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Common Living will operate co-living spaces in a development near downtown Ottawa starting in 2022.

In order to live in a nicer home, move to a better neighbourhood or afford to buy a house at all, are you open to splitting with friends? If so, what rooms, exactly, would you be willing to share? You might have a bedroom to yourself, but could you sacrifice free rein in the kitchen? How about autonomous rule over your own bathroom or living area?

These are questions being asked by a provocative installation at Toronto’s Interior Design Show, on from Jan. 16 to 19. Dare to Share, designed by local architecture studio Picnic Design, is a house-shaped pavilion featuring mini models of different amenities such as laundry facilities and home gyms. As visitors pass through, they are given stickers that say “yes” and “no” and asked to fix their yeses to the parts of the house that they are happiest to designate common property, and the nos those that are too precious to pool.

“We’re basically doing a big, analog survey,” Picnic Design’s Joanne Lam says. “I am very curious to see what spaces people could imagine sharing.”

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For a designer such as Lam, the interest is neither abstract nor academic. It’s her way to understand what people across a wide range of demographics want from increasingly in-demand co-living set-ups. For millennials, combining resources might be the only way to pay for Canada’s pricey real estate (home prices have tripled in some markets over the past 20 years). On the flip side, many seniors are starting to cohabitate to deal with what’s been referred to as a loneliness epidemic. According to the latest census data, one in four seniors lives alone, increasing the risk of depression, anxiety and heart disease.

Regardless of age, one common issue for the designers of co-living spaces is that no one over 21 wants to feel as though they are living in a seedy college dorm, with no privacy, prison-grade furniture and the kind of grungy showers that necessitate wearing plastic sandals. That’s where good architecture and interiors can help, elevating a humble concept such as co-living into something that feels more luxurious.

Some of Canada’s first, large-scale co-living projects are investing in design. When Node opens a 38-unit building in Kitchener, Ont., in 2021, it will have spaces created by Toronto’s DesignAgency. Its renderings depict inviting living spaces – exposed brick walls, white oak floors, mid-century inspired furniture – that have more in common with the firm’s other projects, including the restaurant Momofuku, the private members club Soho House and the Broadview Hotel, all in Toronto, than undergraduate digs.

Node's co-living project in Kitchener, Ont., slated to open in 2021, has rooms created by Toronto's DesignAgency.

Common Living, North America’s largest co-living property managers, has its own, in-house design studio that is currently working on plans for its first project in Canada, near downtown Ottawa. When complete in 2022, it will look nothing like university housing (fitting, given that the average age of Common Living building residents is 30). Rather than a long, dark corridor lined with poky cells, each two and three-bedroom suite will have a common kitchen and lounge areas, many with views of the Ottawa River. Also, each room will be fully furnished in a calm, Scandinavian aesthetic. Imagine lots of cool greys, offset with warm oaks and the occasional glossy subway tile.

“Residents can personalize their space,” says Brad Hargreaves, founder of Common Living. “It’s just that many people don’t necessarily have a lot of furniture, and don’t want the expense of buying it.”

A major benefit of sharing a Common Living flat is that the rents tend to be 30 per cent less than comparable one-bedroom units. Pricing for the Ottawa project is expected to start at $1,225 a month, and include WiFi, electricity and perks such as rooftop yoga and weekly housekeeping (a plus for preventing spats over unswept floors or crumb-covered counters).

Node and Common Living work particularly well for renters. But Picnic Design’s Lam also imagines that co-living can accommodate people who want to own as well, such as parents with kids or seniors who no longer want to live by themselves. And rather than an expansive building, she’s picturing something low-rise, maybe three storeys, on a quiet residential street.

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Right now, there is a dearth of such projects. Zoning is tricky, favouring single-family homes over anything that is remotely set up like a rooming house. Similarly, mortgage financing is harder to secure. “Banks are risk averse,” says real estate agent Lesli Gaynor, whose company GOCO specializes in co-ownership properties and is a partnering with Lam on Dare to Share at the Interior Design Show. “Even though there are ways to structure the financing to avoid risks, many banks are hesitant to loan to anyone but married couples and direct relatives.”

“There are challenges,” Lam says. “But I’m optimistic that with the changing demographics, these arrangements will become more commonplace and acceptable.” When that happens, Lam will be ready with designs.

From the outside, one of her mock-ups is indistinguishable from many contemporary urban houses: three storeys, charcoal cladding, flat roof. “The real difference is that, inside, there are separate suites on the upper floors,” Lam says. Some might have kids’ rooms, others not. But the suites don’t have their own kitchens, the way they might in a small rental building. There’s only a single cooking space, on the ground floor, which is a more efficient use of space over all. It allows the individual units to have more square footage for spaces such as sitting areas for private time.

Notable in the design is that every suite has a little balcony, providing access to the outdoors, in addition to a shared backyard. “That’s part of what’s nice about living in a building that’s low to the ground with access to nice outdoor space in a residential neighbourhood,” Lam says. “I have nothing against condos as a housing type. But not everyone wants to live 40 floors up, where it might be too windy to ever comfortably go outside.”

For the past 16 years, Cheryl Bradbee, a university and college professor, has been living in a Mississauga home custom-built for co-living. It’s one of only a few in the Greater Toronto Area, on a leafy side street in the Clarkson neighbourhood.

“People think this is a new concept, but it isn’t,” Bradbee says. “Think of the Golden Girls. I started looking at the option in the nineties because I was a single woman, heading toward 40, and I thought it was a straight-forward way to gain equity. I also thought it made sense as a model for women who didn’t want to age alone … [Women] live longer than men but we don’t get paid as well as men, we often don’t have the money for retirement homes.”

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In the house, a common ground floor with shared kitchen, living and dining areas has separate entrances for three apartments above, each with windows overlooking surrounding greenery. To finance the $1.5-million construction, it helped that one of her co-owners had inherited a million dollars from a grandmother.

Although the house is now for sale for $2.7-million (one of the co-owners was ill, and needed to move out for substantial care), Bradbee enjoyed co-living so much that she is keen for a repeat. Her key learning was to ensure all contingencies were spelled out in advance. “It’s good to have a reserve fund in place for major repairs,” she says. “After my place sells I plan on doing another co-living set-up – this time, with my sister.”

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