New emerging housing models are challenging property developers and financiers to completely rethink the current real estate paradigm. The rising demand is for affordable homes, greater connection, shared spaces and community. Think of it as a new style commune.
The word “commune” conjures up images of hippies, dreadlocks, drop outs, idealism and religious camps, and on the extreme end of the spectrum, cults. In Australia, it started with the rush of idealistic commune settlements that were spawned following the Aquarius festival held in Nimbin in 1973, and the growing sense of a “movement” that followed. This model of living was predominantly rural, anti-establishment, anti-commercial and favoured by those who wanted to live outside of mainstream society.
Recently the concept of “commune” and shared living has resurfaced in a new form: this time it’s more urban/inner urban – although there will be rural versions – with a mix of private and public spaces, driven among other things by young and not so young people who want to remain in cities, close to their jobs and all that cities offer, who currently cannot afford to own their own homes. Think The Nightingale and 122 Roseneath Street in Melbourne, and the long and growing waiting lists attached to new projects like them. These models address some aspects of community and small footprint living, and have been very well received; however, while they have taken measures to reduce construction costs, and in effect reduce the price of dwellings, they are by no means accessible to all.
Factors driving The New Commune include the well canvassed current crisis in housing affordability, so that even young couples with two good incomes cannot ever hope to own a home, an aging population that wants to age in place and remain connected to people of all ages, a sharp rise in the number of people suffering from loneliness and social isolation, awareness that we need to make better and more dense cities, an increasingly mobile population that loves to travel and wishes to plug into an instant community on arrival, the growing hunger for sustainable ways of living and better use of resources, and a widespread desire to share and engage. Plus, the demonstrable economic value built by the shared economy business models: AirBnB, GoGet, Base.Life and Airtasker, among others.
In sharp contrast to these highly successful new resource sharing models, our contemporary real estate paradigm is driven solely by return on shareholder investment. Clearly, the property development industry needs to think differently about designing, funding and creating housing in Australia, or risk missing the boat.
By contrast, The New Commune is about building community. It’s about the establishment and nurturing of resilient local economies, where the concept of sharing is every day – driven by the desire to live a more simple, sustainable life in community. It is about putting humans and human interaction at the centre of residential architecture, as opposed to investment potential, as is currently the case.
The change must be more fundamental than the current lip service paid by the real estate industry to mock “shared living”, in the form of token rooftop gardens, designed to make a development appear more green and “sustainable” in the glossy real estate brochure. Today’s New Commune is no longer about people on the fringes of society – it’s mainstream, it’s here, and some of our most astute and forward thinking young professionals are driving the change.
The New Commune is no longer an idea ahead of its time: its time is now, and the demand is there. The challenge for the property development industry is to completely rethink the way some projects are conceived, designed and funded, to meet this clear and growing market demand for this type of housing.
The New Commune is a living model that provides for singles, couples and family groups to own or have long-term leasehold on a compact, well-designed living module that affords the use of a variety of shared spaces and/or facilities:
From our analysis and first hand experience of the wealth of “shared” living environments (past, present and future) in Europe and elsewhere, including the earliest co-housing models pioneered in Denmark, this is a model whose time has come. It can include:
- Long-term leasing, ownership or co-ownership arrangements
- Individual living spaces (that can afford to be more compact than a conventional house or
apartment as they afford the use of a range of shared facilities)
- Shared herb/vege gardens with associated compost/recycling facilities
- Communal central courtyard and rooftop spaces
- Car and bike share facilities
- Shared workshop and laundry
- Communal music and cinema rooms
- Larger shared kitchen/ entertainment area
- A shared recycling shed: where residents can put any household items, furniture, clothes or whatever else they don’t need and any of the other residents can take them
- A diversity of other meeting spaces and nooks designed into shared circulation spaces
This concept of the “commune” or communal living extends to the shared design and making of place. As distinct to commercially driven lip service given to community and sustainability in developer driven models, it is a conscious choice based on a shared vision.
It means enjoying all the givens of traditional home ownership with the addition of shared facilities and amenities. Irrespective of context, the key elements are the same: opportunities for community interaction paired with private space.
As prefaced earlier, housing affordability has a key role to play in the rise of interest in shared living/co-investment housing models. We need to re-write the definition of affordable housing. In this generation, people with perfectly good salaries cannot dream of owning a home.
The industry also needs to rethink the way we design, develop and build projects. Good design can and should be part of every project, accessible to all, not simply a consumable available to the rich and well resourced. For too long the market has been driven by the developer, not the consumer – as designers we rarely get to meet or speak to the eventual users, even when we are designing low-cost public housing.
To meet the specific needs of each and every individual who will use the space, its future inhabitants must form an integral part of the decision-making process and be given forums/opportunities to inform the design process. This is even more poignant in the case of establishing an “intentional community” where the thresholds between private and public spaces must be artfully considered and articulated.
by Katy Svalbe, Amber Road | on The Fifth Estate