The History of Coliving

A collection of research findings, by no means complete.

Today’s modern coliving movement is the latest iteration of a recurring human trend. The act of communally sharing space and resources while benefiting from a supportive community is something we’ve seen time and time again throughout history.

Yet each time a coliving or cohousing community arises, it’s often for a completely different reason than the last. This is because societal, economic, spiritual, and technological shifts significantly impact our lifestyle choices and force us to constantly redefine our idea of “home”.

I have been interested in the future of living space for many years, given my personal experience that taught me how much the environment we live in matters to how much we are able to live and not survive.

In January this year, I started looking into contemporary coliving communities with my fellow co-founders from our project Domus -, driven by the sharing economy, a manifestation of a renewed cultural movement towards resource-sharing. Criticism of the sharing economy often involves regulatory uncertainty, lack of government oversight, and bias in algorithms (gender, race).

Long ago, humans were hunter-gatherers that lived in large, mobile camps together. These nomadic people relied on one another for everything from food to protection to child care assistance. It is a romantic idea but actually when we look closer, especially fueled by the pandemic — it just makes so much sense.

The agricultural revolution around 10,000 BC made it possible for humans to stay in one place and build long-term settlements. So why did we humans choose to live in communities?

Psychology says that part of human nature’s default mode is to be social. One theory: people have an innate (and very powerful) need to belong. Research dating back to the 1970s suggests people with weaker social networks actually die younger (due to any cause) than people who have more extensive social networks. A more recent review of 148 studies concluded that on average having stronger social ties increased the likelihood of an individual’s overall survival by as much as 50 percent.

Communal living can be traced back to the earliest days of human cohabitation, historians Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels argued that hunter-gatherer societies were traditionally based on egalitarian social relations and common ownership. The act of the tribe sharing resources equally — is something that predates even the written word.

[Image domusliving.co]

Historian John Gillis claims that medieval homes consisted of a mix of friends and extended family and that single-family households were uncommon in most of the world. It wasn’t until the 12th century that households became organized around monogamous couples and their children in Western Europe. However, they were far from the nuclear family, with various townspeople, poor married couples, other children, orphans, widows, elderly people, and tenants often living alongside them in communal housing.

It wasn’t until the 1800s that divisions were drawn between who would live with whom, and towards the end of the 19th century the so-called “godly family” started to take shape, that of single families living in individual homes. Industrialization made extended communities less necessary and communal living was mostly lost.

In 1750, before the Industrial Revolution in Britain, only about 15% of the population lived in towns or cities. By 1900, it was 85%. This meant that thousands upon thousands of people suddenly needed food and shelter in cities, which led to an outbreak of poverty.

Ghettos were constructed for poor people who couldn’t afford to pay for their own housing, but the conditions were often deplorable. Meanwhile, the wealthy built private homes for themselves. This was a massive shift in how society defined what was socially appropriate in terms of housing.

It gradually became the norm to live with family or people in the same class. Because we no longer needed to rely on communal living to prosper, we placed a higher value on privacy and individual success over group needs. The industrial revolution completely transfigured the idea of women and men working in similar roles in an agricultural commune. With women in the lower class, childbearing and raising, full-day labor, running the household — suffering deeply.

Today people are placing a value on figuring out who they are and what they want in life as opposed to having to instinctively accept the expectations and situations of the previous generation.

There have been numerous attempts for co-living and a new society over the course of history, especially since Sweden experimented with many different models from the early 1900.

Historic examples of co-living:

Plato: about 2,400 years ago, the Greek philosopher described an ideal community where everything was organized collectively.

Thomas More’s “Utopia: published in 1506. In his ideal, a community of people live in neighborhood groups with common dining rooms and various shared leisure facilities

Robert Owen’s “Parallelogram”: Robert Owen was a social reformer and wealthy industrialist who made his fortune from textile mills in New Lanark, Scotland. He had an idea that would combine the best of the agricultural and industrial society. Each community would be limited to 2000 inhabitants, who would collectively own the means of production. Men and women would have equal rights. The Parallelogram would have generous dining halls, schools and kindergartens, libraries, and sports grounds, while the individual dwellings would be modest. And he tried to make it happen.

New Harmony, Indiana, US: Owen, his twenty-two-year-old son, William, and his Scottish friend Donald McDonald sailed to the United States in 1824 to purchase a site to implement Owen’s vision for “a New Moral World” of happiness, enlightenment, and prosperity through education, science, technology, and communal living. Owen believed his utopian community would create a “superior social, intellectual and physical environment” based on his ideals of social reform.

Owen bought the town Harmony, in 1825, in order to prove his theories were viable and to correct the troubles that were affecting his mill-town community New Lanark. He renamed the town New Harmony and invited “any and all” to join him there. It became known as a center for advances in education and scientific research. Town residents established the first free library, a civic drama club, and a public school system open to men and women. but it disintegrated after a few years.

Charles Fourier’s Phalanstère (or Falanstere): a type of building (very much looking like the Royal Palace of Versailles, the most famous piece of architecture at that time), designed for a self-contained utopian community, ideally consisting of 500–2000 people working together for mutual benefit, and developed in the early 19th century. In France Fourier’s followers were forbidden to realize his ideas.

Familistere (the industrial Google Campus): The iron stove manufacturer Jean André Baptiste Godin, as a leading industrialist and member of the Senate, finally was granted permission to build what he called the Familistere, where everyone would live as in a huge family; in northern France 1858. He built a factory and large multi-family dwellings, interconnected under a huge glass roof. However soon individual family kitchens were built because women were not allowed to work in the factory and were said to have nothing to do and the Familistere gradually lost its collective character. However, the factory continued to operate successfully even after Godin’s death and the whole complex is today part of the national building heritage.

Smaragden: built-in 1938 in Sweden for unmarried women.

Marieberg cohousing unit: built-in 1944 by contractor Olle Engkvist, who spearheaded the development of collective housing in Sweden from the 1940s. He introduced a system of 24 meal tickets per adult each month, to be paid as part of the rent. This would keep meal prices low and secure that only people interested in collective services would move in. Tenants could either take their meals in the dining hall or carry the food in a basket to their flat. The English philosophy included uniformed staff, which secured an order in the house, besides serving the tenants. Some of the employees lived in the unit themselves.

The Marieberg unit was designed by architect Sven Ivar Lind, who, despite the corridor, solution created much appreciated communal and private living spaces. Besides a pre-school nursery, there was an afternoon kindergarten for school children. There is ample evidence that the children’s environment was both stimulating and secure. When larger families left the building, more and more single mothers moved in, thus maintaining the unit as “a paradise for children”. This process also meant that the upper-class character of collective housing was weakened.

The Hässelby “family hotel”: built in the mid-1950s and was Olle Engkvist’s last and biggest cohousing project. There were 328 apartments, a restaurant kitchen, a large dining hall on several levels, a smaller dining room, a room for parties, a club-room with its own cafeteria, a staffed reception, a shop that was open in the evenings (which was rare in the 1950s), a kindergarten, a laundry, a sauna, a prayer-room and a gymnastic hall shared with the adjacent school. The dining hall was run like a restaurant, with a manager who decided the menu. The staff wore uniforms and the guests dressed smartly. If they paid a little extra, they could have a specially-laid table with special dishes for guests. In other words, the family hotel was for privileged families.

The Hässelby family hotel was not designed so that those who lived there should cook meals or do anything else together. As the name “family hotel” implies, the objective was to support families where the mother was working outside the home.

In the late 1960s, a new attitude could be seen, reflecting radical developments in the rest of society. The family hotel attracted tenants who were inspired by movements among students, international solidarity, and feminist movements. People began to dress less formally in the dining hall. The radical women’s “Group 8” had its meetings there. The tenants began to question the landlord’s numerous rules.

Kibbutz: is a collective community in Israel that was traditionally based on agriculture. The first kibbutz, established in 1909, was Degania. It began as utopian communities, a combination of socialism and Zionism. In recent decades, some kibbutzim have been privatized and changes have been made in the communal lifestyle. In 2010, there were 270 kibbutzim in Israel.

Siheyuan: is a historical type of residence that was commonly found throughout China, most famously in Beijing and rural Shanxi. Throughout Chinese history, the siheyuan composition was the basic pattern used for residences, palaces, temples, monasteries, family businesses, and government offices. In ancient times, a spacious siheyuan would have an inner courtyard and be occupied by a single, usually large, and extended family, signifying wealth and prosperity. Today, remaining siheyuan are often still used as subdivided housing complexes, although many lack modern amenities.

The central kitchen idea: In the first decades of the 20th century several so-called Central Kitchen Buildings were put up in the European capitals. A group of families could share the task of preparing food by organizing a central kitchen from which they could order meals for the family apartments. Examples are the Fick’s Collective in Copenhagen 1903 and the Hemgården Central Kitchen in Stockholm 1905–07.

BIG: In the late 1970s the group BIG, Bo I Gemenskap, presented similar ideas, with financial support from the Swedish Building Research Council. In its final report, BIG presented the idea of a “Working together model” which inspired a number of new cohousing projects.

Hacker houses: With the advent of the Internet, the flexibility to work wherever you had a computer and a connection was intriguing. There was no longer a need to go sit in an office all day. Original hacker homes, which began popping up in and around San Francisco in the 2000s, housed teams of computer engineers living and working together to build tech startups. Being in close quarters all the time bred business productivity and creativity in a whole new way.

Chicago’s “Eleanor Clubs”: was designed to give young, working women affordable and congenial places to live. The club system also included various other services. The Central Eleanor Club downtown provided space to rest, make a cup of tea, or read the paper after work before going out to enjoy Chicago’s nightlife. It offered lessons including gymnastics, English, and millinery. By 1920, it had 2,400 members. Robinson also created Eleanor banking facilities, an Eleanor Camp where young women could spend summer holidays, and the Eleanor Record, a magazine by and for club members. Source: https://daily.jstor.org/co-living-the-hot-new-trend-of-1898/

Today

Contemporary coliving takes the form of businesses offering community-hosted living spaces to people who are determined to learn and grow from each other. Residents live, work, socialize, network, eat, play and create together in units that have both private and shared rooms, communal spaces, and sometimes even coworking spaces.

Coliving operators often have several locations within the same city and many have spaces scattered around the world. Many also offer unique business networking opportunities that are designed to give members exclusive access to founders and investors that they can potentially learn from and partner with.

Similar to the Danish cohousing communities, modern coliving communities with intention have spurred out of both a need and a desire. But, they differ in that they are run by businesses that provide a plethora of perks and amenities, as well as social and business networking opportunities, to incite both personal and professional prosperity for their members.

Opportunity

The modern coliving movement is the first time we’ve seen cohousing operate with the underlying impetus to give people a convenient and flexible space to learn, share and grow to better their future.

Coliving spaces are seen not as permanent cohousing communities, but rather as temporary (avg. 6 months to 2 years) dwellings for people to enhance their life skills while motivating and being motivated by a network of inspiring people. Coliving spaces for startups, artists, freelancers, remote workers, entrepreneurs, young professionals, and students are just some of the examples of niche coliving trends that exist today.

These subsets of coliving spaces allow for more structured networking opportunities between people that share professional and personal interests.

As the sharing economy continues to grow, coliving communities with intention are on track to skyrocket to new heights in the next few decades. The coliving movement is on fire and showing no signs of slowing down with many coliving companies having their eye on global expansion.

Our generation of creatives is moving so much, we do not have the resources to build a new “home” and would like to step right into a community. It takes at least 3 years to get to know a city you live in and if it is a city of the scale and pace of London, then after 6–10 years you do start to get to know where to find what and when.

New ideas need exchange — and a big city is still the ideal platform for creative encounters. The very density that became troublesome during a pandemic also holds the key to solutions going forward. And as the months of lockdown have shown, we can’t deal with isolation. We crave connection to others. But we grew to embrace remote work and our private space, showing up in the world on our own terms.

Examples: Common, The Collective, Quarters

Key Takeaways:

  • Long ago, humans were hunter-gatherers that lived in large, mobile camps together. These nomadic people relied on one another for everything from food to protection to child care assistance.
  • Psychology says that part of human nature’s default mode is to be social. One theory: people have an innate (and very powerful) need to belong.
  • On average having stronger social ties increased the likelihood of an individual’s overall survival by as much as 50 percent
  • The acts of the tribe sharing resources equally — is something that predates even the written word.
  • It wasn’t until the 12th century that households became organized around monogamous couples and their children
  • In the 1800s that divisions were drawn between who would live with whom, and towards the end of the 19th century the so-called “godly family” started to take shape, that of single families living in individual homes.
  • In 1750, before the Industrial Revolution in Britain, only about 15% of the population lived in towns or cities. By 1900, it was 85%. This meant that thousands upon thousands of people suddenly needed food and shelter in cities, which led to an outbreak of poverty.
  • Models of co-living have been explored through philosophical means by the upper class since Plato.
  • Various models have been tested but never endured time. Due to several factors.
  • The modern coliving movement is the first time we’ve seen cohousing operate with the underlying impetus to give people a convenient and flexible space to learn, share and grow to better their future.

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Alexandra Plesner

Austrian creative strategist primary based in London, working worldwide.