Meeting market demand: strategies for scaling co-living brands

Reflecting on the recent 2023 Co-living Conference, PLP Architecture’s Andrei Martin discusses the growth of the co-living sector and the three scales of human density.

PLP Architecture's Andrei Martin on the co-living sector | BTR News
PLP Architecture's Andrei Martin on the co-living sector.

Co-living is one of the most exciting and fast-changing living concepts, and this was amply evidenced by this year’s premier global co-living event – the 2023 Co-living Conference and Awards in Amsterdam where, as speaker and lead judge for the architecture category, I had the privilege to experience first-hand the co-living ideas, projects, and prototypes empowering people to live in smarter, more flexible, and more sustainable ways.

By Andrei Martin, Partner, PLP Architecture

This year’s theme is centred on growth; co-living’s increasing role in terms of ESG and social impact, the continued evolution and convergence of technology, services, and community living, as well as opportunities for expansion fuelled by investment and alternative finance.

Given the sector continues to mature and diversify, strategies for scaling co-living brands took centre stage.  In a session brilliantly moderated by Gaetan De Dietrich of Modern Living, I was joined on stage by Anil Khera, CEO of Node and Reinier Bunnik, Director of Operations at Greystar Netherlands, discussing strategies and considerations.

The panel explored how, as co-living brands scale and enter new territories, it is vital they strike a balance between brand consistency and the local context around a specific site. Making a building fit a local environment is especially important when it comes to co-living where community-formation is key and where the internal tenant community needs to integrate with the wider local community.

To do this, the perception of porosity, transparency and openness is essential: buildings should establish a permissive environment, welcoming outsiders to come in and make themselves comfortable.

Equally important is looking at how communities themselves scale up. We believe that, as people behave differently at different scales, expanding co-living platforms must contend with three scales of human density each deliberately tuned to allow a different form of communality to be established:

  • At the small end of the scale are clusters of 10 to 20 individuals. This is a crucial stage of brand development – if you get the cluster right, everything else can be built on top of that. It is the atomic building block of a successful co-living environment. We call this the Pyjama Factor – people feeling comfortable, perhaps even familial in each other’s company. They can come out of their apartments without dressing up and can let their guard down and relax. When a building scales up, it is important to maintain the granularity and integrity of these clusters whilst assembling them to form larger groups of people.
  • The middle tier is based on the Dunbar Number. Robin Dunbar is a British anthropologist who in the 90’s published a study that correlated primate brain size to size of social groups. For humans, from the beginning of time, communities have revolved around 150 people. Subsistence villages, hunter gatherers, military units, are all around this number. Dunbar explained it informally as “the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar”. More importantly, at this scale, communities tend to self-manage, so the need for institutional oversight is lessened. These groups are galvanised around the amenity spaces. We know this works and people self-manage because over 50% of events held within these spaces tend to be community initiated and run.
  • Lastly is the ‘Metropolitan Moment.’ At this scale, there is a large enough group of people that the building starts to behave like a city, retaining the capacity to delight through surprise. Like a night out on the town when you have no idea what will happen, but you know you’ll have a good time. At this scale the building’s population mixes with the public that is invited in.

As the world becomes increasingly urbanized and people seek more flexible and sustainable living options, knowing how to successfully scale up co-living platforms will play an increasingly important role in empowering close-knit, thriving, and resilient communities.