No previous human societies have supported large numbers of people who lived alone … we have no historical examples to learn from, no precedents to mimic or avoid.

Eric Klinenberg, author of Going Solo

Responding to the rise of solo living

The rise of solo living across many developed countries, including Australia, is undeniable and historically unprecedented. In Australia today, single-person households are the fastest-growing household type, currently making up 25% of all households and projected to increase from 2.3 million to between 3 and 3.5 million households in the next twenty years [1].

Alongside concerns about the potential social consequences of this extraordinary demographic shift is the challenge of providing varied and affordable housing options for this growing population group.

Currently our housing market favours couple and family households, putting solo-dwellers in a relatively disadvantaged housing position. The opportunity to live alone well, is intrinsically tied to the housing options available and the affordability of these options.

In Australia, single-person households have lower home ownership rates than other households and over a quarter are considered to be under housing stress through spending more than 30% of their gross weekly income on housing [2]. As an example, in Melbourne, no private rental units are considered affordable for a single person earning minimum wage or on income support [3].

The co-living model

One particular housing model that has emerged internationally in the past decade to support the rise of solo living is the build-to-rent, co-living model.

Co-living is a model of collective living, similar in design and operational management to purpose-built student accommodation. Small private rooms are supplemented by an array of communal spaces in an attempt to promote a sense of community. Flexibility is one of the key characteristics of the model with flexible rental contracts, fully furnished private rooms and communal spaces, and rent including all amenity and service costs.

While co-living companies often market to a young millennial demographic, a more diverse cohort of people are beginning to see co-living as a viable housing option. In research looking at co-living buildings globally, it was found that:

  • The majority (77%) of residents are within the 25-35 age bracket, but a growing portion are younger and older residents
  • The model tends to attract more men (59%) than women (41%)
  • Residents are generally from overseas (63%) rather than national residents (37%) [4]

For the Australian context, the UK co-living sector offers a particularly valuable source of reflection. In the UK lone-person households account for one-third of all households and, similar to Australia, occupy a relatively disadvantaged position in terms of housing tenure.

The development of the build-to-rent sector in Australia, including co-living, is predicted to mirror the industry’s growth in the UK. In the UK, the market is now worth an estimated $18 billion and rising to a potential maturity of over $990 billion, providing homes for more than 1.7 million households [5].

Decade of build-to-rent growth: UK vs. Australia

Source: Savills Australia - Development spotlight on built-to-rent and co-living 2020

Given the predicted growth of single-person households, as well as the expansion of the co-living market within Australia, understanding people’s motivations for moving into such buildings and their residential experience is essential for future market responses and policy.

My research 'Community is the answer, but what was the question' explored these questions through interviews and visual exercises with residents of one of London's largest and most established co-living buildings, The Collective Old Oak [6].

The Collective Old Oak

The Collective Old Oak, completed in 2016, was the first purpose-built property of the British co-living developer and operator, The Collective.

The building accommodates 550 people in fully furnished 'microunits' that are supplemented by an array of communal spaces ­– communal kitchens, library, cinema room, games room, sauna, and laundry. A double-loaded dormitory corridor arrangement of typical residential floors allows for maximum room density as well as larger communal kitchens and shared space on each floor.

The building’s resident population is, for the most part, reflective of the broader co-living resident demographic, yet more national residents live within The Collective Old Oak than international residents.

Communal spaces at The Collective Old Oak

Typical residential floor at The Collective Old Oak

Three room types are offered: Studio, Ensuite and Disabled Access. According to the London Living Rent target, the rent price is affordable for Londoners on moderate incomes. Although co-living presents as an affordable solo living option with all furniture and amenities covered in one bill, it must be acknowledged that currently the model is limited to those on moderate to high incomes.

Three room types at The Collective Old Oak

Four key learnings from my research offer insight into what Australia and other countries could consider about the provision of diverse and affordable housing options for people who want to live alone.

1. Balancing connectivity and solitude

Social connection is a fundamental and pervasive human desire, and while living alone does not inevitably lead to loneliness, for some groups of solo dwellers loneliness can play a large part in their living experience [7].

For many of my co-living participants, the social aspect of co-living was a significant motivating factor in their decision to live in a co-living building. One older female interviewee described co-living as the “perfect golden middle - if you want to be alone, you are in your room, but if you want to interact with people, you spend time in the co-living space.”

Beyond the interactions offered by other residents, the staff within co-living buildings can also provide a sense of connection. For instance, one participant, who felt somewhat excluded by the resident social groups, found value and a reduced sense of loneliness through connection with staff. Another participant commented:

“I like that you can walk in, you can have a chat about work, and there’s a couple of people at reception with a ‘good evening’ or with a smile of their face – in a lonely world it makes you feel more welcome.”

However, in nurturing social connection for solo dwellers, it’s important to also remember the value of solitude and privacy.

For participants who spent little time in the private realm, this spatial minimisation was of little concern, however for others, such restricted private space limited activities they preferred to practice alone, including exercise and creative endeavours.

One participant described the challenge of pursuing her creative hobbies within her room:

“It limits your ability … to do other activities in your room like crafting … for instance, if someone has a sewing machine as a hobby you wouldn’t be able to do it in there, because there wouldn’t be enough space to lay out the fabric. So if you do those things for your wellbeing because you need a creative outlet or the relaxation you can’t do it in there.”

2. Affordability and compromise

While commercial co-living is currently only accessible to those within a particular socioeconomic group, the experience of many of my participants within the building revealed the broader compromises solo dwellers are often forced to make between choice and necessity.

Despite some participants viewing their private space as a mere base, all participants in the smaller shared ensuite rooms described that if they could afford it, they would prefer to rent one of the larger rooms.

Beyond renting one of the larger co-living units, several participants also described that they would prefer to live alone entirely if there were more affordable options available in London.

3. Providing for a diversity of life stages

For the younger residents in my study, co-living was seen as a purely transient housing option before privately living alone, moving into share house arrangements or home ownership. For these young residents, the fully furnished spaces were convenient and the limited storage space and autonomy to decorate private rooms, whilst annoying, was less of a concern.

For some older participants, however, co-living was viewed as a potential long-term housing option, and several of the older residents had lived in the building for a number of years, a stark contrast to the average tenancy of six months.

As a longer-term option, limited storage and the somewhat paternalistic operational control of space was a significant concern. Older participants described the challenge of requiring off-site storage and that the management of the building was, at times, more reflective of institutional student accommodation than adult communal living.

4. Resident experience and safety

The safety measures offered by many co-living buildings, such as surveillance, electronic access, and on-site reception staff, can engender a greater feeling of safety for some residents. However, in bringing aspects of the public realm into the home environment, gendered imbalances can emerge in the use, sense of comfort and safety of communal spaces. The experiences of safety for younger female residents, for example, in communal spaces and during organised social events is an important consideration for operators to be aware of in creating safe spaces and equitable policies to protect all residents.

Whether one approves of the build-to-rent co-living model or not, there is a strong consensus that it is here to stay and grow. In Sydney, there are several co-living buildings in operation with developments set for Melbourne. The NSW State Government has recently announced a 50% land tax discount on new purpose-built-rental developments over a threshold of 50 units to be managed under a unified operator, with an exemption from foreign investor surcharges provided until 2040 for build-to-rent developers.

The co-living model, as with many housing options, is complicated – it works well for some solo dwellers, yet poses significant challenges for others.

The current iteration of co-living in the UK allows us to recognise the compromise single-person households are often forced to make between choice and financial necessity, and affords a base from which Australia can develop housing options for a variety of housing preferences.

In Australia, we now have a window of opportunity to reflect on what we want our future cities to look like. Acknowledging the diversity of solo dwellers and the nuance of their needs is paramount to ensuring safe, inclusive and affordable housing for all.

Anwyn Hocking

Anwyn recently completed the MPhil of Architecture and Urban Studies at the University of Cambridge as an Ackman Trust Scholar and recipient of the 2020 Dalibor Vesely Prize. Her research intersects architecture, psychology and sociology to explore experiences of identity and community in different housing typologies. Based between Melbourne and London, she is currently collaborating with the Loneliness Lab in London to consider the relationship between loneliness and various forms of housing and working with Parlour as a research assistant.