Tackling the Challenges of Communal Living
(Image courtesy of GE Additive.)
The Low Impact Living Affordable (LILAC) community in Leeds, England, is one example of the communal housing that exists already today. Nazra Noushad wants to build on pre-existing projects like this one to create the comunal housing of tomorrow. (Image courtesy of LILAC.)

QUICK READ

  • Faced with the difficulty of finding affordable housing for her first year of university, Nazra Noushad started research into the possibilities of communal housing. When she realized that options for communal spaces were limited, despite their utility, she created an online discussion to brainstorm the future of affordable and communal housing. Click the Collaborate tab to view.
  • Noushad's ideas sparked discussion among users on several collaborative solutions, from IOT-enabled sliding walls to hallways reimagined as meeting spaces.
  • The kind of communal housing envisioned in Noushad’s project is in high demand among millennials, for whom high housing costs and growing urban loneliness are making traditional housing less attractive. The communal housing that’s currently available is popular among millennials, but the options are few and far between.
  • Noushad hopes that her project will continue to grow and gather feedback, informing the communal houses of tomorrow.

Housing is expensive. Modern society can be isolating. One young engineering mind is working on a solution to both of these problems: communal housing.

Nazra Noushad started thinking about the possibilities of modular and communal housing when she was looking for housing to rent for her first year in university. The difficulty of finding affordable housing prompted her to look at alternative living arrangements like communal living.

"When I first had the idea of modular homes and communal spaces, and I started to realize "Wow, this might actually work," it was so insane to look around and realize that it doesn't exist," said Noushad, who is currently taking a gap year before entering The University of Toronto’s computer science program to work with The Knowledge Society. "The more I talked to others and started to bounce ideas off of them, I realized that this makes so much sense and would help so many people." So Noushad created a project within the ProjectBoard community to brainstorm creative solutions to the problem of inexpensive housing.

Noushad’s used the community’s wide-open whiteboard space to structure a discussion that looks more like an ecosystem. Instead of an orderly, line-by-line discussion, Noushad arranged hubs for different areas of the discussion (i.e. kitchen solutions vs. bathroom ideas), where users could leave comments and links in “chains” of comments around the hubs. She also included a corner for “crazy ideas,” and added bright yellow “bubbles” next to the ideas she specifically needed help developing.

"When I'm sketching things out on paper, I never structure these things linearly,” Noushad said. “[ProjectBoard] didn't make me feel restricted or constrained to a certain way of structuring my thoughts or ideas, and essentially allowed other people to comment or collaborate along with these ideas.”

As part of the ProjectBoard, users collaborated on a possible interior model of a communal house. (Image courtesy of ProjectBoard.)

The community enthusiastically took on Noushad’s mission, creating a web of ideas crisscrossing the white board. They have been particularly excited about her idea of sliding walls to allow residents to adjust room sizes as necessary, linking sound-dampening materials, and suggesting possible uses for IOT in controlling the walls. Users have also discussed shared kitchens, bathroom placement, appropriate building choices, and how to create welcoming communal environments to work in.

Part of the reason Noushad's idea caught on is because it's not just a cool project, it's a cool project with a heart and urgent applicability in the world today. "It's not just about having an extremely well-designed house, it's not just about fitting people into spaces," Noushad said, "It's about changing the ecosystem such that we alleviate poverty and financial distress."

Many millennials are caught in a financial crunch, where rising student debt meets stagnant wages. “The job market for millennials isn’t nearly as good as it was for Baby Boomers or the beginning of Gen Xers,” says Steven A. Boorstein, a financial planner at RockCrest Financial. “They’re getting hired, but the jobs aren’t paying as much on an equivalent basis as they were 10 or 15 years ago.” When both those factors are combined with rising home prices, it makes it difficult for millennials to break into the housing market.

To avoid the crunch of low incomes and high rents, younger millennials often turn to housing arrangements like student housing cooperatives, houses communally owned by groups of students who live in the rooms and share spaces like bathrooms and kitchens. "I was initially drawn to communal housing because of great location and affordable price, but also because I had already established a community within the co-op because of other friends who lived there," said Rhianna Jackson-Kelso, a young professional living in one of Toronto's student co-operatives. "The main benefits have been social support pretty much whenever I crave it - I can take alone time when I want it, but if I want to be social it's easy to drop in on friends and just hang out. I also have access to more practical types of support, like borrowing tools, ingredients, and cooking utensils from neighbours if I'm in a pinch."

But these spaces are still limited in the context of a large city. And, once students graduate, they are no longer able to continue living in the coop. The challenge, then, is to find communal spaces for the just-post-graduates still making student salaries.

Noushad’s project is a step in that direction. But she also believes in the importance of gathering data and designing communal housing to the specific needs of the occupants. “We can’t optimize the space we use until we know what the demand is going to look like, and how many people are going to use it, and also the behaviours of people,” she said, indicating that the data-collection may have to take place outside of the forum.

For the millennials already living in student co-operatives, they are living in spaces not built to house multiple people, and the constraints can be frustrating. “Big group spaces are really key,” said Kelso. The co-op house I live in is divided by floor, so even though there are nine of us living here it feels like much less. I think the pinnacle of communal living is the house that neighbours mine, because they have two adjacent kitchens and two adjacent living spaces. I think out of any type of communal space, the kitchen is the most important, since pretty much everyone needs to use it daily. It can be a great space for teamwork (co-cooking) and eating together is one of those classic bonding experiences.”

Data-gathering about people’s needs and behaviours, especially people who have already lived in communal housing, will be important in planning the communal houses of the future. To that end, Noushad wants to continue and expand the conversation on affordable housing: "Collaboration is important, but continued collaboration is necessary for projects like these to succeed"

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