Growing out of the success of coworking, the latest big phenomenon in the world of property is coliving. Like its predecessor, coliving is predicated upon the idea that sharing space can bring benefits to users in terms of cost and community. And, like its predecessor, there are already many variations on the idea with numerous different ventures appearing in the past year, each tweaking the basic concept to find a niche.
There are a lot of existing accommodation types that are “a bit like” coliving—depending on who you ask, coliving might be described as either a halfway point between apartments and hotels, “dorms for adults” or “glorified hostels.” And yet, despite these similarities to recognizable paradigms, countless recent articles have proclaimed that coliving could “change our thinking on property and ownership,” “change the way we work and travel,” or perhaps even “solve the housing crisis.” How can coliving be so familiar and yet so groundbreaking at the same time? To find out, I spent a week at a soon-to-open property in Miami run by Roam, a company which has taken a uniquely international approach to the coliving formula.
Roam’s central concept is this: for a monthly subscription of $1800 USD, members can live in any Roam property around the world, and move between them whenever they choose (rooms are also available for a week at a time at $500 a week, but Roam gives priority to those who sign up for the long-term). Members may choose to hold a Roam subscription in addition to their own rented home, or they may choose to replace their existing apartment entirely. In return, residents get a room with an en-suite bathroom, a shared kitchen and laundry room, and a coworking space with a rock-solid wifi connection, alongside other shared amenities such as pools and relaxation spaces which vary depending on the property. With properties in Bali, Miami, and Madrid, more on the way in London and Buenos Aires, and ambitions to expand into dozens of cities worldwide, Roam hopes to offer its members a way to travel the world while holding down a job, all without sacrificing on the quality of their accommodation. The system may seem simple enough, but the cultural shifts which have made it possible—and the changes it may yet inspire—go much deeper.
The End of “The End of Work”
In 1930, celebrated economist John Maynard Keynes made a prediction: by the turn of the millennium, the efficiencies offered by modern technology would be enough that the entire population would work, on average, 15 hours a week. Needless to say, this didn’t happen. Automation and other forms of efficiency did indeed become commonplace, and as a result far fewer people are now employed in the manual labor and production roles that were the norm in the early 20th century. Yet at the same time, late capitalism made sure that it was always necessary for people to hold down jobs. This gave way to the rise of what, in 2013, were described as “Bullshit Jobs” by the anthropologist David Graeber, administration and service positions which seem to be “pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working.”
But even as Graeber was outlining this phenomenon, another trend was emerging to take its place: people are now inventing their own jobs, and finding ingenious ways to earn money doing almost anything they want. Whether we’re talking about something as time-honored as chasing a freelance writing career or something as new and ill-defined as becoming an Instagram celebrity, the internet has made it easier than ever for people to reject the world of bullshit jobs and instead create a more fulfilling career from the ground up. And, as more and more people are choosing exactly how they earn their money, more people are choosing to do so in a way that doesn’t tie them to a single location, giving them the freedom to travel and work simultaneously.
Such people might commonly be referred to as “digital nomads,” but Roam prefers the term “location independent” to reflect the growth of the trend: “There’s that type of crowd who are using geo-arbitrage to travel the world and they usually get classified under ‘digital nomad’—but that’s just one section of location independence, whereas location independence is the larger umbrella,” says Dane Andrews, Roam’s VP of Sales. “[Roam] caters to people who have always wanted to be location independent but haven’t been able to.” Similarly, the company’s founder Bruno Haid explains that what we are seeing now might be thought of as the “second generation” of digital nomads; people who want the opportunity to travel the world and hold down a career simultaneously, but don’t have the tolerance for (or even love of) inconvenience that characterizes the earlier generation of digital nomads.
For the modern location independent worker, there’s a lot about our current systems of accommodation that no longer make any sense. A standard rental, while easy and reliable, ties you to a specific location; hostels are a great way to see new places and meet new people, but they usually offer lower quality accommodation to people for whom work is not a priority; and hotels might provide a nice place to stay, but they usually prioritize privacy over making friends, and are often prohibitively expensive besides. Roam is an attempt to combine the best elements of all of these into a single package that suits the emergent lifestyle of the 21st century.
The End of City Premiums
Perhaps the most intriguing traditional structure that Roam is fighting against is the idea that certain global cities should be necessarily more expensive to live in than their smaller counterparts. This idea has always been tied to the allure of cities—in a place with more opportunities, more ideas to exchange, and more people to meet, a higher price can be charged for accommodation and subsequently for land. But this economic fact also makes little sense for the location independent worker. In a world where countless websites can help to connect people to work opportunities, where meetings can be conducted via Skype or Google Hangouts, and where Whatsapp, Slack and Facebook Messenger keep us connected to our colleagues at all times, what is the benefit of breaking the bank to live in somewhere as expensive as Manhattan?
Roam’s flat rate of $1800 per month across all properties, regardless of the city they are located in, is an attempt to prove that for their customer base location is no longer tied to the logic of global capitalism—and that ultimately, the economic dimension of space itself is beginning to flatten out.
Of course, at this early stage of that process, there are more than a few kinks to be worked out; for example, the company is currently fielding massive interest for its forthcoming London property from existing Londoners for whom $1800 a month is a no-brainer financially. Such a financial proposition is key for other companies like the WeWork offshoot WeLive, whose first coliving property on Wall Street attempts to provide a cheaper option for living in Manhattan—but applied to Roam’s global ambitions it seems to miss the point somewhat.
Concretizing the Global Village
Though the economic benefits of city life may not hold as much weight as they once did, there are other aspects of urban living that Roam clearly wishes to preserve. A key part of their mission is to foster social ties that span the globe, connecting residents in all properties in a single community. Central to this plan will be a kind of in-built social media platform, which is currently in development, which will allow “Roamers” to connect with and keep in touch with other members, even when they aren’t living on the same property as each other.
“One of the things we’re working on on the digital platform right now is, can you say ‘we are all designers, shouldn’t we just all meet in Barcelona in August?’” explains Bruno Haid. “The question is how can you not only unbundle the lease from specific locations but also how can you make those social dynamics more transient?”
This international, interconnected community might be thought of as a physical microcosm of Marshall McLuhan’s metaphorical “Global Village”; in much the same way as JG Ballard claimed that the global network of airports might be considered the city of the 21st century, Roam is creating a kind of 21st century village—with a single community spread out across the globe but living in pockets of 20-50 people, all connected via the internet to form a functional village unit.
The Architecture of a Global Community
So what role does architecture play in this global village? Firstly, community is predictably a focus when it comes to architecture too. “One of the things we always look for is—since we are very much about the community—is that sense of community when you’re there,” explains Andrews. “We don’t look for places that have dark and narrow hallways, something that you walk out of your room and don’t feel like you’re a part of anything.”
Much of this sense of community is also fostered in the details. In the kitchens, for example, the cabinets have glass fronts so that residents can see what food their neighbors have, and thus what might be available to borrow if they simply ask. The rooms also don’t have desks, in order to encourage residents to make use of the coworking space and other communal areas.
In fact, a lot of Roam’s rethinking of living revolves around what can be taken away, rather than what could be added. Along with desks, bedrooms are stripped of closets, for example, to remind residents that they’re no longer permanently tied to a space. “We’re in between a hotel and an apartment, so we want people to still feel transient, but also still feel at home—which I think you can get by not necessarily having a closet,” says Kate Huentelman, Roam’s Head of Experience. Haid adds that “it’s part of the idea of… I don’t want to say ‘new minimalism’ [Huentelman offers instead the term ‘essentialism’] but you can go anywhere you want and have everything you need there. For example we have universal power outlets, so it doesn’t matter if you’ve got UK or US or European plugs. These are all small details that enable you to travel with fewer and fewer possessions.”
But by far the most important architectural aspect of the Roam properties is what Haid and Andrews describe as “telling unique stories.” While many of the finer details might be copied across all of the company’s properties, Roam has no desire to be the MacDonald’s of coliving by using the same design features in all its properties for the sake of brand consistency. Instead, their properties to date are all character-filled reflections of their location. In Bali, the company converted a contemporary hotel, featuring a pool in the courtyard and a rooftop coworking space; in Miami, they took on the oldest continuously-operating hotel in the city, a 1908 boarding house comprising four brightly-colored timber houses arranged around a lush courtyard; their forthcoming Madrid property was built in the 1870s for the Marquess of Villamagna.
Taking a looking at coliving’s precursor, it’s clear that one of coworking’s most valuable strengths is the way it makes facilities available to freelancers and small companies that those people could otherwise never afford; it’s not just about having a desk and a solid wifi connection, but about getting top-of-the-range video conferencing facilities, climate control you can adjust with your smartphone and a foosball table in the corner. With coworking, next-level functionality became part of the value proposition.
In Roam’s vision of coliving, the value proposition is much the same—the only difference being that when it comes to living spaces, “next-level functionality” simply means a home that is a nice place to be, and that means next-level architecture. In a normal living setup, your home might be the nicest place you can afford, and the city is a necessary system of support that you rely on for work; in Roam’s coliving vision, your home is one of the nicest places in the city, and the city itself is free to become the vibrant backdrop for your life experiences—with another architecturally exquisite home and city just a plane ticket away.