Sustainable Buildings Housing The Challenge of Introducing Alternative Living Models

The Challenge of Introducing Alternative Living Models

Iris Fiebiger
Nature provides us with everything we need. Not just in terms of sustainable resources but also on an emotional level. Being outside and connecting with your surroundings brings so much joy. This is what I find worth protecting.

The benefits of alternative – or communal – living models are vast. Sharing is not just caring but also great for our pocket, mental health, and the housing market. So, what’s the catch? Introducing alternative living models can be tough.

Are single-family homes the answer to all our housing questions? Supporters of alternative housing models are now emphatically shaking their heads, and there’s a good chance they’re right. New ways of living certainly have potential. They promise to combat loneliness, cool the boiling housing market, and increase the quality of life in dense urban spaces. However, they certainly don’t come without their challenges.

1. A Labyrinth of Terms

Co-housing, co-living, self-help housing, co-operative housing, intentional communities, and multigenerational housing – these are just a few alternative living models. Some of them are community-led while others are developed by private companies. As a result of these many different terms and approaches, alternative living models (which we’ll refer to as ‘communal living’ for simplicity) are often perceived as a niche phenomenon, and there is little public awareness about (or interest in) them.

2. No, Thanks – Misconceptions and Fears

Jonathan Andersson, Head of Community at PropTech Sweden and Co-Liv Ambassador, tells us that communal living is stigmatised as it conflicts with our individualistic culture.

Over the past few decades, people have increasingly retreated from a life within large communities towards private habitation. Nowadays, many use their money to obtain a higher level of privacy and move out of crammed shared spaces. The desire for privacy and a home of one’s own is strong. Just think about the American Dream of owning a large single-family house in the suburbs or the attachment to homeownership observed in the UK.

Many dismiss communal living as an option as they worry about having to sacrifice their privacy and personal space, ending up in a commune-like cult where everything is shared. Given these perceptions, convincing people of the benefits and real objectives of communal living may be difficult.

3. Finding a Helping Hand

The confusion around communal living is not confined to terminology and misconceptions; there is also a lack of clear legal guidelines, advice from authorities, and guidance about available financing instruments. Implementing a communal living project requires a lot of expertise in various fields (business, finance, law, architecture, etc.). This expertise is not always readily accessible, and often regulations are unclear. Gathering the information you need will take a lot of time and effort. Consulting groups like this one is a good way to start.

4. Does Teamwork Make the Dream Work?

Collaboration is never easy; this is also true for communal living and, in particular, community-led projects. Almost every decision must be taken as a team – from agreeing on the built form to picking a paint colour for the communal kitchen. You and your team must rely on democratic, horizontal structures and work business-like, i.e., there is no space for personal, groundless opinions. However, beware that some may find this difficult and struggle to compromise or stick to guidelines. Some might even take offense in their ideas being dismissed.

5. The Business Case: Money for Nothing?

Obtaining funding for your project may also pose a challenge. In some countries, like the UK, communal living is still a relatively new phenomenon with few completed developments. As a result, “there are significant unknowns around the value of such developments, and the potential demand”. This makes gaining financial backing and taking out mortgages difficult since investors and lenders may be afraid to spend money on a “risky” project.

Image credit: Unsplash / Kelly Sikkema

6. Gaining Ground – Quite Literally

As with having access to funding, acquiring a piece of land to build on – if you don’t want to refurbish an already existing building – may be difficult. While in some countries, like Germany, it is easier for communities to buy land, in others, they have to compete against big developers with much larger capital reserves.

7. The Centrepiece

So far, we have mainly discussed the challenges you will face when implementing your project; however, what about the project itself? At the heart of every communal living model lies – you’ve guessed it – its community. Creating a thriving, inclusive community is no piece of cake.

The Right People

Communities of communal living projects vary. Some come together because they find themselves at a similar point in life, like this group of women in North London.  Others, such as Tinkers Bubble, are united by shared values and interests.

Bringing the right people together is not an easy task, Jonathan Andersson tells us; you neither want to be exclusive and create a gated community, nor let people join randomly and risk creating tension between residents. It takes considerable skills to get the mix of people right without forming an exclusive club.

The Right Vibes

Despite its many benefits, communal living is not always easy. Privacy is often a concern. Residents of multigenerational housing, for instance, reported that noise levels, guests, and a lack of personal space were sources of friction. For your project, you will have to think of ways to avoid such disputes. For instance, open communication is key.

The Right Size

Another aspect to consider is the size of your project. In the light of the massive housing shortage in cities around the world, it is tempting to consider large developments with hundreds of units and several shared spaces; however, a common complaint regarding such buildings is that they feel more like a hotel than a proper community.

The Challenge of Introducing Alternative Living Models in a Nutshell

Alternative living models are promising but don’t come without their challenges. Let’s recap:

  1. The different concepts of communal living are often unclear, and public awareness is slim.
  2. Misconceptions and concerns regarding privacy are holding people back from exploring (and supporting) new ways of living.
  3. There is a lack of legal, financial, and administrative guidance, making it hard to obtain the necessary information for implementing communal living projects.
  4. Communal living calls for democratic, horizontal decision-making processes, which can be challenging at times.
  5. Presenting an alternative living project as a viable investment case and, hence, gaining funding is tricky.
  6. Due to fierce competition, acquiring land to build on poses a challenge.
  7. Selecting residents, creating a good atmosphere, and deciding on the right size are crucial but certainly not easy tasks.

Got curious about alternative living models? Why not read about one form: co-living!

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