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The traditional housing model isn’t working – is ‘subscription living’ the future?

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Subscription models are thriving for TV, food, even clothes. They may also provide a solution to the housing crisis, writes Tarek Merlin

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There is a housing crisis in this country, but the traditional model of developer-led housing is not working. It will never be fast enough, it will never be big enough; it will never be ‘enough’ enough.

But what are the new models of housing and how can architects help make them happen? 

The traditional model of enforcing developer-led market-housing schemes to deliver affordable housing quotas as part of each project is not working. It is too slow, cumbersome and will never be able to satisfy the current need.

The baby boomers gave us a work ethic and domestic standards; a job for life, a forever home. And although this sense of stability and consistency was never going to satisfy the ravenous appetite of their offspring, that very British obsession with possession, and in particular home ownership, was undeniably passed down to Generation X, who diligently spent their time snaffling up housing stock, industriously squirrelling it away for their future winter.

Trouble is, no one was replacing the stock for the next generation. Combine that with a naturally exponential population growth and almost 10 years of economic doldrums with its associated politics of austerity; a gear change in property delivery and ownership has to happen.

The millennials are destined to live out a relationship with property that abandons the status symbol culture of ownership their predecessors held so dear. It is predicted that one in three UK millennials will never own a home. Half will be renting in their 40s and a third will continue to do so by the time they claim their pensions. 

Younger generations are less inclined to hold on to the objects the older generation places so much sentimental and monetary value in

But does this have to be a singularly bad thing? It starts to talk to a new kind of philosophy emerging in the current and coming generation that has to do with our relationship with ownership, possession and place. That feeling of ‘belonging’, community, or sense of place no longer has to be dependent upon owning bricks and mortar in a specific and fixed location.

Younger generations are less inclined to hold on to the objects, trinkets, souvenirs, and keepsakes that we, the older generation, place so much sentimental and monetary value in. Generation Z speaks far less about commodity and ownership than we ever did, and Gen Alpha looks much more towards less tangible things like ‘values and principles’; freedom and flexibility; quality (of experience) and equality (of politics); diversity and sustainability.

Could there be a typology of housing that can address this cultural paradigm shift? A more flexible, accessible housing model based more on a kind of subscription rather than the traditional hulking model of mortgage-based purchase or deposit-based contractual rental.

Subscriptions have taken hold in pretty much every other aspect of your life. TV and movies? Netflix. Music? Spotify. Food? Weekly recipe boxes. Even clothes? Yes, even clothes. There is a growing market based on clothes subscriptions, like Rent the Runway, giving you access to the latest runway fashions or vintage high-end pieces that you could never afford to own, but can have for a short while then send back for someone else to enjoy.

It could be a series of communal living rooms and kitchens; a café, bar and co-working spaces, with smaller private spaces

So, if subscription living is where the future of housing lies, what does it look and feel like, and how can we help?

It could be a series of large open amenity spaces including communal living rooms and kitchens; a café, bar and co-working spaces, as well as gym/cinema and external green spaces; with smaller private spaces, bedrooms and bathrooms, closer to a hotel than a codified apartment building.

The new models of housing emerging now do start to deal with this kind vision. Co-housing and co-living, led by The Collective, have quickly established themselves as burgeoning new normal and although it’s not without its drawbacks, the idea behind it all is a step in the right direction.

The idea of the subscription model would also buy you greater flexibility. The flexibility to come and go at short notice, to upgrade up and down-spec as circumstances in life inevitably change, as well as to readily move locations and travel to different cities – countries even – with the same provider. Competition would come in the form of the quality of the communal spaces, amenities and programme of events as well as the opportunities to travel. It is also about an idea of belonging to a tribe or community of like-minded people, who share not only the same space with you, but also a shared philosophy of living.

The ‘value’ of subscription living will, therefore, be measured in the quality of all the social spaces, the opportunities and events that are on offer, rather than the crude and simplistic measurement of square footage behind a front door.

No one is arguing for the abolition of minimum space standards. No one is saying that we shouldn’t ever build traditional homes again or that we’ll all have to give up our possessions. Solving the housing crisis needs to come with a balanced, mixed, selection of innovative and interesting choices – choice being the most important word in that sentence.

We need to do better at encouraging large-scale, profit-led, developers to take up their responsibility to balance their financial return with social good. But maybe we could agree that we could also allow room for alternative options, that might not hit all the minimum standards in the traditional modes of measurement but that might better reflect the way that some of us might want to live in the future.

Tarek Merlin will be one the speakers at the forthcoming Negroni Talk (17 June) ‘A’:The Problem With Affordable Housing alongside Calum Green of the London Community Land Trust, Claire Bennie from Municipal and Patrik Schumacher of Zaha Hadid Architects

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Readers' comments (3)

  • I agree on how interesting this is, but as a millennial i don't like the idea that i somehow don't need any security for winter like all future generations did. How can I raise a family and retire while still being subject to the whims of a landlord and their random / ever increasing rent increases? At the very least a lot of laws and regulatory procedures need to change first.
    I think in a few years time we will see a massive depreciation in the value of these developments which have higher densities than the "brutal" council blocks they replaced.

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  • Subscription housing sounds awful. It seems to be another buzzy way of suggesting that younger generations should be prepared to accept all of the crap disadvantages of renting in the UK, - crap landlords, poor quality living standards, stress and worry about being kicked out if you complain or the moment you have a financial wobble e.t.c. and then it suggests that you will need to share your living space with a bunch of other people who could be just about any form of miscreant you could dream up, - to hell with that. I rented for nearly 20 years and I can confirm that there are very good reasons why people in the UK will pretty much cut their own throat for a chance to buy their own home and not be at the bloody awful whim of landlords. Especially for those who come from the poorer end of the spectrum and so don't necessarily have money available or the leave allowance to sort out an instant house move.

    The answer to our housing problems is for Government to start building massive volumes of council homes again and for people to stop trying to find jazzy sounding ways of making the horror of renting into something more palatable.

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  • A provocative and, as always from Mr Merlin, intelligent piece of analytical writing. The current crisis will not be solved solely by the new "rent don't buy" PRS/BTR movement, people will want ownership eventually, particularly outside London, and sometimes we forget that the ideal for many is a 2 or 3 bed home with a garden, and a parking space (or two) on the edge of a city or major town. Not pretty, often flimsy and poor quality but valued as home. It won’t be solved either by the Collective model, which is as others have observed is more akin to student living than a long term residence for people of all ages and backgrounds who share their home. However, this article is spot on, we need to disrupt the marketplace for the current 18 - 30 age bracket in all urban areas as they are going to struggle to buy homes in London (and other high price areas) and the way we can do this is to offer different products, tenures and price ranges. The CoLive model is part of that offer and as this article states this must be one where the studio bed space and “shared” flat model is linked to amenity spaces that offer more than just a cinema room and a crappy coffee bar are viable. What do you value in your home? I bet its often the mundane; privacy, personality, storage…a little bit of space. I think this model with the right handling is a great chance to create useful stock that fits some of our needs, but that will often be a buffer/stepping stone from parental home via University Accommodation to a home of your own, maybe… Ownership will ultimately be achieved through rising salary vs falling house values, which is something no architect an bring about, so we best focus on what we can do to make life better when the client asks us how.

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