What Scandinavia can teach us about co-living and community

HUB’s Damien Sharkey reflects on the success of the co-living sector in Scandinavia, and what the UK can learn from it.

HUB’s Wood Lane co-living scheme in London | BTR News
HUB’s Wood Lane co-living scheme in London.

As the Build to Rent and co-living sectors continuously grow and gain traction in the UK, there is seemingly still a lot to learn and improve upon. European countries such as Norway have implemented an effective community-centred system that has proven to provide unmatched benefits and efficiency for co-living residents. Communal facilities, sharing and providing services and resources is a key aspect of creating a community that the UK co-living sector has not adopted as well as the Scandinavians yet. HUB’s Damien Sharkey, who visited one of Norway’s co-living schemes, reflects on the success of the sector’s Scandinavian presence.

By Damien Sharkey​, Managing Director, HUB and HubCap

Attitudes towards housing in the UK are shifting; Build to Rent’s exponential growth over the past decade is a testament to this. As that sector has matured, there’s an emerging interest in a style of living that goes a step further towards community. The numbers speak for themselves – earlier this year, Savills reported that activity in the UK co-living sector more than doubled in the past three years.

Measuring from March 2020, they note the increased appetite from developers, lenders, and investors is coupled with increased desirability of co-living for residents due to its emphasis on community and interaction following the pandemic.

In an era of digital disconnect and isolation, it is understandable that people are seeking connection and community – to be part of a neighbourhood again, whether that’s vertical or otherwise. There are major opportunities to deliver this with co-living; a sector in its infancy in the UK but growing fast. It has the potential to help solve some of our societal woes – housing, but also the crisis of loneliness that’s impacting people of all ages and stages of life, and a lower impact way of life where space and things can be readily shared.

We can learn a lot from looking at how it’s done elsewhere. A couple of years ago, the HUB team travelled to Norway to visit one of the most successful co-living schemes in Scandinavia, and probably in Europe.

On the recommendation of our Norwegian funding partner, Smedvig, we travelled to Vindmøllebakken Housing – a community by Helen & Hard architects and Kruse Smith. That visit had a significant impact on us as a business, changing our view on what modern urban living could look like and how that can inform our approach in the UK.

We discovered a community made up of a range of people – from young professionals to growing families and the elderly – with sharing at its core. Communal plants and herbs, car sharing, a library and even a collective art-curating group. We met elderly couples happily providing free childcare for working parents and people cooking dinner for their neighbours.

The model at Vindmøllebakken has been so successful that Norwegian planning authorities are encouraging more such communities. It proves that successful co-living can be intergenerational, and can deliver wider benefits than just lower cost, flexible living – and challenges the prevailing view in the UK and US that it’s a lifestyle that only appeals to twenty-somethings.

For co-living to take off in the UK, we need to deliver exemplar schemes that prove the model works here, and that provide a blueprint for others to follow. That is exactly what we are striving to create at our Wood Lane community, which secured planning permission last year, and at several of our HubCap schemes, which will deliver low-carbon co-living within existing buildings.

We’ve spent a long time thinking about how to create the best environments for co-living. We’ve chosen locations that will appeal for a variety of residents – whether that’s women locked out of London’s housing market (as with our collaboration with Women’s Pioneer Housing at Wood Lane), older people looking to downsize, or young professionals getting started in a new city.

While we aren’t replicating the model at Vindmøllebakken, we’re taking what we’ve learned and applying it in the UK. Sharing is at the heart of all our co-living plans – from biodiverse public realm that encourages chance encounters, to flexible co-working space that provides opportunities for collaboration between freelancers, hybrid workers, and even retirees working on their latest project.

As we have with our decade-long journey in Build to Rent, we are constantly refining and improving our co-living offering. We are currently working on our framework for what best-in-class looks like for this style of housing in the UK, which is something that will continue to evolve along with residents’ needs and our experience.

The benefits for residents of co-living are huge, including being able to access shared amenities that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford, combatting isolation – one of the biggest issues people face when moving to new cities – and offering a wider choice for how we live.

The same is true for investors. Providing co-living that appeals across a wider age range also reduces risk by widening the tenant profile. Co-living can also play a key role in investors’ social value strategies, offering opportunities to support social cohesion and greater affordability through shared resources.

There’s growing anticipation in the UK market, as people start to understand the benefits of the model. Looking towards the future, it’s clear that it has the potential to be a vital component of inclusive urban communities, and we’re excited to be pushing it forward.