LONDONERS AT HOME: The Way We Live Now

Co-living - Shauna McGill & friends

Clockwise: Lucy Kennedy, Liam Harcourt, James Aikman, Rachael Ridley,

Shauna McGill (in red), Victoria Hardy and Kirsty McBriar


Date of photography: 19th February 2017

This modern living concept has taken off in London in a big way.   Shauna lives in a unique, communal environment where she both has the privacy of a room of her own and can also, as she pleases, share life with her fellow residents in the range of impressive, communal facilities offered at The Collective Old Oak.  Of course, it would be foolish to think of co-living as some kind of nirvana, but while it is obviously not a state of perfection, the majority of residents do see this as a very convenient place to live, a place where they do not have to bother about bills, Council Tax or mortgage repayments.   It would seem to be an almost ideal place to live until such time as people feel the need for a more permanent home, perhaps with a long-term partner.   It is a place where many friendships will be forged, and where some relationships will no doubt blossom, but it is also somewhere that creates the opportunity for residents to explore themselves and to share their experiences with others.


The full story:

A smart, 35 year-old, professional woman, Shauna McGill, meets me at the reception area of The Collective in North Acton.   The Collective is a large, nine-storey office block, converted into homes for almost 550 Londoners, all of whom have chosen to live in a quite remarkable ‘collective’ way.   Shauna originally moved to London from Northern Ireland, in order to study and to develop her professional career and, like most new arrivals, she experienced life in a variety of different parts of London, living in bedsits, in flat shares, and later, even in her own flat.   “I am a very sociable person.   I love people around me and I do think fondly of my time sharing a house with a number of other girls - all of us were in similar circumstances.   Whilst it was mostly an enjoyable experience, I found that, somehow, I seemed to have drifted into cleaning up after those of my flatmates who were too lazy to share in those duties required to keep the house in decent order, and thus pleasant for all of us."  


" In the end, I felt I had become a sort of caretaker for the house on behalf of the landlord, who lived outside London.   After that, and following a period when I was involved in a ‘significant relationship’, I moved into my own flat - surrounded by my own furniture and possessions, I felt for the first time that I had a home of my own.   So, just at the time when I was fully engrossed with building my professional career, I found myself living alone.”   Shauna’s experience is not atypical;  a great many people (irrespective of age) find themselves living lonely lives in a city crammed with other people.


Shauna was used to co-working in a very contemporary open-plan office environment and thus, for three days a week, she would be happily working alongside a constantly changing group of professionals who no longer had their own, dedicated offices and who were also well adjusted to flexible working.   “I very much enjoy the way I work, being able to meet new people all the time in the office and, precisely because of that, I felt the solitude at home more acutely.   Then I discovered The Collective and I loved the idea of it at once.   Having had a tour, I just booked my room there and then.”    


“I was fortunate to be shown around this extraordinary place by Joanna, one of the company’s Senior Managers, who has been with The Collective from the start.   From the very outset, they have striven to create a new type of accommodation for Londoners, with arrangements that they feel are essential to workers in a dynamic city, and have succeeded in attracting large numbers of professional people who are either not able to, or who do not wish to commit themselves to buying homes of their own and who have struggled to find good-quality rented accommodation.”   Remarkably, The Collective Old Oak is now the world’s largest co-living establishment, with well-designed, contemporary apartments, shared living spaces, and an impressive range of other facilities.   It was always envisaged as a thriving community and only a few months after opening, it has become just that.  


While residents’ bedrooms themselves are modest in size, the provision of shared spaces is generous and these are often spacious, light and airy, with high ceilings, beautifully furnished and kitted out with all the essential modern technology that we all now take for granted, both for leisure and for work.   Joanna comments:  “We strive to create communities of like-minded people who are happy working and playing under one roof.”  Though each apartment has a small kitchenette, every floor has a large, well-fitted kitchen where residents can prepare more elaborate meals, often to be shared with friends.   In addition to a tranquil Zen or ‘Secret  Garden’, a sauna and relaxation rooms, a well-equipped library, quiet spaces for those who need to concentrate on work without interruption, a large gym, a cinema, a games room, and a bistro serving freshly-cooked food and beverages all through the day, there are large, dedicated spaces, equipped with all the essential communication technologies, for those who choose to work from home.   There is also a collective laundry room.  


Shauna confirms that her room is indeed one of those that are modest in size but, she says, “To be honest, I spend relatively little time in it.   You will find me either working, relaxing, keeping fit or socialising with friends in the communal spaces, where lots of events are organised by the management or by the residents themselves.”   Even on the basis of a brief visit, The Collective certainly feels like a lively, dynamic place with its residents at the very centre of everything.


On the day of photography, Shauna kindly agreed to reprise one of her traditional Sunday lunches, preparing an impressive and quite delicious meal that was shared with friends, all of whom chipped-in to share the cost as well as helping with the practicalities too.   It was a real privilege to be able to share time with this group of friends and fellow residents, and to see at first hand life inside The Collective, where sharing and communal activity are encouraged but where privacy is respected, letting residents live accordingly to their moods and desires.   Shauna adds:  “You can choose to be on your own, if you want to, but you will never be lonely and, if you hit a problem, have some sort of personal crisis, or are in a need of help, you will get it;  you will be supported.”


Currently, residents at The Collective Old Oak range from 24 to 55 years of age and, while you can’t help noticing that the majority are young, the more mature residents clearly play an active part in many events and are clearly equally well integrated.


During a recent interview, the CEO of The Collective’s parent company, Reza Merchant, observed:  “We’re in an age of ‘suspended adulthood’ - the average age of marriage has climbed from 20 to 29 in 40 years, while 91% of Millennials report that they don’t plan to be in the job they’re in for more than three years.”  


During my recent visit, and following my chats to Shauna and her fellow residents, I found that the most frequently mentioned issue was loneliness and how this can be experienced by both new arrivals to the city and, indeed, those recently separated from a partner.   It is always assumed that young people have the advantage when it comes to socialising and finding new friends;  nothing seems to be further from the truth.   The very scale of London can be intimidating and while thousands of its denizens seem to be rushing around purposefully, they often come across as neither noticing nor caring about the people who surround them.   Shauna’s friend, Victoria, told me:  “Despite the fact that I am young and socialise easily, I realised that I was becoming almost a recluse;  that was the prime reason why I chose this mode of co-living.”


Of course, it would be foolish to think of co-living as some kind of nirvana, but while it is obviously not a state of perfection, the majority of residents do see this as a very convenient place to live, a place where they do not have to bother about bills, Council Tax or mortgage repayments.   It would seem to be an almost ideal place to live until such time as people feel the need for a more permanent home, perhaps with a long-term partner.   It is a place where many friendships will be forged, and where some relationships will no doubt blossom, but it is also somewhere that creates the opportunity for residents to explore themselves and to share their experiences with others.


Just like fear, loneliness ‘eats the soul’;  but if you live in The Collective, you can be on your own, enjoying your solitude and a little peace, but you will never be lonely.  



Text edited: 23rd February 2017  

Page modified: 2nd April 2019