Big City: Alternatives in Dwelling

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With rents in big cities now costing more than most people can afford, should we now be looking more creatively at housing provision? Is it time to explore, create and support wider alternatives for dwelling?

Locked out of the quality (or basic) rental market people have to adapt to new ways, new places, new styles of living. And there are some ‘creative’ dwelling alternatives out there.  These new initiatives and enterprises creatively address, at least part of the problem – which is better than not at all.

Social enterprise/innovation is part altruistic, part business. The benefits are: it can be created quickly (through websites) and it can provide a solution that actually works. It may be different, it may be not for everyone but it is often a bottom-up response to a problem that goes unrecognised or has been ignored. Unlike local government, social enterprises are trim operations and can zip in, set up and be active, in virtually no time at all.

So, if affordability, and a shortage of quality housing is set to continue, what kind of homes will ‘we’ be living in the next 20 years?

The Guardian provides insights into new ways of living, homes and housing. Some have been specifically designed, some are ad hoc, others have passed from being a temporary fix into something more permanent.

Flat-sitting is one solution. Rather than pay rent, why not live rent-free in someone else’s house? It is viable, comfortable accommodation which can be pre-booked in regular stints. The only tasks involved are: to water the plants, feed the pets and keep the burglars at bay. 

Another alternative might be to move in with older homeowners (who have a spare room) offering some care and assistance in return for reduced rent. A win, win, situation for all. 

If that does not suit then people have gone all out with a different approach by  converting a van into a home, or a boat, or a roof top. No address, no council tax, no rates… no security, no support, no fixed location.

However, where there is a perceived gap in the market, there is also an opportunity; for individuals, social entrepreneurs or developers. 

Living in a disused factory or office space may not appear to be des res. But New York style loft-living, is now trendy and chic, where once it was seen as edgy and raw. People will be ‘creative’ in finding opportunities – before the developers move in and re-present the same space.

The Hoover Building in London is just one successful example of a high-end, re-purposing of factory space. 

Hotels are already down this road, pitching the ‘experience’ and novelty of staying in a jail, ice-hotel, cinema, factory, and of course the latest conversion of the TWA terminal at JFK airport. People are looking for something different, and something special. Partly it comes down to a desire for novel experiences, partly it’s down to what people can afford. Where the two meet, proves that people may be more open to living somewhere a bit different.

Almost any building anywhere could be turned into housing. Which is not the same as rounding up people and shoving them into any industrial space. Job done! It has to be designed. It has to meet their needs and it has to work.

Legislation must address issues of empty retail space and the desolation of the city.

We might all have to let go of the idea that one day we will have our own apartment/house, or share with friends (as in Friends). The question is: What is your base line in space, facilities and location?  A window-less room? A bed in a kitchen? 

The Collective takes a grim situation, and turns it on its head. Think flat share multiplied by several hundred = Co-sharing. For that you get a (very) small room, with ensuite, and a kitchenette shared with one other.  You will have access to  other facilities – lounge, restaurants, gym, outdoor space, laundry etc. It’s high-level student accommodation for professionals ( on a good income).  Rooms can be hired short-term or long-term and for people new to the city who don’t know many people they offer an instant social circle, of ( probably) like-minded people

This is a purpose-built serviced apartment for a new world where most people cannot afford to live alone. On the plus side these spaces are high-spec, well managed, and provide a social setting and facilities that people want and need – in a digital age. On the down-side, they are ‘hotel-like’ impersonal spaces: most people are passing through, but others may be stuck in this  style of living and cannot move on. Almost like the perennial student.

There was a time when residential style housing was associated with a ‘care’ situation. But that has all changed. People are now thinking ahead to plan for their needs, and who they would like to live with in the future. 

Older Women’s Co-Housing, which in opened in London in 2016 whereby ( older) people come together (to rent or buy) to live in their own apartments with shared facilities and shared inputs into cooking and gardening. This is a women-only group and has attracted a lot of media attention – all favourable. It aims to aid social connectivity to ensure that people are engaged and mutually supported.  You can be alone, and together, you have your own space, but also have company and activities in-house.

This solution suits people who are actively involved in the decision-making, development and running of the community. It is not managed by an outside body so the residents have both ‘ownership’, and independent living. For people over fifty, who cannot face moving to a ‘Cocoon’ environment, and simply want to get on with their lives, this model has a lot of appeal. It’s not a kibbutz, or a cult, or a commune. It is simply a forward-thinking approach to future housing needs – one where people plan for what they want. And, where health and well-being is often affected by loneliness, it is in everybody’s interests to keep people out of hospital and keep them happy and well.

Exciting times? Or, is this simply necessity as the mother of invention? Perhaps a bit of both.  

Are we seeing an evolving stage of lifestyles and living –  or is it simply that people have little or no choice?  In response to the current economic climate good ideas, will lead to better solutions, to spur change, through small and big steps. But, it may require a shift in how much we are all prepared to change set views/ways/systems/expectations.  

Younger people already have very different expectations, and views for life, work and leisure. While not everyone wants to be a travel blogger, or  nomad, it is an option that didn’t exist 20 years ago. It is just one example of changing work/life relationships and an indication that we work/live in very different ways from our parents. 

We know that housing needs are critical. We also know that we need more understanding of what people want, what they will accept, and what is affordable. Design is in a position to actively assess, address and solve spatial problems through creative thinking, sensitivity and an open mind. I believe this is now a matter of urgency.

Follow Nuala Rooney:

Nuala Rooney PhD, is a creative professional and award-winning author, currently developing new approaches to design innovation and spatial research through storytelling. With unique skillsets, developed as a design educator in Higher Education institutions in UK and Hong Kong, her interest lies in exploring 'home' as a human centred space.

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