Everyone now feels as if it could have been devised during the pandemic as the world jointly considered new ways of coexisting. And although the authors – architecture and design journalist Amy Frearson with interior designer Naomi Cleaver – completed most of the book during Britain’s first national lockdown in 2020, it had sprouted for several months.
We asked Frearson to share her feelings about the new sharing economy, how the workplace is evolving, and which generations are leading the co-living revolution.
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 the unfolding of the revolution? How did you experience the changes around you?
Amy Frearson: At the time, I was just getting to know what co-living and co-working really meant. I was particularly struck by the research conducted by the Copenhagen design laboratory Space10, regarding what people find acceptable to share, from personal space to power tools. It was so insightful because we have all re-evaluated what we are willing to share. It feels strange to give up our privacy, but in reality so many people lived alone – I wondered, if given a chance, would they swap their studio apartment for a smaller home and a shared work area? For me, it is the next barrier to overcome.
How open are you to sharing housing?
OF: I am very open to the idea of more collaboration. 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 are experiencing such a change of mindset between the generations. If you are a young person today and you have not yet invested in things, the idea of being a little more mobile is appealing. As you get older, you become entrenched in your life, so you reach a point where you reduce and enjoy a social environment. I hope these subtle shifts along with the new sharing economy apps will mean that people will gradually want fewer things.
I got the feeling that Britain was lagging behind Europe in terms of cohabitation. Is there something we are doing wrong?
OF: You can not just plan a co-living building in the UK. Co-living does not fall into an existing planning use class, so you have to work your way through planning loopholes. It can be said that a building is partly a hotel and partly a living area. Smaller existing properties have been succeeded through permitted development. We are very much at a starting point for where things could go if the planning system allowed it.
I was fascinated by your case study of the Student Hotel in Florence. The founder circumvented the local planning laws by reinventing the hotel typology of studio apartments and offering smaller rooms and common rooms. The idea that thinking out of the box yourself in terms of zoning can save a project is new.
AF: I think it’s a key point that specific design details make these rooms work well and that the rooms are flexible – not just a meeting place or a study room. Visibility and acoustics become super critical when dealing with shared spaces. You want visibility, panes, between spaces so you can see other people and feel part of something bigger, but also have acoustic protection so activities can happen concurrently.
The Japanese, you say, have three words for ‘space’: wa [social harmony], ba [specific function] and must [in-between spaces]. Do you think that’s why Japanese design nuanced spaces so well?
OF: I know that when they make spaces that belong to different people, the basic space structure changes. In the case study you are talking about, for a co-living space in Paris, the Japanese-inspired furniture is not super high-end, but they are flexible. It inspires rethinking of how furniture can be used differently. And it can inspire new thinking about how spaces can be configured differently. In London, we have ‘flat share’ or ‘house share’: groups living in homes designed for families. But what if these homes were not designed for families? This particular project removes it.
Let’s talk about office space. As recently as five years ago, companies boasted multimedia rooms, ‘breakout spaces’ and in-house cafés. Those ideas now sound strange. What has changed?
OF: I’m talking about it in connection with Chapter, the student residence in King’s Cross, London. This was one of the first examples of architects gaining control of new student life – hotel-like spaces with designated uses. The architects Tigg + Coll realized that attracting students and outsiders with spaces such as cinemas or auditoriums meant that these spaces stood empty most of the time. Seats were too prescriptive in their function – they would be vacant when not used for their intended purpose. So they built multifunctionality with subtle design tricks to make people feel like they own the space. This also applies to jobs.
You started researching this book around the time the coworking company WeWork imploded. And then came Covid-19. What are your thoughts on the future of shared workspace?
OF: The story I hear is the idea of the office as a meeting place, a hub for collaboration and socializing. Many companies opposed teleworking until Covid somehow forced their hand. I think a new trend for them is local work areas. People need a place to be with other people they work and collaborate with. I see companies testing this idea of workspace satellites – local work communities in small residential areas where people can enjoy the benefits of being together while working remotely.
In the book, you tell about the department store’s office and coworking space in an old department store in London. Do you anticipate that companies will reuse disused commercial space and vice versa?
OF: I like to hope that we will be affected by sustainability. There has been a slow, quiet movement towards building new office space. It is not a workable solution. People are starting to appreciate the value of conversions.
You are also referring to what you call a ‘coworking retreat’ called Mokrin House in northern Serbia. Do you envisage a major de-urbanization of homeworkers in the future?
A: Optimistic, yes. I hope so. What’s so great about that project is the value it adds to an area that is having a hard time financially. It’s not just about getting outsiders to spend money in the city. It is an opportunity to benefit people in the area. I like to think that model could work in many places. They can be marketed as a ‘workcation’ or ‘work retreat’. You can go a few months to work on a project because that’s increasingly what people do.
‘All Together Now: The Co-living and Co-working Revolution’ by Amy Frearson and Naomi Cleaver is out now, published via Routledge