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The Future (Design) of Communal Living

by Irene Pereyra

The thing that worried me most about attempting to be part of this communal living revival — now aptly rebranded to co-living — was the potential for what I imagined to be a cruise-ship mentality to fun. Was I going to be forced to join in on communal activities? Ugh, I certainly hope not.

With suitcase in hand I opened the door to the place I was going to be calling home for the next month. My new address in Tokyo was in the very trendy, and expensive neighborhood of Roppongi, which would have been unaffordable if I were to live there by myself.

The community’s concierge — a girl in her early twenties with colored contacts — guided me through the beautifully decorated lobby to the third floor where my all-white private room came with all the basic necessities (bed, desk, bathroom), and a balcony to boot. As a community we were to share a large communal kitchen, a lounge area, a gym, co-working spaces, meeting rooms, internet, and at times incredibly interesting and at other times painfully awkward conversations and interactions with all kinds of people from all over the world.

I felt a bit like a spy, or one of those awful secret food critics. My stay here was part of a greater research and design project on communal living that started two years ago with an interactive documentary on my childhood in a communal house, and most recently concluded with a follow-up project where we teamed up with SPACE10 — Ikea’s future living lab — to imagine what co-living might look like in the year 2030.

In the 2030 project we asked people about their living preferences in the form of a collaborative survey, and the insights garnered by the respondents of over 147 countries were eye-opening. Here’s what stood out to me most:

  1. What people actually want from communal living — or rather, what would make them consider living communally — is not currently available on the market
  2. The importance of the size of the community is not something that is seriously being considered
  3. Most people think designers should design and create the community

What People Want vs. What is Available

Of the 2000+ known co-living facilities today, the vast majority of them are privately owned and collect rent — or provide membership — to its residents. This is in stark contrast to our data, which indicates that the majority of people would actually prefer a model where the residents would share equal ownership of the community.

Once in the community, residents prefer to have control over who joins, as opposed to having new people assigned by management, which is mostly the case today. They would also prefer to furnish their private space themselves. However, with the majority of co-living communities targeting a more transient lifestyle—the average stay in a co-living facility is between 3–9 months — unfurnished private spaces are hard to come by and you just have to put up with whatever furniture happens to come with the place for however long (or short) you’re planning to stay.

Lastly, almost everyone would prefer to pay by the amount of energy used per person, which unfortunately, is pretty much impossible until smart homes and energy trackers become more commercially available. Right now everyone pays an equal share.

Size Is More Important Than You Think

When we asked about the size of the community, the majority preferred the smallest group possible (4–10 people). While it is true that at this size it would be easy to get to know the other members of the group, and it would be easy to function well together in an intuitive fashion, it is not large enough to create a sense of privacy, which the respondents also wanted.

If the community is too small there’s often not enough critical mass to sustain it, and relationships can become a little too close for comfort. On the other hand, if it’s too large the community can be too cliquey, or too impersonal. In societies community sizes of 50, 150 and 500 are disproportionately more common and also have greater longevity. That might be because it mirrors the sizes of hunter-gatherer societies as well as contemporary personal networks. So while we might intuitively want a smaller community, slightly larger communities in increments of 50, 150 and 500 are actually healthier.

Design in Charge

Something that really surprised me, was that the majority of respondents think designers should be in charge of creating the community — as opposed to say, real estate, architects, business, community organizers, or government.

So why designers? Since our data is quantitative and not qualitative — which means we know the what but not the why — we don’t know why people feel designers would be best suited for the job. However, I can explain why I completely agree with this consensus as a designer myself. First and foremost, designers iterate. That means they look at how something currently works, and try to find ways to make it better. Secondly, designers make sure things are intuitive. This comes in particularly handy if you are for example designing a communal kitchen, and you want to make sure you pick the appliances everyone immediately knows how to use. Lastly, designers make things beautiful. And if you’re going to be living in someone else’s design, they better have good taste.

A More Sustainable Future

All this talk of communal living might sound very radical, or improbable, but there are a couple of trends that indicate it would actually be a way to make life more sustainable in the near future.

It is predicted that by 2030, 70% of the world’s population will be living in cities, up from 54% today. At the same time the General Social Survey found that the number of Americans with no close friends has tripled since 1985 — basically since the dawn of the Internet. And finally, half of millennials make less money than their parents did at their age which means they are priced out of desirable locations and can no longer afford to live alone.

Maybe these atomized apartments we all live in today are just reflective of a moment in history that is coming to an end. Maybe the way we live is the next construct that needs a serious rethink. Either way, we need to come up with some creative alternatives in order to combat rapid urbanization, rising loneliness and impossibly high living costs within our lifetime.

And though I enjoyed my one-month stay in the community in Tokyo, it wasn’t entirely a perfect fit. Unfortunately what I would want in order to consider living communally again as an adult, does not quite exist yet. One thing’s for sure, if co-living does become the new normal, I would want to have a say in what that might look like. And since I am a designer, I am happy that the majority of our respondents agree.



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Anton & Irene

Anton & Irene

Anton Repponen and Irene Pereyra are friends, collaborators, designers, perfectionists and travel junkies