Examining the co-living and co-working revolution: Amy Frearson on the sea change, post-pandemic

What’s next for the shared living economy

All Together Now feels like it could have been conceived during the pandemic when the world collectively contemplated new ways of co-existing. And although the authors – architecture and design journalist Amy Frearson with interior designer Naomi Cleaver – completed most of the book during the UK’s first national lockdown in 2020, it had been germinating for months.

We asked Frearson to share her feelings about the new sharing economy, how workspace is evolving and which generations are leading the co-living revolution.

Owner-occupied residence divided into two units Generation House, Amsterdam, the Netherlands, by BETA. Photography courtesy of Amy Frearson / RIBA

The book is subtitled ‘The co-living and co-working revolution’. While you were at work writing in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, how did you, personally, anticipate that revolution unfolding? How did you experience the changes around you?

Amy Frearson: Back then, I was just getting to grips with what co-living and co-working really meant. I was particularly struck by the research carried out by the Copenhagen design lab Space10, regarding what people find acceptable to share, from personal space to power tools. It was so insightful because we’ve all reassessed what we’re willing to share. It feels alien to give up our privacy but in reality, so many people were living alone – I wondered, if given a chance, would they swap their one-bedroom flat for a smaller home and a shared workspace? For me, that’s the next barrier to overcome.

Private oce and co-working in converted department store The Department Store, London, UK, by Squire & Partners. Photography courtesy of Amy Frearson / RIBA

How open are you to sharing living space?

AF: I’m very much open to the idea of more collaborative living. The case study in the book people related to most was New Ground, the Older Women’s Cohousing in North London [where 26 women all over the age of 50 live in private homes around shared gardens and a community centre]. We experience such a mindset shift between generations. If you’re a young person today, you haven’t yet invested in stuff, the idea of being a bit more mobile is appealing. As you get older, you become entrenched in your life, then you reach a point where you’re downsizing and benefitting from a social environment. I hope that, together with the new sharing-economy apps, these subtle shifts will mean that people will gradually have less stuff.

Purpose-built student accommodation The Project at Hoxton, London, UK, by Naomi Cleaver. Photography courtesy of Amy Frearson / RIBA

I got the feeling that, in terms of co-living, the UK lags behind Europe. Is there something we’re doing wrong?

AF: You can’t just plan a co-living building in the UK. Co-living doesn’t fall under an existing planning use class, so you have to work through planning loopholes. You can say a building is part hotel, part living space. Smaller existing properties have succeeded through permitted development. We’re very much at a starting point of where things could go if the planning system allowed them.

I was intrigued by your case study of the Student Hotel in Florence. The founder skirted local planning laws by reinventing the hotel typology for student housing, offering smaller rooms and common spaces. The idea that thinking outside the box even in terms of zoning can save a project is new.

AF: I think it’s a key point that specific design details make these spaces work well, and that the spaces are flexible – not just a meeting place or a study space. Visibility and acoustics become super-critical when you’re dealing with shared spaces. You want visibility, glazing, between spaces so you can see other people and feel a part of something bigger, but also have acoustic protection, so activities can happen concurrently.

Nursing home with student accommodation Humanitas Deventer, Deventer, the Netherlands. Photography courtesy of Amy Frearson / RIBA

The Japanese, you say, have three words for ‘space’: wa [social harmony], ba [specific function] and ma [in-between spaces]. Do you reckon this is why the Japanese design nuanced spaces so well?

AF: I know that when they’re making spaces that belong to various people, the fundamental room structure changes. In the case study you’re talking about, for a co-living space in Paris, the Japanese-inspired furniture isn’t super high end but it’s flexible. It inspires new thinking about how furniture might be used differently. And it can inspire new thinking about how spaces can be configured differently. In London, we have the ‘flat share’ or ‘house share’: groups living in homes designed for families. But what if those homes weren’t designed for families? This particular project unpicks that.

Purpose-built co-living The Collective Canary Wharf, London, UK, by The Collective. Photography courtesy of Amy Frearson / RIBA

Let’s talk about office space. As recent as five years ago, companies were boasting about multimedia rooms, ‘breakout spaces’ and in-house cafés. Those ideas sound quaint now. What’s changed?

AF: I talk about that in the context of Chapter, the student accommodation in King’s Cross, London. This was one of the first examples of architects getting to grips with new student living – hotel-like spaces with designated uses. The architects Tigg + Coll realised that attracting students and outsiders with spaces like cinemas or auditoriums meant those spaces sat vacant most of the time. Spaces were too prescriptive in their function – they would sit vacant when they weren’t being used for their purpose. So they built in multi-functionality with subtle design tricks to make people feel like they have ownership of the space. That goes for workspaces as well.

You started researching this book around the time the coworking company WeWork was imploding. And then Covid-19 came along. What are your thoughts on the future of shared workspace?

AF: The narrative I’m hearing is the idea of the office as a meeting place, a hub for collaboration and socialising. A lot of companies were resisting remote working until Covid sort of forced their hand. I think an emerging trend for them is localised workspaces. People need somewhere to be with other people they work and collaborate with. I see corporates trialling this idea of workspace satellites – local work communities in small residential areas for people to enjoy the benefits of togetherness while remote working.

Residential project Vikki’s Place, New South Wales, Australia, by Curious Practice. Photography courtesy of Amy Frearson / RIBA

In the book, you talk about the Department Store office and coworking space in an old London department store. Do you foresee companies reusing defunct commercial space, and vice versa?

AF: I like to hope we’ll be influenced by sustainability. There’s been a slow, quiet movement against building new office space. It’s not a workable solution. People are starting to appreciate the value of conversions.

You also reference what you call a ‘coworking retreat’ called Mokrin House in northern Serbia. Do you envision a great de-urbanisation of home-workers in future?

A: Optimistically, yes. I hope so. What’s so great about that project is the value it brings to an area that’s struggling economically. It’s not only bringing in outsiders to spend money in town. It’s an opportunity to benefit people in the area. I like to think that model could work in a lot of places. They can be marketed as a ‘workcation’ or ‘work retreat’. You can go for a few months to work on a project because that’s increasingly what people are doing.

‘All Together Now: The Co-living and Co-working Revolution’ by Amy Frearson and Naomi Cleaver is out now, published via Routledge

Purpose-built co-living Flatmates, Paris, France, by Wilmotte & Associés. Photography courtesy of Amy Frearson / RIBA
Purpose-built student accommodation and build-to-rent, Chapter King’s Cross, London, UK, by Tigg + Coll Architects. Photography courtesy of Amy Frearson / RIBA
Co-living in converted office block The Italian Building, London, UK, by Studio Clement. Photography courtesy of Amy Frearson / RIBA

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