Nearly 100 years after our modern idea of home was invented, we started a company that aims to create something better. Because seemingly exotic lifestyle choices available to a few should be accessible to many. It should be easy for you to live a life that’s more communal. Global. And interesting. While we’ll address reliable housing for nomads first, the bigger story is outlined below.
In September 1923 Georg Muche, a then 28 year old member of the Bauhaus movement, gathered his colleagues in Weimar to answer a simple question:
What would housing look like if we started from a blank slate?
They envisioned something truly revolutionary: people, who up until then were either cramped in urban tenements or rural farmers, would get their own house on the outskirts of cities (as usual, the prototype was pretty bad).
In the spirit of Bauhaus craftsmanship, the various practitioners also installed a slew of innovations. Among them: light switches for the whole room that would be right next to a new kind of door-handle, instead of each light. The kitchen was transformed from a sidelined place of chore to a functional center of the home. And everything had a new aesthetic: gone was the notion that buildings created with new technologies had to hide behind superfluous ornaments.
Picked up by contemporaries like Frank Lloyd Wright or Mies van der Rohe, those ideas quickly spread around the globe and became the ideal of the 20th century. The post-war generation settled into their suburban homes, aspired to a corner office, bought stuff at the shopping mall and drove between those elements on vast highways.
The problem: 100 years later, most of these ideas are as outdated as those they replaced.
New forms of work and co-working spaces are taking over the office part of the equation, commerce moves to the internet and highways are atrocities we hope to overcome with better forms of shared transportation.
But nobody questioned the notion of home as radically as the Bauhaus team did in the early 1920s.
It’s time to do it again. And this time it’s driven by our quest for belonging, location independence and technology.
Die Alone, or Live Long and Prosper Communally
Next time you walk along any random urban apartment block, try the following exercise: what’s the percentage, or number of people, just in this building, who spend most of their lives alone? Uniquely, completely, imperially alone, as David Foster Wallace puts it? How many, just in this city?
And how did we get here?
Up until the late 1800s, home for most people meant zero privacy, down to shared outhouses. Even if you were well off, the caretaker of your building came into your room at 4am to put coals on your fireplace, so it’d be warm by the time you woke up.
The first half of the 20th century was a vast laboratory for new forms of living, from Viennese Public Housing to the corporate utopianism on display at the 1939 world fair in New York.
But no clear winner emerged until the late forties, when the suburban box won in a landslide, with its promise of peace, total privacy and a canvas to express yourself however you want. Looking back at what preceded it, there’s little question why the idea utterly dominated the rest of the 20th century. Strong political support for it didn’t hurt either.
But, like with many breakthroughs, we completely overdid it. A lot could be written about consumerism-disguised-as-individuality-that-made-us-define-ourselves-by-decorating-our-little-boxes etc etc...
Instead let’s revisit our simple experiment: look at the same apartment building again.
This time think about the number of crappy kitchenettes that are in there. What if we took the budget for those and built an amazing communal kitchen? With all the latest gadgets? And of course you can still make tea or cook simple dishes in your apartment, naked at 4 am, if you prefer to do so.
If done right, the kitchen is only one example of a superior communal experience. Better than the current approach of cramping a fifty unit building with the same stuff fifty times over. The money for fifty toolboxes gives you a 3D printing workshop dream come true. Fifty cheap audio gadgets get you a small music studio. What about an in-house yoga studio or movie theater?
Again, this isn’t just a question of convenience. It’s an existential one. Because the only proven correlating factor leading to a longer life isn’t butter vs olive oil. It’s how social we organize our lives.
Of course humans need their own places to fall in love or cry or do their best work or pick their noses. Just like the past, the future needs a clear distinction between public and private. But it will run along completely different lines.
Home Isn’t Where Your Mortgage Is
Life will also become more transient, no doubt about it. It’s been like this for the adventurous young, or rich people and some specialist professions, for a long time. But now, as video calls, group chats and asynchronous communication become part of our daily shared culture, it’s suddenly an option for a much broader public.
The question has shifted. It’s no longer how to move to L.A., Berlin, or Bali every couple of years. It’s now: how to organize life in all those locations within the same year. The weird freelancer, who used to take 3 exotic vacations a year, is suddenly gone for months at a time but still shows up every day in the company Slack channel.
Adapting our mindset to this new reality is a challenge. Just look at our language: moving is a much more stressful concept than taking a vacation. What happens to my possessions? What happens to me when I can’t define myself through them?
What if you have neither the money nor the time to spend a whole day or two a month just on logistics? Clever new extended stay concepts make it easier for people to spend a couple of weeks abroad. And your first place after college will also improve.
But we want to enable a truly location-independent lifestyle and remove the need to choose a single spot in the first place. And in return give a completely new sense of home and belonging. To truly live anywhere you want and always feel at home.
This will be our biggest challenge, but we’ve got some pretty good ideas of how to achieve this.
One of them is sharing more interesting lives with others. Want to learn how to ride a motorcycle around a volcano and go spearfishing? Spend some time in our Bali location. Learn surfing while visiting your London clients every week? Lisbon might be good. Find a ton of new customers and people to dance Tango with? Medellin and Colombia in general are growing like crazy.
The physical locations are a vibrant backdrop. It’s the people your’re with that become your home.
The Dos Equis guy might be unique today, but his fictional lifestyle should be accessible to everyone. For real.
A New Era of Craftsmanship
The need to find a home in a transient world also leads back to Georg Muche’s original question: how can we rethink living with the new technologies at our disposal?
Imagine a world in which orchestrating a move from one city to the next is not much more effort than a swipe on your phone. And everything from your reading light settings to WiFi speeds and even bank accounts or health insurance follow you around.
And what if our homes, like MySpace or GeoCities, stop existing as places whose primary purpose is to express ourselves with random stuff, but become places that are incredibly well thought through? Because to be honest, most apartments are crap thrown together by developers whose primary skill is optimizing for the bottom line of a single building. On top of that we start adding a mostly incompatible array of smart home equipment.
And this doesn’t have to come at the price of losing individuality: a grocery chain in the Alps is asking young architects to build each of their stores individually, and they go on to not only win international prizes, but stay within budget and become cornerstones of their communities.
Before the iPhone, it was about the type of phone we had. Now that’s secondary. It’s the apps we use. And once all our homes are great per default, it becomes easy to define ourselves not through them or our IKEA shopping, but the lives we live in them.
This is not only a chance to make a huge difference for individuals. People spend three times as much on housing than on transportation. That includes everything from public transport to cars, plane tickets to ride-sharing. Coming up with a better solution for what used to be a very fragmented industry is one of the most interesting economic and social opportunities of the 21st century.
Let’s build this future together.
Bruno is the co-founder of Roam Co-Living, a global housing company launched in winter of 2015/16. They are backed by a group of great angel investors, looking for buildings that can be converted, and currently hiring.