COP26 is almost here. Make no mistake, this moment has been heralded as make-or-break for humankind. World leaders will meet to agree upon climate commitments, which will underpin our transition to net zero. Bold changes are needed if we are to remain below a 1.5 degrees global temperature rise that will spell disaster for so many.
To mitigate and adapt to climate change, we need rapid and radical systems change. How we eat, travel, work and play must adapt. And of course, the places we call home have to change too. These changes must be underpinned by transformation in what we view as a good and prosperous life: shifting away from rampant consumerism and private ownership, to sociability, sharing, experiences and connectedness.
In this article, we explore what role coliving might play in humankind’s transition to a more sustainable world. Plus, we think about what you as an operator or resident might do to help with this transition.
What is COP?
First, what is COP?
COP stands for Conference of the Parties. The “Parties” are those 196 countries (plus the EU, making 197) who agreed to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). This was a treaty agreed in 1994. Since then, there have been 25 COPs – this will be the 26th.
At COP26, world leaders, government officials and representatives from civil society will meet to negotiate climate agreements. There will also be events open to the general public, including workshops, art exhibitions and installations, presentations, demonstrations of technology and musical performances.
COP26 will last from October 31st to November 12th, 2021, and will be held in Glasgow, Scotland.
What role does housing have to play in climate change?
Our homes have a huge impact on the environment. Domestic emissions account for around 15% of greenhouse gas emissions in the UK, and 20% in the US. Given climate targets, these emissions are too high. For example, for the UK to meet its climate goals, it must lower domestic emissions from 1990 levels by 24% by 2030.
The picture is similar in Europe, where it is estimated that 75% of housing and buildings must be made more energy efficient to meet targets. Often, the finger is pointed at poorly insulated housing stock. While this is a key part of the picture, it perhaps does not question our assumptions enough about what home is, and what it could or should be.
Home is, as Professor of Geography Jenny Pickerill says, ‘a multi-dimensional concept’, which includes ‘the psychological, cultural, economic and political’. As our lives and needs change, our homes should adapt to meet those needs. In the developed world, people are settling down later, and many have been priced out of buying a home (or, as some research suggests, are choosing different priorities). As people uproot and move to cities for economic opportunity, issues of loneliness and lack of affordable housing are compounded.
Coliving has the potential to meet the needs of people today. Its emphasis on social connection can mitigate loneliness, and its economies of scale means better quality homes are available at lower costs. Plus, coliving can lower domestic emissions through the sharing of spaces, resources, and even through greater levels of engagement in environmentally sustainable practices. It’s this need for homes which do not adversely impact the planet that we are focusing on today.
Sure – we need to insulate our existing buildings. This is an important issue which is being communicated with increasing urgency. But let’s also explore how new housing typologies – such as coliving – may take a more holistic view on how homes can evolve to have lower environmental impacts and meet our needs.
What role does coliving have to play in mitigating climate change?
Coliving has a huge potential to have lower environmental impacts than the average home. Case study research I conducted during my doctoral studies found that a coliving community’s greenhouse gas emissions were 68% lower than the average household.
Every community has its own specific context. However, there are some commonly established elements that will tend to lower environmental impacts.
Let’s talk about density, aka, more people living in less space. It has increasingly been suggested by climate scientists and urban planners that one of the most effective ways to decrease greenhouse gas emissions is to increase urban density. Coliving is well placed to do just that, in a way which doesn’t compromise on – but in fact, enhances – quality of life.
When people live more closely together, their heating and cooling energy consumption per person significantly decreases. Sharing, therefore has hugely positive implications for greenhouse gas emissions.
Energy used on heating is by far the greatest domestic emitter in the northern hemisphere. Coliving communities commonly have high density, as they tend to have smaller private spaces and larger shared spaces.
For planners, this has been a controversial topic, with concerns over room sizes. As an industry, we must ensure that resident wellbeing is supported through sufficient and thoughtfully designed private spaces. Operators such as Mason & Fifth, Zoku and Noaiscape have shown us that a sense of function, beautiful design and a feeling of spaciousness is possible within 25m2 and less private space.
Linked to this, it is key that residents learn to cohabit space harmoniously. This requires thoughtful design, and skilled social facilitation.
The sharing of furniture, appliances, objects and amenities also has a significant positive environmental impact. Every object has an environmental cost (known as an ‘indirect’ impact): its materials had to be mined, grown or manufactured. It had to be packaged and transported. Eventually, it will be discarded, which has an environmental cost too.
So, when you have six washing machines rather than fifty washing machines, or one blender instead of ten blenders, this represents big environmental gains. Case study research found that, through sharing objects and amenities, one coliving community’s indirect impacts were 64% lower than the average household. Sharing is great for the environment!
Sharing can also be a socially enriching experience. It can help to build trust and encourage social connection – though only when residents have aligned expectations. More than ever, community facilitation is important in enabling successful sharing to take place.
Urban density leads to a 45-50% reduction in domestic emissions from travel. Many coliving spaces are located in or connected to urban centres, enabling use of public transport systems, cycling or walking. Some coliving operators even provide bicycles for their residents. Plus, on-site social networks, events and amenities means less need to travel.
Larger coliving operators can almost provide a microcosm: with on-site groceries, co-working, wellness spaces and social events … many of residents’ needs are met on site. Other coliving spaces’ high-street locations means that everything residents could want is at hand.
Urban coliving is well-placed to be part of the 15/20 minute city strategy that is being adopted by so many municipalities.
Forming a Sustainable Culture
When it comes to shifting towards more sustainable behaviours, exchanging know-how with those around us, and collective action, are key. Research has shown that we are much more likely to adopt a new behaviour when we do so as a group.
Coliving forms residents into a natural collective. This means they are able to act together, with potential environmentally beneficial outcomes. For instance, growing food, sharing things, learning sustainable practices from one another, are some examples.
There are things which operators can do to encourage the growth of a sustainable culture, which we explore in this blog post and has been researched in Coliving Insights No.3, Impact & Sustainability in Coliving. You can also read this article about embedding social, environmental and economic sustainability and impact (aka social value) into the core of your coliving designs, investments, operations, developments and wider coliving business model and strategies (e.g. sustainability metrics / KPIs).
What Can You Do?
We hope that this article has convinced you that in several significant ways, coliving has inherent environmental advantages over other traditional forms of housing. But if you are an operator or resident in a coliving space, we would like to finish by offering some thoughts and recommendations on how you might increase your positive environmental impact.
- Reframe coliving as environmentally sustainable: We see some operators talking about coliving and sustainability, but not that many. So we encourage operators – and residents – to start linking coliving and sustainability together. What are you already doing that is good for the environment? Shout about it! Today, 90% of consumers say they are more likely to purchase from and support companies who take a stand on social matters, and 80% even say they will pay more for products from these brands. Let’s build momentum on expecting environmentally sustainable homes.
- Measure what you treasure: What can you do to measure your environmental impacts? This is something we always like to talk about. There are already some inspiring examples of impact reporting in coliving out there – such as The Student Hotel’s 2019/20 report. For those who are constructing or retrofitting, there are well-established environmental measurement frameworks, such as BREEAM, LEED and GRESB. Renovation projects in particular may benefit from use of a Building Renovation Passport.
Taking a look at existing reports and frameworks can give you inspiration on what kind of metrics you can measure, either for your own internal reporting, or – to be really accountable – for an external report. Good impact measurement and reporting does take time, thought and human resources – but we believe the results are worth it, in their benefits to your business and to the world. Conscious Coliving are currently developing an open-source impact framework which is designed for coliving, which will include measurements of environmental impact. If you would like to talk about impact measurement, feel free to get in touch.
- Make sustainable practice the easy (or only) option: As the majority of domestic emissions occur through the operation of a building (as opposed to construction), encouraging sustainable resident practices is key. Make sustainability easy: clear waste and recycling signage, motion sensor/timer lights in corridors, vegetarian and vegan cookbooks left in the communal kitchen, good cycling storage and bike tools, a community app where residents can swap and share items… think about all the micro actions you can take to facilitate sustainable practice. Even better, could you ask your residents what sustainability means to them, and work with them to implement sustainable practices?
COP26 is a time for all of us to reflect on our climate commitments, and on the world we want to create for future generations. In times of change, there are opportunities to create a new normal – one that meets the needs of both the human and non-human world.
We believe that forms of shared living, including coliving, provide part of the answer to what a more just and sustainable future can look like.
This article has been authored for you by:
Penny is passionate about the potential for shared living. She has a doctorate in sustainability and shared living, and an MSc in social research methods. She conducts research and consults on shared living projects.