Tuesday 17 September 2019

Collective thinking on co-living plans

The concept has faced a rocky introduction here, but could yet play a vital role in solving the housing crisis

James Penfold at The Collective in London. Photo: Max Lacome
James Penfold at The Collective in London. Photo: Max Lacome

Michael Cogley

In the midst of a housing crisis a company that promises to add to the country's stock should be welcomed with open arms, one would imagine. But that has yet to be the case for both domestic and overseas developers offering a new form of housing known as co-living. The concept, which sees residents share communal kitchens and other spaces, has been through a tumultuous introduction in Ireland.

Early designs have been dismissed as "Dickensian" by some detractors, while one politician has even proposed legislation ensuring such development is banned.

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The frosty reception has not yet deterred London-based The Collective, one of the world's biggest brands in co-living, which purchased a site in Fumbally, in Dublin 8.

James Penfold is the man tasked with bringing The Collective's model to life in Ireland.

"I wouldn't say it's frustrating but I would say that we understand the scepticism," he says on a tour of the company's first building in Old Oak, in west London.

"It's understandable for people to be sceptical of something that's new and something they haven't seen before, and perhaps they don't fully understand.

"It's our job to deliver a best-in-class co-living development in the city that can act as a proof of concept for Dublin like we have done in London, and for people to then make up their own minds up about whether they believe co-living is a good or bad thing for the city."

The Collective Old Oak is the world's largest co-living facility. After opening three years ago it has boasted a 98pc occupancy level, with residents typically staying for between four months and a year.

The building offers a range of extra facilities from a roof terrace to a spa and cinema room. It acted as a starting point for the business, which places a huge emphasis on the "community" among its residents. Staff at the building run a host of events but residents themselves have also taken to running events of their own from yoga, to cooking classes, to long-form discussions.

The Collective is already a sizeable business - it has raised $800m (€725m) to date. And its ambitions are even bigger.

"We're looking to scale globally so that by 2025 we'll have hit 100,000 rooms. So far we've about 9,000," he says.

"As well as Dublin we have several projects across the UK, in Chicago, Miami and a number of them in New York. We also have projects in Berlin where we've opened another office."

Like most businesses, a lot of The Collective's decision-making is data-driven. That much is obvious when walking through its Canary Wharf development, which is due to open imminently.

The 20-storey building in the heart of London's financial district is a clear step up from Old Oak both in terms of the finish and the facilities on offer. Its crowning glory is a swimming pool at the top overlooking the City - an addition which truly stretches the definition of Dickens-era accommodation.

"We've gathered a huge amount of data over the last three-and-a-half years, with data centres tracking which spaces are used more than others," he says.

"We also collect a huge amount of consumer feedback and insight on a weekly basis, which we use to inform future designs on our spaces and on new projects."

The net effect of such data gathering has led the company to leave behind 14 sq m rooms that it deemed to be too small. Canary Wharf's 700-plus rooms will also be serviced by more than 100 full-time staff.

"Our minimum room size in London now is 16 sq m and in some cities, including Dublin, we may do larger," he says.

"But the entire building is your home. So in Canary Wharf, for example, you get access to the swimming pool, the subsidised restaurant, the screening room, the health and wellness facilities, the gym, all included in your rent.

"And whilst, yes, the rooms are not as big as an apartment, the rooms are not meant to be an apartment. The rooms are where you rest your head in the evening or you might want to cook your dinner if you want some privacy. But the idea of living in one of these buildings is that you're part of a bigger community and that the full 250,000 sq ft of the building is your playground."

The Collective's plans for Dublin are still at a very early stage, with discussions ongoing with planners around the volume and size of the rooms that will be permitted.

However, one can probably expect the smallest rooms to be at least 17 sq m.

The company has been scoping out Dublin for some time too, meeting with locals and assuring them that it is a force against gentrification rather than the harbinger of overcrowded living. Penfold says the company's push into the Irish market is being backed by Dublin-based MM Capital.

He also says the company will look to market the rooms to those already living in the area first.

"In Dublin we see a hugely progressive city and when we saw the Fumbally neighbourhood we knew it was really well suited to our offer and the way we approach areas by helping them to push on," he says.

"We see Fumbally as a neighbourhood that has huge potential and a great history. We also think we'll be able to create something that will involve and integrate local people and local businesses and that will act as a force against gentrification."

As Penfold outlines the benefits of the business, he also expresses his disappointment at proposed legislation aimed at banning co-living in Ireland.

Sinn Féin's housing spokesman Eoin Ó Broin published a bill in August that would repeal the co-living amendment to the Planning and Development Act, which was brought in by Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy.

Ó Broin slated the guidelines for removing restrictions on apartment building heights, decreasing minimum sizes and increasing the number of small studio apartments in a single development.

"It's a shame that has happened and I would have loved to show these people our Old Oak and Canary Wharf buildings to show them the reality of co-living," he says.

"I think that housing is an emotive issue, understandably, and people are frustrated by a lack of options in housing provision.

"That's why it's so important to broaden the housing mix. Co-living is not a replacement for traditional houses or apartments, it's just another option.

"Actually what it might do is free up a lot of those houses and apartments that are being used by sharers and give them back to the families and couples that really need them.

"It can help in restoring equilibrium to the market."

Penfold also says it's "on the industry" to deliver a range of housing types suitable for different demographics.

Companies like The Collective have also inspired other developers to look at the model in place of traditional residential development.

The best-known in Ireland to date is Richard Barrett's Bartra Capital, which was recently approved to build a 208-unit development in Dún Laoghaire. The company is also eyeing another co-living development on the Ardee Road in Rathmines. Other builders are taking note also.

However, Penfold warns other developers that co-living is not as simple as just building it and letting it out.

"We have a really good understanding of how to build a real sense of community in these buildings," he said.

"It's impossible to open a co-living building of scale and expect it to run itself, and any operator who tries to do that is not going to succeed because people won't stay with them for long. They'll leave and they won't come back.

"The reason we have 98pc occupancy in our buildings and waiting lists is because the experience that our members and residents take from us is exceptional and it keeps them coming back."

Much of the co-living sell is based around appealing to single people either moving to a new city or on the lookout for somewhere to stay or maybe suffering from loneliness. While it is largely viewed as an option for younger people, Penfold says that the mix of people through The Collective's doors is quite diverse.

"A lot of people who've been with us have come to a point in their lives where they're feeling lonely and isolated. They might have lost a partner or they might have moved into London for the first time," he says.

"We now have people from 18 to 66 living with us and over a quarter of our members are 35-plus. It's a mindset and it suits people who are looking for a social connection and to be part of a community."

A decade ago The Collective's chief executive Reza Merchant set up an agency renting rooms once he realised the difficulty behind getting a place for a single person in London. Following on from that he started developing buildings of around 50 rooms for single people before ultimately constructing the building at Old Oak.

Merchant's vision for co-living was originally rooted in meeting the needs of single people, but Penfold points out that there is plenty of room for growth in the business model.

"We're also looking at communal housing for families where young couples who have babies or families have an opportunity to live in our buildings and have access to the same shared spaces and operational excellence," he says.

While delivering new co-housing models may well be on the cards in the future, The Collective has a more immediate battle on its hands in Dublin in getting its first building up and running in the face of political furore and public outcry.


Curriculum Vitae


James Penfold




Ireland country lead and global planning director at The Collective


Wandsworth, London


London South Bank University

Previous experience



Married with four children


Travelling, yoga and running

Favourite film

I Love You, Man

Favourite Book

The Meaning Revolution by Fred Kofman


Business Lessons

What advice would you give yourself if you were starting out again?

Listen and follow your instincts.

What corporate culture do you promote at The Collective?

We have a culture of empathy, entrepreneurism and impact.

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