The history of the coliving movement

The history of the coliving movement

14 min read

Today’s modern coliving movement is the latest iteration of a recurring human trend. The act of communal sharing space and resources while benefiting from a supportive community is something we’ve seen repeatedly throughout history. 

Yet each time a coliving or cohousing community arises, it’s often for a completely different reason than the last. This is because societal, economic, spiritual, and technological shifts significantly impact our lifestyle choices and force us to redefine our idea of “home constantly”. 

The coliving movement today is interspersed with the surging sharing economy. We see a societal deviation away from consumerism and towards a peer-to-peer bias. And the advent of the Internet has made it easier than ever for people to find the assets they need directly from one another.

Contemporary coliving communities, therefore, are a manifestation of a renewed cultural movement towards resource-sharing. Housing as a Service (HaaS) is also a direct response to increased housing prices, diminished environmental resources, social isolation in the digital age, and the millennial viewpoint of valuing experiences above all else. 

In this article, we’re going to review the history of coliving, explain how the modern coliving movement began, outline the types of coliving communities that grew out of the movement, and discuss the latest coliving trends.

Coliving communities: A tale as old as time

Long ago, humans were hunter-gatherers that lived in large, mobile camps together. These nomadic people relied on one another for everything from food to protection to childcare assistance. 

From hunter-gatherers to farmers

Then, the agricultural revolution around 10,000 BC made it possible for humans to stay in one place and build long-term settlements. This innovation led to the advent of civilizations and cities akin to what we’re familiar with today.

Yet, although these Neolithic people didn’t need to rely on each other for survival as much as their Paleolithic ancestors, they still chose to live together in large communes.

Humans are innately social creatures.

We need to examine human nature to understand why these early humans stuck together. 

Human beings are intrinsically social creatures, and this may be because deep down we understand that there is safety in numbers. Ph.D., Science Director of the Greater Good Science Center at The University of California, Emiliana Simon-Thomas, told NBC News that biology, neuroscience, and psychology studies had shown us that our bodies work better when we’re not isolated. 

 

Source: ancient-origins.net

So while the agricultural revolution disbanded the very real need to rely on others to survive, humans were still hard-wired to remain in clusters. 

Our ancestors did, however, face downsides to living in groups, such as competition over food supplies and lifemates and increased exposure to disease. 

Yet, the benefits of pooled food resources, shared information, protection from predators, and social connections far outweighed the disadvantages—and still do to this day. 

The Middle Ages

In the Middle Ages, European people lived in homes comprised of family and friends. These 12th-century households are some of the earliest in recorded history of monogamous couples living as a family. 

But, the difference between then and now is those families shared communal spaces with various townspeople and tenants. As people moved homes often, the idea of living with foreigners or outsiders was common. For many, finding the time, money, and resources to live alone was unrealistic and not something people aspired to achieve. 

It wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s that we started to see a shift away from communal living and towards a social divide. 

The Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution disrupted the need for large groups of people to live together close to their agricultural crops. People began traveling away from rural homes to work in the city and would spend their days in factories or offices. 

This migration, or rural exodus, vastly changed the landscape of medieval cities and agricultural communities. It created a high demand for houses close to where people worked. It also completely transformed the global economic landscape, giving rise to social classes that began determining how you lived. 

 

Life in London’s 19th-Century Slums

Source: historycollection.co

To put this in context, in 1750, before the Industrial Revolution in Britain, only about 15% of the population lived in towns or cities. By 1900, it was 85%. This meant that thousands upon thousands of people suddenly needed food and shelter in cities, which led to an outbreak of poverty.

Ghettos were constructed for poor people who couldn’t afford to pay for their housing, but the conditions were often deplorable. Meanwhile, the wealthy built private homes for themselves. This was a massive shift in how society defined what was socially appropriate in terms of housing.

Living with family or people in the same class gradually became the norm. Because we no longer needed communal living to prosper, we placed a higher value on privacy and individual success over group needs.

The rise and fall of the nuclear family

The nuclear family regained popularity after the industrial revolution stimulated the economy. Two-parent, child-centric households became popular as economic booms gave way to higher wages. So, couples could now afford their housing without relying on extended family support. 

Also, healthcare was improving, meaning older generations could live more independently for longer, freeing up their children to flee the coup, so the speak. Thus, the middle class was born.

And in the Western World, the industrial revolution completely transfigured the idea of women and men working in similar roles in an agricultural commune. Now, men were doing backbreaking work in factories while women were relegated to domestic work.

These divided roles are still steeped in societal expectations, though rapidly declining as the standard.

Today, people are choosing experiences over ownership. They are placing a higher value on figuring out who they are and what they want in life instead of instinctively accepting the societal expectations of the previous generation. 

Types of coliving communities throughout history

Now that we understand how people have colived over time let’s look at a few real-life examples from the 19th century to today. 

As the following examples show, these coliving and cohousing communities grew out of a response to fluctuating societal and economic factors.

Also, the ideal community means something different to everybody, which is why we’ve seen so many iterations throughout history. One person’s utopia may be another’s dystopia.

Utopian Phalanstère communities

In the 19th century, Charles Fourier wrote several books about his view of an ideal society. In his world, workers would work for themselves on land owned by themselves.

These societies were imagined as cohousing communities with several individual homes or rooms built around large communal spaces. The collaborative homes were theorized to thrive when everybody equally participated in tasks such as cooking and cleaning. In these scenarios, group efforts overshadowed individual needs. 

In 1858, an iron stove manufacturer, Jean André Baptiste Godin, brought this concept to life. He built a cohousing community in Northern France with a factory, interconnected family dwellings, and shared communal spaces. 

It was an homage to early agricultural communities where people lived, worked, and socialized on their shared land. 

Central kitchen buildings

In the early 20th century in Denmark, the idea that families could save money, time, and resources by sharing communal kitchens grew in popularity. 

The concept was that each family would have their own home, but no home would have its kitchen. Instead, a centralized kitchen would exist somewhere throughout the community.

The first literal interpretation, Fick’s Collective, was built in Copenhagen in 1903. This community was built entirely out of a need rather than a desire, as the idea was to automate maid service. 

Contrary to community members participating in tasks together for the greater good of residents, maids would work in the kitchens and serve guests as if they were in a hotel.

This concept gave rise to cohousing as a way to simplify day-to-day life rather than socially enhance it.

Boarding Houses

At the turn of the 20th century in America, boarding houses gained popularity as they offered renters small rooms at low costs. 

Boarding Houses were homes owned by individuals who rented out space to boarders. It was an excellent way for families to earn additional income under the guise of domesticity. 

They arose from an oversaturation of young people leaving home in their late teenage years and seeking independence. Ironically, families whose children had moved out would open their homes to board other young adults. 

In essence, it gave children the opportunity to experience freedom, and it allowed families to earn more while still enjoying taking care of others.

Boarding House rates were also much lower than those of hotels. Society viewed them as socially acceptable ways to live post-departing your traditional family home.

Kibbutz’s

In Israel, people have lived together in settlements since the early 1900s. These coliving communities are founded upon agricultural ideals, as they arose out of a need to grow food collectively to sustain groups of people.

The members of these Kibbutz share everything and live in modest accommodations. The sense of maintaining a strong community is valued above all.

World wars and flatshares

In the mid-1900s, world wars displaced many people in affected societies. Many people realized that living together was the best way to save money and combat loneliness.

In Britain's early 70s, more people rented their homes than bought them. While this trend sharply reversed in the ensuing decades, the rise of property prices in the 90s breathed new life into the movement.

Steep prices limited people’s rental options, and shows like Friends and MTV’s The Real World fascinated viewers. The idea of living with strangers looked like so much fun, and people wanted to experience it for themselves.

Hippie communes

In the 1960s, the desire to revolt against the now-popularized nuclear homes and live alternative lifestyles swept across America and Europe. 

 

American hippie commune of the 1970s

Source: allthatsinteresting.com

Young people from all walks of life chose to live together peacefully, rejecting the strict gender role-defining behaviors of their parent’s generation. Their governments were sending people to die in wars they didn’t believe in, so they formulated their counterculture in defiance against anybody telling them how to live their lives.

These communes were built out of a desire to fight back against “the man” as opposed to a deep need for shared housing. 

The 70s cohousing movement

The modern cohousing movement was catalyzed in Denmark in the 1970s. These communities were comprised of families living in homes surrounding shared spaces.

The difference between this cohousing movement and the many previous iterations is that it was born out of both a need and a desire. The residents wanted to interact with each other throughout the day, both socially and productively. 

Danish co-houses have been defined as the gold standard of modern cohousing communities. These communities were pioneering in their take on alternative-mainstream housing.

As such, the first cohousing community in America was built in the 90s in California and modeled off of Copenhagen’s cohousing communities of the 1980s.

Hacker houses

With the advent of the Internet, the flexibility to work wherever you had a computer and a connection was intriguing. There was no longer a need to sit in an office all day. 

silicon-valley-coliving cohousing 

Source: Silicon Valley (TV series)

Original hacker homes, which began popping up in and around San Francisco in the 2000s, housed teams of computer engineers living and working together to build tech startups. Being in close quarters all the time bred business productivity and creativity in a whole new way.

These homes inspired many others to do the same, and hacker houses still exist in droves today. 

Modern coliving: Communities with intention

As mentioned at the outset of this article, the sharing economy is in full swing, and young people today value experiences over material consumption.

Contemporary coliving takes the form of businesses offering community-hosted living spaces to people who are determined to learn and grow from each other. Residents live, work, socialize, network, eat, play and create together in units that have both private and shared rooms, communal spaces, and sometimes even coworking spaces. 

Coliving operators often have several locations within the same city, and many have spaces worldwide. They employ community hosts that live on-site to welcome residents and oversee community-sponsored events. These events often include dinners, BBQs, movie nights, and other social activities to unite the community.

Many also offer unique business networking opportunities to give members exclusive access to founders and investors with whom they can potentially learn and partner.

Similar to the Danish cohousing communities, modern coliving communities with intention have spurred out of both a need and a desire. But, they differ in that they are run by businesses that provide many perks and amenities and social and business networking opportunities to incite personal and professional prosperity for their members.

The modern coliving movement is the first time we’ve seen cohousing operate with the underlying impetus to give people a convenient and flexible space to learn, share and grow to better their future. 

Coliving spaces are seen not as permanent cohousing communities but rather as temporary (avg. 6 months to 2 years) dwellings for people to enhance their life skills while motivating and being motivated by a network of inspiring people. 

Where did the first modern coliving spaces arise?

In the past 10 years, we’ve seen an explosion of coliving spaces on a global scale. In a time when travel is easy, companies are remote-work friendly, apartments are increasingly expensive, loneliness and isolation levels are high, and the environment is struggling, modern coliving communities are a solution for many.

The craze first caught on in Berlin and Denmark and trickled out globally shortly thereafter.

In 2015, Common coliving launched in New York. Today, they have 25 properties across 6 cities in the US. Their members can download a proprietary app to chat with each other and their community hosts tons of events, from archery classes to brunches to incite bonding.

In 2016, The Collective opened in the UK. It was the first large-scale coliving space operating in that region. They advertise their units as a place to find your people, learn a new skill, experience flexible housing contracts and enjoy convenient, stress-free living. Today, they have thriving locations in New York and London that cater to a large community.

Quarters opened its doors in 2017. With 45 coliving spaces in Berlin and 47 in New York, their spaces are built for young professionals and founders with creativity and business focus in front of mind.

Niche coliving spaces

The idea of people from many different backgrounds living under one roof is flourishing. But, several types of coliving spaces are also devoted to specific groups of people. 

Coliving spaces for startups, artists, freelancers, remote workers, entrepreneurs, young professionals, and students are some examples of today's niche-coliving trends.

These subsets of coliving spaces allow for more structured networking opportunities between people that share professional and personal interests. 

For example, a house built entirely for entrepreneurs will likely host events skewed towards business meetups and investment opportunities to help their members thrive. And a house built with creatives in mind may host voice and acting lessons to assist their community in augmenting their skills.

Looking to the future

As the sharing economy continues to grow, coliving communities with intention are on track to skyrocket to new heights in the next few decades. The coliving movement is on fire and showing no signs of slowing down.

Many coliving companies have their eye on global expansion. As housing shortages and rental prices in cities are predicted to rise steadily, and societal and environmental factors trend towards commodity sharing, coliving communities will continue to surge in popularity and demand. 

Also, because today’s younger generations crave freedom and self-realization, and remote work is becoming the norm, coliving communities provide the flexible, alternative, and inspiring lifestyles they’re looking for.

 The modern coliving movement is disrupting today’s traditional rental and homeownership standards and revolutionizing how people in the 21st century aspire to live.

The best place to search for your ideal coliving community is on coliving.com. To find your match, you can sort through our global, verified listings by personal preferences.

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