The Pyramid of Coliving Needs
If there were a "Maslow's hierarchy of needs" for designing coliving environments.
This is a guest post from Jackson Steger, who leads Growth at Cabin. Cabin is building a global coliving network for creators and remote workers who want to live immersed in nature. He is also the author of Future of Living, which is about how the collision of remote work, satellite internet, the gig economy, and renewable energy enables new models of living and coordination that we haven't fully imagined yet. When he isn't doing those two things, he hosts Campfire, a podcast about how to build new cities. Phil joined an episode last year to share lessons in neighborhood design from his Culdesac days.
Design made with the talented @_katherholt
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What makes a coliving space truly great? How can we create environments that not only meet our basic needs for shelter and security, but also help us to grow as individuals? How might we coordinate to create an incredible living experience at a low cost?
One way to answer these questions is by looking at the Pyramid of Coliving Needs. This visual framework is the result of 30+ interviews with leaders reimagining how we live (includes both for-profit and DIY coliving contexts). It is also informed by my experience coliving across multiple countries and a dozen US cities.
Basic needs: The base of the pyramid
Adopt the following principles to lay a good foundation for a well-designed coliving space.
Don’t cheapen the essentials:
For residents, a coliving environment is their home - it’s crucial to provide a smooth and comfortable living experience. Beds, sheets, WiFi, and work spaces should be top-of-the-line. It’s a worthwhile investment to know that folks are sleeping well and are set up for success when they work. Get good mattresses. Splurge on the 500mbps WiFi speeds. Buy some standing desks. Many of us spend most of our day sleeping or working - these small touches will improve everyone’s day-to-day experience.
Design for serendipity:
Don’t hope for connection between residents - engineer it. A wishy-washy resident happy hour once a month won’t create the deep connections that fuel supportive and caring environments, but repeated organic connections will. Strangers become friends through a combination of shared interests and shared time. You can impact the latter by designing a space so that residents more easily bump into one another throughout their day. To do this, the best coliving spaces embrace the architectural pattern of caves and commons.
Caves and commons is what it sounds like: You want a combination of private caves (where people sleep) surrounding common areas used by all. When folks leave their cave, they must navigate through the commons, where they can more easily interact with others in the community.
Don’t put shared resources on a roof or in a basement that nobody is going to visit unprompted. If your community is going to spend significant money on great amenities (a worthwhile endeavor if you have a committed core group of co-owners), then you should place those amenities in the common spaces and walkways so that they actually get used. When folks pass by shared spaces during their daily rhythms, there is a higher chance that they activate the spaces and foster unplanned group hangouts.
In short, make it easy to find friends and to enjoy a space.
Enable high degrees of privacy:
Contrary to popular belief, many introverts love coliving. Even though these can be highly stimulating and social environments, introverts appreciate that they can enter and exit their caves on their terms.
Private bedrooms are great. But some other coliving houses may opt for denser living accommodations to accommodate people with tighter budgets. Japanese style pods or rooms w/ dividers are an equally affordable way to provide a better privacy experience. Even in the case of shared bedrooms, aim to design for as much audio-visual privacy as possible.
I’ve found that thicker wooden walls are pretty effective at canceling noise from outside.
Create shared mobility:
The best way to make sure someone doesn’t feel trapped is to give them a way to escape. As fun as coliving environments are, folks will still want to come and go as they please. For that, they need transportation options. As a resident, I always appreciate how access to shared transportation options (like house bikes or car share agreements) enable me to explore the larger contexts of the coliving community I’m visiting.
Many coliving residents might be too nomadic to deal with the logistics of owning their own vehicle or other form of transportation. Your community can expand the radius that someone can travel outside of your coliving hub by providing shared bikes, scooters, and skateboards. You can even do this with cars or minivans in high-trust communities. Depending on your level of comfort, you may want to have some written agreements here.
The middle of the pyramid (part 1): Amenities
Amenities usually are included on traditional apartment marketing websites or hotel instagram pages, but rarely are actually used (often because these places don’t engineer for serendipity, as discussed above).
But in the context of coliving, here are the amenities that I’ve found consistently add value, get used, and help make for an incredible living experience:
An industrial kitchen for making meals for large groups. Two dishwashing machines are preferred to one. Large pots, good grill surface area, and ample fridge storage will help support the density of folks living near each other. For larger communities, Micro-kitchens scattered elsewhere across the property offer additional, more "chill" cooking spaces.
Saunas. This will run you about $2-12k depending on which model you choose. Seems silly until you try it. Saunas lead to increased metabolism, increased weight loss, better sleep, improved muscle recovery and reduced soreness. We built one at Cabin’s Neighborhood Zero coliving property and it gets used almost every single night, year round.
A gym/yoga studio. This can be scaled up or down depending on the spending power of your coliving group. The low end of this is a bench and a pair of adjustable dumbbells that you leave in a yard or multipurpose room. The middle end of this includes cardio machines or a shared Peloton. The high end is a premium facility or a dedicated sporting complex. Whatever you choose, aim to offer something that allows residents to move their bodies! This is especially powerful on days when it's too cold or rainy for outdoor activities.
A hot tub. Probably more of a hassle than anything else on this list, but who doesn’t like a hot tub?
A cold plunge. The health benefits are well documented, and a cold tub pairs nicely with a sauna/hot tub. The minimally viable version of these is also very cheap.
Creator spaces. Podcast studios and recording equipment that are ready-made for creators will be sure to attract artists, musicians, and many others who make content for a living. Just be sure that the WiFi works in those spaces, too - I once signed a three month coliving lease and was excited to use a podcasting space, only to learn that the internet connection was too weak to actually use for calls. At Cabin, we intend to build a network of properties that are creator-first.
A movie theater or a lounge with ample seating around a TV. Don’t have this in the main social area or folks will inevitably be sucked into whatever passive content someone is consuming. Multipurpose rooms don’t work. But there is something wholesome to a movie night with friends or watching a basketball game/reality show/live cultural moment together - so it’s nice to have as an option.
Do you need all of these? Absolutely not. IMO, the kitchen is the only required amenity from this list because everybody eats every day and a large, well-stocked kitchen can become an effective social space in addition to serving an essential function.
But one of the reasons why coliving is so special is because the density and high number of residents pooling their money allows many premium amenities to suddenly become affordable because of economies of scale. If your community can share these costs, you’re able to deliver a higher value living experience for everyone.
The middle of the pyramid (part 2): Community Norms
Cool perks like the ones listed above can only get you so far - the true magic of coliving comes from having cohesive communities. Roommates bickering is nothing new and coliving introduces more housemates than many have had before. It’s imperative to have principles or norms that a community upholds and that each resident agrees to follow.
Each coliving community should have norms that feel natural and organic to it - there is no one-size-fits-all. Below are some examples that I have seen work well, but this is by no means an exhaustive list:
Chefs rotate and co-create. Coliving communities should either split the cost of hiring a private chef (surprisingly affordable after 15+ housemates) or have a rotating schedule of cooking shifts. This way, everyone knows that they can count on a warm meal with friends at the end of each day, but without the overhead of having to commit to making meals every night. There is nothing more special than when a resident cooks an old family recipe to share with the group. Encourage folks to bring these cherished, nostalgic tastes to the group.
Chefs don’t clean. If you do decide that you want coliving members to cook for the community each/most nights, then whoever cooks on any given night should not have to do dishes.
Cheer the opt-out. Some people mistakenly think that just because you live in a coliving community means you have to do all the activities and participate in all the meals. That should not be the case at all. While paying members should be welcome at all events, nobody should be required to attend. Everyone has different commitments and energy levels.
Adopt do-ocracy. Do-ocracy encourages community members closest to a decision to make any small decision that is cheap and easily-reversible. Group decision-making runs the risk of being slow and overcomplicated. "Do-ocracy" (which Phil writes about here) is an effective way to counteract these flaws to empower residents to act on the to-dos the community needs most
Utilize a brag channel. We make the mistake of stigmatizing bragging. If you create a culture of bragging when you complete chores, it enables two things. 1) You get props for doing things that help the community and your work doesn’t go unnoticed. 2) Other people notice chores being done at a higher rate and feel compelled to also contribute to the common good. Phil expands on this in the post ‘Fairness is overrated and bragging is underrated.’
Norms should be minimal and bottom-up. Have community members introduce them as a response to situations native to your coliving hub, and then communicate the norms clearly to new members as they enter the community.
The top of the pyramid: Community Intention
A governing community intention helps to tie the pyramid together. It helps to attract a specific community of individuals who share a common interest or goal.
I mentioned earlier that strangers become friends through shared interests and shared time. A community intention is a way to get members of your coliving hub to self-select their shared interests. For example, a coliving hub focused on wellness might attract residents interested in a lifestyle filled with yoga, meditation, and healthy eating. This can create a sense of camaraderie and support among residents, which can contribute to a positive living experience.
Beyond general wellness, here are a few more example themes that different coliving communities might adopt:
A space for musicians to collaborate daily
A hacker house for founders and entrepreneurs
A place for dancers to always have the opportunity to improve their craft
A group of nutrition-conscious roommates could design their environment to best support their diet
A space for environmentalists to live sustainably
A coliving community that promotes social justice and activism
A community of pet owners
A space for fitness enthusiasts to train and work out together
A hub for spiritual seekers and practitioners
A coliving space for seniors
A community of gamers and esports enthusiasts
A space for outdoor enthusiasts and adventurers
A space for makers and DIY enthusiasts
A governing intention can also help to create a cohesive community culture. When residents are aligned around a shared intention, it can help to create a sense of purpose and direction for the community. This can lead to more meaningful interactions and collaborations between residents.
A specific intention can also help to differentiate a coliving hub from others in the market. By offering a unique value proposition, such as a focus on wellness or creativity, a coliving hub can attract residents who are specifically seeking that type of experience. This can help create a loyal community of residents who are invested in the coliving hub's mission and values for the long run.
The Pyramid of Coliving Needs provides a visual framework for designing and building successful coliving spaces, from the basic needs of shelter and security to the amenities and community norms that make a space truly great. By embracing these principles, groups can design incredible living experiences that enrich the lives of their residents and foster new friendships in an increasingly lonely world.
What we need now is the next generation of gatherers and caretakers to come forward and be the leaders that these communities need. If you’re that kind of leader, hop into Cabin’s discord to learn about opportunities to host or colive with Cabin.
Thanks for reading! And thanks so much to Phil and Gillian for the opportunity to guest write. If you enjoyed the piece, you can subscribe for free to my monthly substack called Future of Living for more :)
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Super interesting article, thanks Jackson! I feel like I could be a coliving community consultant after reading this
From your perspective, where do you think most coliving communities are at right now on the pyramid?