect with people in a city not renowned for its friendliness.

While we are only scratching the surface of cohousing in this country, and indeed it will take time for it to make any real dent in the housing market, it is an interesting model that has the scope to influence the way we live and to provide an alternative living environment. Our current housing choices are much like the Australia of the 50s – it makes us long for a great espresso. Thankfully, we are maturing and as a result getting more options. In my mind diversity is key – the more the better. Perhaps one day our housing choices might match our multiculturalism.