Shared living — the idea of building a community and sharing resources with other residents, comes in many forms. It ranges from dorm life, living with roommates in a large house or multi-bedroom apartment, to larger scale coliving startups. In more suburban and rural regions, shared living expands to ecovillages and clusters of private units on a large parcel of land.
We’ve also assigned specific meanings to differentiate certain aspects of shared living. There is a distinction between coliving and cohousing, the former being an intentional community with a strong set of shared values and identity while often transient in nature, the latter a more permanent housing arrangement for families often with an intentionally designed site that fosters a balance between privacy and sharing of resources.
Advocates of shared living often focus on community and makeup of the people. While I agree that nothing is more important than the people, I would argue that design plays a larger role in fostering a successful community than many of us recognize.
Specific elements of spatial layouts serve to enable a thriving community. In this article, I want to bring our attention to the design of the buildings themselves, and to highlight a few of the design principles critical in creating a successful shared living space in the long run.
When it comes to shared living, we easily recognize the need for a common space. They are used for coworking, events, and often equipped with attractive amenities and comfortable furnishing. However, most housing developments or coliving startups give little thought to the location of that space, an element that is critical in creating appropriate circulation of people for social engagement. To build a functional common space, I believe one has to start with the site plan or floor plan.
In UX design, we think about the user journey from one page to the next; in architecture, we consider the flow of people from one room to another. For example, when a resident walks into the building from the street, they are more likely to engage in activities with others if they pass by a common space on their way home. In many apartment complexes, either due to constraint of space or negligence on the part of the developers, common spaces are often out of the way and often require a conscious effort to find. As a result, those common areas become empty zones where few spontaneous interactions occur.
If the common space is a core “feature” we would like for residents to use on a regular basis, hiding it is equivalent to hiding the best selling products on an ecommerce website. In contrast, when the common area is positioned as a part of residents' natural path of entry, design forces people to take notice and engage in shared conversations and activities.
To highlight the importance of location and visibility of the common space, the dormitory at the City University of Hong Kong sets a good example. The building is shaped like a “donut” with the public area in the middle; students are able to see this public area from their room. It is conducive to interactions amongst students because when students see others hanging out in the space, they would readily join in.
The rule to place common areas on the residents’ path of travel applies to both dense urban settings as well as more suburban and rural areas. Trudeslund Cohousing in the suburbia of Denmark, for example, placed the common house in between the parking lot and the residential units, making it convenient for residents to run into and participate in activities and conversations with neighbors. In denser urban settings where space is a constraint, we see common space in the form of a central atrium. Located in the Gangnam district in Seoul, Treehouse Coliving Apartments has a central interior garden, with collaborative work areas, relaxing lounge spots, and communal kitchen; an inviting space that brings a sense of togetherness amongst the residents.
According to the survey conducted by One Shared House 2030, the primary concern for shared living is the potential lack of privacy. While it is often helpful to share resources, we often don't prefer to share certain spaces in a long term living arrangement.
We all enjoy a social life when we want to, but very often we'd like the option to be alone, perhaps with only our loved ones. Privacy is what differentiate dorm life and shared living as a lifestyle, one out of necessity and the other by choice. Effective shared living is about having your own minimum viable private unit  while having access to a trusted community at the same time.
I believe a minimum viable private unit means having a mini kitchen to cook when we don't want to use the communal kitchen, a cozy and comfortable living space that is more than a bed, private bathroom, and ample storage space for our possessions. Unsurprisingly, the residential units in every cohousing complex where residents took part in the design process, despite small to give space for the common area, fulfill this minimum arrangement. On the contrary, this type of private unit is missing from the vast majority of coliving startups.
As we look at the definition of coliving and housing, the main difference lies in the short term vs long term mentality. When we live somewhere short term as seen in many coliving houses and apartments, we compromise privacy to meet and network with other entrepreneurs, digital nomads, peers working towards similar goals. Eventually, we desire for more privacy and have no choice but to move. Perhaps the reason that many modern housing startups had failed is the transient nature and failure to recognize the importance of the many aspects of design that guides our behavior. Cohousing, on the other hand, is long-term oriented. Each unit is often equipped with the private space that we need; they are designed to grow with us for generations to come.
“The beauty of cohousing is that you have a private life and a community life, but only as much of each as you want.” — cohousing resident
When it comes to building for the long term horizon, it is important to take sustainability into consideration. There are specific design decisions when it comes to building for sustainability. For example, solar orientation should be considered with respect to location and natural heating of pathways to optimize for energy efficiency.
Clustered housing requires less building materials than standalone construction as seen in single family houses. WindSong Cohousing in British Columbia, Canada, for example, placed all 34 units on one corner of the property to preserve energy and construction materials. Its internal glass covered pedestrian street provides passive solar heating. In addition, the cohousing group also promotes a culture of recycling and reuse of equipment through the sharing of resources.
Sustainably designed buildings promote longevity in shared living. In the WindSong example, the community collaborated on various methods to decrease energy use, saving money in the long run. In turn, the common goal of sustainable living had encouraged the neighbors to work together.
In addition to optimizing for renewable energy, community gardens in shared living also serve to promote sustainable farming while nurturing the community. Many rural and suburban cohousing neighborhoods have a farm or garden onsite; Capitol Hill Urban Cohousing in Seattle has a rooftop farm where residents grow all kinds of produce. The activity of gardening in a shared space over time can help promote social capital and build trust amongst residents, promoting cross-cultural learning and appreciation.
“There will be periods of your life where you contribute more, and periods of life where you contribute less. We trust that everyone is giving what they can.” - Resident from Capitol Hill Urban Cohousing
When residents see others adopt sustainable practices and habits, they are more likely to do so. Studies show that cohousing can be expected to be more environmentally sustainable because of the preference for sustainable everyday routines among residents. The eco-friendly physical setting cultivates the social context in which pro-environmental attitudes are fostered and perpetuated.
There is a certain sense of fulfilment when we’re living lighter on the planet. By approaching the build of the place with care and sustainable ideals, the community is less prone to tragedy of commons when they know they are working together to preserve their building and living space for the long run.
Of course, there is a lot that goes into building a successful community in addition to merely getting the buildings right; one has to build trust through active curation and participation of community members. However, the trust is sustained over time through a sense of place as the physical space itself anchors and furthers that initial bond. There is something to be said about combining the intentionality of the people as well as the design of the space. If the who is essential for the formation of relationships, the where ensures the long term health of the community.
I imagine a future of shared living where we enjoy a private life with loved ones, and an access to a larger community via common house and interior streets. It is the kind of life ingrained in the history of humanity, where we will be raising kids in a "village" along with 100 parents.
This article is written by me, Coco, a designtrepreneur that loves innovations in architecture and the built world. If you see anything you disagree with or have additional thoughts on this topic, would love to hear from you! Reach me @cocobliu