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Designed to share: the case for co-living

In 2023 housing affordability in Australia dropped to its lowest level in 30 years, according to the PropTrack Housing Affordability Index.

With the situation especially challenging for first-home buyers, PropTrack found that a ‘typical’ or median-income household earning around $105,000 a year could afford to make loan repayments on just 13% of homes sold in the past year.

The crisis could have irreversible impacts on the vitality, diversity, and multiplicity of our cities – places known (and loved) as melting pots of cultures and generations.

Could co-living be one part of a multifaceted solution? It’s a model that has sparked interest in recent years, but have we really put it to the test yet?

A reimagining of the share-house in the simplest terms, co-living developments offer much-needed private space like bedrooms and bathrooms while prioritising communal areas for daily living. The rebalancing of space can reduce cost-of-living pressures, strengthen social connections and wellbeing, and foster the sense of purpose (and fun) that comes from sharing a home.

Architectus Principal and Living Sector Leader Oliver Mayger describes why co-living developments deserve a closer look now.

How can co-living help us with the housing crisis today?

By 2030, Millennials and Gen Zs will make up around 90 per cent of our workforce. Both generations are coming to terms with the idea that homeownership may no longer be sustainable or affordable.

As they shift out of student accommodation or share houses, many either aren’t ready or don’t want to move into an apartment on their own or settle down with a partner. Co-living provides a great ‘bridging’ option.

It allows them to maintain the communal benefits of student or share housing, with a living environment designed to support great social connections. At the same time, they also gain quality private space – around 30 to 35 sqm, including their own kitchen and bathroom.

Some of the additional benefits include rental security and the convenience of having the property managed and maintained for you.

The co-living model suggests that the basic human need for quality personal space and a rich social life don’t have to be mutually exclusive. For designers, the challenge with co-living is finding the right balance between shared spaces and security, and community and personal sanctuary.

What distinguishes co-living projects for developers?

For developers the traditional build-to-sell model is about maximising short-term profits. What will the market pay for this home? Where do you invest to increase profits? How do you best manage budget?

In the current climate, co-living and Build-to-Rent are appealing investment opportunities. They represent well managed, higher quality rental options in a tight housing market.

The best developments are robust and easy to update and maintain over a lifetime of 40 to 50 years. But, most importantly, they’ll focus on great spaces for sharing your daily life. Communal areas for living and dining or for typical functions in a home like laundry rooms. Or maybe even a co-working space. These are all things that keep you connected to others when you close the door on your own private space for sleeping and bathing.

There’s also potential for pools, gyms, and functional areas like workshops, maker spaces, and bike and vehicle servicing areas. These could all support a longer tenure. Some of the more upmarket models even have a concierge, dog grooming and walking, and cleaning services.

From a design standpoint, the circulation of spaces outside the individual apartments is important because residents will have chance encounters with their neighbours. These spaces need to be wider and more generous, with access to natural light, outdoor areas and landscaping. Ultimately, they need to encourage stronger connections, which will lead to healthy communities and happy tenants who want to remain in the development longer.

What can we learn from co-living in the Northern Hemisphere, where these developments are a genuine asset class? 

The most successful companies in this space have created cohesive brand experiences – an umbrella for the architecture, interior design, landscape, and urban design of all their developments.

The biggest co-living brands also exist across cities and countries, which means tenants are familiar with what to expect. This has happened across North America, and those same brands exist in Europe. They’ve come to Australia more recently.

These brands are grounded in progressive Millennial and Gen Z values. Social and environmental sustainability are critical. The spaces themselves are often light, contemporary and minimal. They’re positioned in prominent, desirable locations connected to urban centres, parks, public transport, lively cafés and night life. All the better if there’s space to create some of this within the co-living precinct itself!

What is Architectus designing in this space?

In Melbourne’s north, we were at the centre of a project transforming two buildings that had once been a hospital building and nurses’ accommodation before being converted into two budget hotels in the 1990s. Now, they’ve got a new life as a contemporary co-living environment and hotel.  

 We upgraded and repositioned both existing hotel buildings – one as a Novotel and the other as a modern Together Co-living development focused on community and interactivity. 

 In addition to the two buildings, our interior design also covered a smaller lodge as well as all public spaces, including bars, restaurants, and extensive conference facilities across the site.

We completely re-imagined the public spaces across the ground level, with a mix of hospitality, dining, co-working and collaboration spaces. Wellness was also an important factor, with a large new gym and direct connection to the pool and outdoor spaces incorporated into the development.

Our design reflects the dichotomy of the location on the northside of the city. The hotel references ‘urban grit’ through materials, colours, forms, and connections. In contrast, the co-living environment draws inspiration from the ‘suburban’ side, with subtle nods to its streetscapes and homes, specifically the Californian Bungalow common to the area.

For us, the design for co-living was the key to success. We balanced economic rationality with a people-friendly design, giving residents great kitchens, living and communal spaces as well as quiet bedrooms and bathrooms where they can retreat.

Where do you think co-living is headed in Australia? Will we see a lot more of it?

Apartment culture has been strong in Europe for many decades, but people living in Australian cities are still coming around to this way of thinking. Ultimately, the success of co-living developments will be determined by the ability to provide viable apartment options for Millennials and Gen Zs.

Important questions need to be considered. Are the projects well planned and designed? Are they healthy and environmentally sustainable for operators looking to run them over the next few decades? Are they located within active precincts? Do they cater to the tenants’ different interests? Does the scale of the development reflect market demand?

Operators running the developments over time need to work out how to manage ongoing costs. For example, kitchens and bathrooms will need replacing three or four times throughout a project’s lifetime, and both private apartments and shared spaces will need refurbishments.

Construction methodologies, particularly fabrication and modularisation, will play a big part in successful co-living developments. Some will be ‘templated’, with large components prefabricated offsite. Once installed, they can easily be pulled out and replaced when required.

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