Last Summer we opened The Collective Old Oak, the world’s largest co-living space. At Old Oak, members rent self-contained studio apartments, but have access to numerous shared spaces and daily community events — it’s a new take on living in cities, focussing on community, connectedness and convenience.
To learn more about life at Old Oak, we spoke to Head of Community, Ed Thomas. Here’s what he had to say:
What does it mean to be Head of Community at The Collective Old Oak?
I effectively oversee the team that look after our members’ experience. I like to use the metaphor that we are the software to the building’s hardware. If you imagine a Tesla car, you have the standard 4 wheels and chassis, but if you send it a software update it can go from having a top speed of 150 mph to 170 mph — the hardware’s exactly the same, but the software’s what’s gotten better. So we’re trying to do the same thing here at Old Oak by creating a better living experience!
What is co-living?
Co-living is a model of living that is very much inspired by old ways of living — so, living with other people — but with new aspects added in. It’s a lifestyle that’s focussed on being very convenient, and also having a great sense of community. You belong to somewhere, which is a really important part of what co-living’s about.
Co-living at Old Oak is something we want to be a viable competitor to your standard living options in places like London. We want to be able to compete with a studio flat or a houseshare that you might find on spareroom.
What sparked your interest in co-living?
I moved to San Francisco in 2014, and lived in a co-living space myself. I was so compelled by the concept that I was researching The Collective almost immediately after I started living there, as I was supposed to be coming back to the UK after 6 months. I felt like it was such an amazing concept, and was convinced that it could have a massive impact on a lot of people’s lives — because it had such a big impact on my life.
I ended up living in a handful of co-living spaces all around San Francisco, and then working for a company that built co-living spaces because I believed in the concept so much. Unfortunately visa issues brought me back to the UK, but The Collective was building their co-living space so I got in touch!
Why do you think co-living is important?
I look at it in two ways. The first way relates to the practicalities of finding somewhere to live in London. It can be a really really bad experience: it can take a long time, there can be hidden costs, there’s great uncertainty around the quality of housing and landlords etc. So I think co-living has the potential to offer people a really good experience instead of the often really bad experience that is finding somewhere to live.
In a more aspirational way — and having firsthand experience I can vouch for this —I think co-living pushes people outside of their comfort zone, and opens their eyes to a whole new world. You’re surrounded by different people from different countries doing different things, and home suddenly becomes an education, in that sense. It’s a place to learn — about yourself, about industries, about art, culture, nationalities. I think that’s one of the great takeaways from people’s experience here: they feel like they’ve been pushed outside of their comfort zones, but they’ve also learnt something — and that can have a huge knock on effect on what happens next in their lives.
What kind of people live at Old Oak?
The vast majority of people are what I call young professionals, so people between the ages of 22-35. We also have 10% students here (typically master’s students), as well as people in their 40s and 50s — so it’s a very very diverse mix of people. I was at an event last night where we had a product manager at BT, a lady who runs her own marketing start up who’s just moved back from Bali, and a lady who’s a GP — so there’s a broad range.
How do you ensure the smooth-running of such a large community?
We start with the people we hire. The community team are very empathetic people, so they are able to relate to the challenges of living in a place like this. There are of course challenges of living with 546 people, but we’re trained specifically to resolve any conflicts between residents. The community team play a key role in being the layer between the company and the people, and between the people as well.
What I like about our approach is that the residents themselves have a big say in how we solve problems. We sort of crowdsource our problem-solving, which is very unique, I think, in a home space. We test different ways of solving the challenges we experience.
How can Old Oak members connect with one another, and with the community team?
Beyond our daily community events, we also have a Facebook group, which is effectively a digital common space. It’s a place where people can go to introduce themselves, meet other people, and see what’s going on in the community.
We also have various channels for feedback, which is a critical part of making this place better. We hold a Town Hall once a month, as well as weekly community drop in sessions, so people can come forward with ideas, concerns or questions. We also work with residents in the building who offer other services — things like mental health, wellness or exercise — so people can attend sessions run by other residents too.
There are a lot of ways we ensure that there’s a two-way conversation, and that it feels like it’s as grassroots as possible rather than top-down.
What have been some of the community’s biggest successes so far?
On an individual level, I’ve seen a couple of amazing stories where individuals have been inspired enough by living at Old Oak to take radical decisions outside of Old Oak. Co-living is a fairly radical decision, and how people have taken that mindset beyond the walls of Old Oak has been very interesting. We’ve seen people get jobs they never normally thought they’d get — I think that’s amazing! I also take great pleasure in seeing people become friends with each other. No one really knew each other before moving into this building — everyone comes in on their own — so friendships forming is what it’s all about. There will be some lifelong friendships being formed as we speak.
Collectively, I’ve enjoyed seeing the whole community come together at various events that we host, seeing people enjoy each other’s company, and then seeing those experiences travel beyond these four walls. People have gone on holiday together — a roadtrip group have just come back, they rented a minivan and went on eurotrip; there’s another group going skiing together. It’s a huge success to have co-living facilitate these connections, and then to see them flourish.
What have you learnt from your time at Old Oak?
A couple of things. While there is this perception that British people are extremely closed off, I think we have the capacity to open up and be very un-British.
Another thing that I’ve observed — also having been through it myself — is the challenge of being a young person post-university in a city like London. It’s a very lonely city, very isolating at times, and it can be very challenging starting a new job and being at the bottom. I’ve seen that happen, on one hand, but I’ve also seen how co-living has helped provide support to people who are going through that, and that’s been amazing.
What would you say to someone who is considering co-living?
As I said earlier, I think co-living is a radical decision that will push people outside their comfort zones. I think people in their 20s and 30s should be doing nothing but pushing themselves outside of their comfort zones, and co-living at The Collective Old Oak is a great step because everyone else is doing it at the same time. The results will be phenomenal!
What is your favourite space at Old Oak?
The Exchange, the co-working space.
Curious about co-living? Get in touch to arrange a tour of Old Oak.
To find out more about our community, take a look at out our Old Oak FAQs, or check our members’ Q+As:
Interview by Grace Waters