Will Co-Living Ever Be Viable?

Tom Dixon’s Design Research Studio introduces Unity, a micro-housing concept that plans to open several hybrid living facilities across Scandinavia over the next couple years. Given the recent fumbles of similar concepts like Starcity, Common, and WeLive, it’s a tricky proposition.

Unity by Tom Dixon in Hammarby Sjöstad, Stockholm

Since launching Design Research Studio in 2003, Tom Dixon has overseen numerous world-class retail and hospitality interiors, exhibitions, and branding projects: The Manzoni restaurant in Milan that doubles as a showroom, Atlanta’s darkly theatrical Himitsu cocktail lounge, and the Atrium co-working space in London to name a few. The British studio’s latest project, Unity, is perhaps its most ambitious yet: a series of micro-housing concepts reimagining the future of hybrid living in Sweden, Finland, and Denmark. 

Opening in November, the first property is located in a former transformer production factory in Hammarby Sjöstad, Stockholm. Spanning more than 62,000 square feet, it offers 140 studio apartments, 200 flexible and fixed co-working spaces, an event space, a gym, and a café. Each residence has been designed as a library of parts, with multiple room layouts accommodating different uses depending on the tenant’s preference. Sustainable materials like cork and Dixon’s furniture can be found throughout: Slab Chairs, Swirl Wall Hooks, and Fat Lounge Chairs among them. Seven new properties aimed at a diverse range of long- and short-term tenants, including professionals, freelancers, students, and travelers, will open across the Nordic region in the next couple years.

Unity by Tom Dixon in Hammarby Sjöstad, Stockholm
Unity by Tom Dixon in Hammarby Sjöstad, Stockholm

Co-living is hardly a novel concept, with a number of starry-eyed companies having tested out various hybrid housing concepts in the American market with mixed results. Starcity attracted venture capital interest for its affordable dorm-like living arrangements that catered to San Francisco’s non-tech middle class backbone, but imploded during the pandemic due to ongoing financial struggles. The company’s completed buildings were acquired by Common, a rival firm based in New York that offers similar setups of private bedrooms with communal kitchens, bathrooms, and social areas. But Common recently gained notoriety when tenants exposed its unruly living conditions, slow response times to urgent repair issues, and extortion when tenants tried to change units after bizarre and unsettling encounters with neighbors. 

So is co-living actually viable? The fumbles of Starcity and Common recall Tokyo’s recently dismantled Nakagin Capsule Tower, which architect Kisho Kurokawa designed in 1972 as part of Japanese architectural movement Metabolism. The concrete building featured two towers, each with a stack of steel cube-like units stacked atop one another. Each unit, which measured eight by 13 feet, was outfitted with little more than built-in furniture, cabinets, and kitchen essentials, making them ideally suited—in Kurokawa’s eyes—for urban workers seeking no-frills living. The building soon fell into disrepair, with his utopian vision marred by asbestos, mold, leaks, and unwieldy repairs that alienated most tenants and caused the owners association to file for bankruptcy.

The Nakagin Capsule Tower in Ginza, Tokyo. Photography by Kakidai, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The trials and fateful ending of Nakagin seemingly portend the dissolution of Starcity, the disorder at Common, and the implosion of WeWork’s attempt at co-living, WeLive, and may explain why Shawnee, Kansas, voted to outlaw co-living rentals entirely. It sounds as though Dixon invested enough design ingenuity to make Unity a success in Scandinavia, but whether or not the concept can circumvent the missteps of its predecessors remains to be seen. 

In Their Own Words: “Young professionals and students deserve quality design and future thinking,” Dixon says in a statement. “Lower cost doesn’t necessarily mean less design value. UNITY is a response to this challenge. A key element in our thinking is that the future will have to become more cooperative. For us to achieve higher specifications, sharing becomes the solution. UNITY is a step towards addressing some of these fundamental issues or capturing the opportunity to rethink affordable housing with top-quality services, spaces planning, and community building.” 

Surface Says: With the paradigm shift toward remote work, there’s actually a need for well-executed co-living spaces that are equipped with amenities tailored to an itinerant workforce. In order to succeed, we’d recommend ditching the cultish fuckboy energy and shoddy construction. We have high hopes for Tom Dixon’s Unity. 

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