2019 / 5月
9floor Creates Convivial Communities
Lynn Su /photos courtesy of Lin Min-hsuan /tr. by Geof Aberhart
While traditional notions of raising children to continue the family line and to take care of you in your old age may be falling out of favor in the modern era, every one of us still faces the inevitability of sickness and ageing. Even if you marry, there’s still the chance you’ll be spending your twilight years alone. A concept sweeping the world, that of the co-living space, has made it to Taiwan, and it attempts not only to address excessively high housing costs, but also to create communities beyond kinship through an innovative model. A happy life is possible!
For many of us, it’s a shared memory of a particular time of our lives: as a young person, you’ve just come to Taipei to study or find work, and with a limited budget you start out into the nomadic life of the renter. As you keep hunting for that ideal lifestyle, moving every year becomes the norm. The surroundings are all much of a muchness as you begin to pack an ever-growing pile of things into these cramped spaces, constantly clinging to the dream even as the challenges of big-city life keep hammering away at your spirit.
Taipei is not my home
“Surely there must be a way to live a little better, to have a more interesting life?” Four years ago, National Taiwan University graduate students Pan ShiyinRung, Jerry Wang, and Spencer Ke all happened to set out to answer this same question at the same time. Hailing from various parts of Taiwan, and with the excitement of finally living away from home gradually fading, they found themselves confronted by Taipei’s unfriendly rental environment and began to explore new ideas.
Back in the 1970s and 1980s, it was common for families in Taiwan to buy homes for each of their children, which is how we came to the current situation of people of the older generation holding a large share of the housing stock. As times changed and property prices climbed, young people found it increasingly hard to buy a home in an urban area, even as birthrates declined. As a result, if we look at Taipei, we see some 60,000 empty properties out of a total of 900,000. The older generations worked hard to put a roof over their heads, but today’s youth are unable to bear the burden of a 20- or 30-year mortgage. If the rental environment were a bit friendlier, surely they would be able to live a little better.
With little in the way of legal protections, renters often find their fates in the hands of their landlords. “Our parents used to rely on neighborhood bulletin boards to find places, but these days we have the Internet for that. Yet the quality of rental services hasn’t improved one bit.” And so it was that our trio of twentysomethings began thinking about ways not only to solve this problem for themselves, but to fight for better rental service and living environments for renters at large. Thus they set out on their entrepreneurial path.
Your everyday life, my exotic scenery
At the time, accommodation services were still very limited in Taiwan. To try and make things more interesting, Ke says, “We tried a whole range of experiments.” They experimented with opening up their homes and posting on Facebook looking for short-term roommates. They got over 100,000 clicks, which helped them to feel out the scale of the potential market.
Technology has certainly changed modern modes of living, with many jobs no longer requiring to-and-fro commutes to particular places. International oil prices have fallen, low-cost airlines have arisen, and more and more people are moving freely around the globe. But, asks Ke, “are there residential products targeted at these people?”
What local residents get out of such travelers is a means to rediscover the beauty of their familiar surroundings through the fresh eyes of their roommates or housemates.
And so when we stepped into the newly inaugurated 9floor Wanhua, their 15th location in Taipei, we found a place bigger and better than ever. Arranged as a kind of vertical settlement, the site comprises 22 rooms that can accommodate around 30 people from all over. Some are here for a short time only, others for longer, all based on their particular needs. “The long-termers can build a culture, while the short-termers make the most of their time to take part in community activities,” observes Ke.
More than just a home
Coming from elsewhere, one can experience a profound feeling of being an isolated outsider. Having experienced this themselves has inspired the team at 9floor to pay particular attention to the community side of their services.
Through both the design of their sites and the organization of activities, they help forge connections between previously unconnected residents. This is what makes 9floor special. Their secret is two-fold. First, they create a special “community formula” for each location, mixing and matching to assemble a community of people with as diverse a range of backgrounds as possible. Second, they have specially appointed community managers and in each location they seek out “seed residents” who can work closely with the manager to create community connections. If residents from different fields of expertise hit it off, they may even decide to go into business together.
Another big feature of 9floor is their focus on the use of shared spaces. Not only are big tables in their shared dining and working areas a must, through careful interior layout design they coordinate resources in such a way as to encourage the living spaces to become truly living spaces, places where something new is always happening.
Sharing space across generations
In addition to their efforts to raise the standard of rental services, as they have grown older the 9floor team have begun to focus on trying to bring generations together in their shared living spaces.
“In the past most older apartment buildings didn’t have elevators, and so as people grew older and became less mobile, they would choose to move out,” says Ke, as he talks about several private housing projects he’s taken on in recent years.
Take the area around National Taipei University’s Sanxia campus, for example. At the invitation of the New Taipei City Government, 9floor took on the work of renovating a space more than 165 square meters in size. They converted it into a shared living space for ten people both young and old, the first time they had tried this cross-generational approach. They consulted with groups like the Homemakers United Federation and the Association of Retired Persons to get a better understanding of elderly people’s needs.
To help break the ice between these residents of different generations, 9floor organized various activities to bring everyone together, hoping to help each side better understand the other.
With such moves, one could consider modern co-living spaces to be quite similar to traditional Hakka roundhouses and other Han Chinese clan compounds. The biggest difference, though, is that the residents of these spaces aren’t related to one another. Despite this, through shared attitudes and values, they can form ties even closer than blood relationships.
With Taiwan facing low birthrates and a contracting, increasingly elderly population, co-living spaces represent a way for older people to potentially enjoy happy lives even without partners or children. Maybe this is what Spencer Ke is talking about when he says that his greatest sense of accomplishment in this venture comes from “seeing everyone smile.”