We’re excited to share this inspiring and insightful interview with Laura Sundin – Head of Architecture & Design @ Colonies (headquarter based in Paris) and Nordic Ambassador for Co-liv. Architecture, spatial design, community, environment… and so much more!
We tend to define ourselves by our jobs a bit too much. So, can you introduce yourself without speaking of work? What do you love? What inspires you?
I am a small town woman originating from both a creative and tecnico-scientific background, in the sense that I love both painting as well as creating basic mathematical formulas. My origin is Swedish Finnish and by growing up in the south of Sweden, DDR and south of Yemen in the late 70’s and 80’s is probably where my passion for languages came from, I truly love learning and creating new things all the time. If I am not challenged I get bored and need to find new things to do, discover new cultures and so on.
I am very inspired by smart people who can think outside of the box, and in particular honest, authentic people who are not afraid of admitting and learning from their mistakes. I love dancing forro (a traditional brasilian dance), organising get togethers, discovering new places, societies and cultures and I love when people ask me to draw things for them, be it a portrait or a sketch of a building or a small project. I love observing. I hate on the other hand dishonesty, and I also dislike the sensation of a ‘white paper’ or starting from nothing without any constraints or vision.
I am somewhere in the middle of a geek and an artist as I am none of the two fully.
Cool! Now we can talk a bit about work: What have you been working on recently?
As Head of Architecture & Design at Colonies my main purpose at the moment is to ensure that the colonies CORE physical product is scalable, financially viable and the best simplest possible shared living experience for our tenants. I am also already working on new proof of concepts and first in market projects in our expansion and working in the Product team and cross functionally building a fluid process with simple toolkit guidelines. Two years ago when I joined Colonies we were 4 employees working out of Station F, the largest startup hub in Europe, and now we are 60+ and present in two countries.
My job is to translate the tenants’ voice into a viable physical space design base, research and understand and do assumptions on how people want to live now and in the future. To say the least the job is very complex and encompasses many things from a sociocultural, human wellbeing, architectural space, financial viability and much more. In order to cope with this demanding workload I am clearly not alone, but surrounded by fantastic and talented people in the Product team at Colonies.
Colonies is known for providing some of the best living experiences. Can you tell us a bit more how you go about finding the right balance between Private and Shared, Personal and Collective, Intimate, and Social?
Our concept is based on communities with limited size. Even in very large projects, like the one we have in Orsay, the communities – or the Homes – are limited to 6-12 people. Everyone is perfectly autonomous. Within the residence you can only access your Home.
The members of other Homes cannot access your home, unless you invite them. The Homes have a large kitchen and living room as well as your own private space. It is the same principle in our small scale developments. In the large buildings with for example 30 homes that will open from 2023 onwards, the residents will have access to ‘shared supercommon spaces’ such as a large garden, an entertainment room, a laundry room, a working space, a rooftop, a sport room. The smaller projects also have some of these spaces, but in the large projects we are more ambitious.
Right now we are in the phase of test & learn so we are researching and investigating things like: what is the equipment that we should provide in the private spaces to provide the ultimate tenant happiness per location vs budget investment? How much storage is the perfect equation for functionality? How can we improve and learn from our errors so we do not risk to scale them up? We know for a fact that the majority of people feel better if living together (not alone), as that this is a part of basic human wellbeing necessities. Designwise, in the personal space we allow the tenant to personalize the space to a higher degree and create his/her cocoon, whereas the semi common
spaces are linked more not only to our brand or product but also the local relevance, the building history, the untouchable story the place tells.
What are the architectural design principles at Colonies that create a place where tenants feel welcome, feel safe and feel like home?
Colonies design principles are Homy (a simple and relaxing space with a touch of familiarity), Timeless design (we need to be the opposite of ephemeral), View, Sustainability (socio, economical, environmental), Strength (durability, quality and ease of maintenance). It is important not to dissociate architecture and space from service and experience and not work in silos. We need to listen to our tenants and propose to them a product that makes them feel at home, happy and ensure they recommend us as an operator to other future tenants.
In the Product team we have also done checklists for our Expansion team that source houses, apartments, buildings to convert and new-built projects or competitions, for safety in terms of neighbourhoods, street lighting etc and our Project Management team work with suppliers for the safety in the more technical sense for key access smart systems, sustainable ways of new buildings etc. We have some very exciting projects coming up that we are co-designing and will be operating all in a sustainable wood structure which is quite new on the French market compared to the Nordics.
Since spatial design is such a buzzword at the moment and rightfully so. What is the role of spatial design and how can it help in community building and creating meaningful interactions/bringing people together?
First of all knowing both our current tenants and the ones that will live at Colonies in 1, 3, 5 years is crucial. We ask ourselves: What do people want and need and how can we also innovate and futureproof? If our tenants are not satisfied, they leave and we are unable to attract them back, then Colonies does not exist anymore. Our client is the final resident, so the first job is to know what makes them happy and would make them stay and really feel at home. Our co-founders initial assumption of limiting the size of our communities to 6-12 people has truly proven a success and within that boundary we keep improving how that space is designed, standardized and optimized, by listening both to our tenants and the teams working at Colonies. If we were to design uncomfortable, degrading spaces we are pretty sure that tenants would leave quicker than they arrive, and since the physical product remains for more than 10 years, it is so crucial to get it right, because differently to a Tech product we cannot change it every month, week, day, minute – it would not be financially viable.
This also means our spaces need to allow for flexibility in usage of the super common spaces, allow for personalizable areas in the private sphere. A space that might be a fitness room today, might need to be used as a working space tomorrow because that is what the tenants need and want, hence it is important to future proof for these ways of flexing with a low Capex investment. The base design always needs to be high quality: a kitchen well designed for the amount of users, sufficient fridge space for all tenants and so on. Once all practical and functional items are in place and the space has a good flow, then each Colonies project architect/designer can have some fun in designing the shared spaces indoor and outdoor specifically tailored to the location.
In terms of community and events, we want first most our tenants to feel part of Colonies online community so for them to be able to speak to each other no matter where they are in the world, and on a house level we are always there to greet them personally upon their arrival, we organize a welcome party and we also do co-creation and feedback sessions with our tenants through our Experience Managers. During the Lockdown we also organized online events such as cooking classes, sport and Personal coaching via Zoom…
As a brand, in order to create community it is really important that we manage expectations and in a future we also want to provide the opportunity to exchange your Colonies in Berlin for one in Bordeaux for a weekend or so – like an Erasmus exchange program in-house to Colonies.
When thinking about the design and technical efficiency of the buildings how and in what way does this affect the environmental sustainability and how important is this for you personally?
As the world goes more digital, we actually NEED less space, and less space is less C02 footprint. Simplicity of living in optimized spaces whilst having access to more shared space than you would in traditional residential I believe is crucial for the future of this planet.
In 2018 when I was contemplating if to continue in the Retail design industry or to do a shift to the Coliving industry that was to me completely unknown, the shared living and the research of this is what sparked my interest, on top of working with some very smart young people. A goal in the coliving sector is to address 7 of the UN sustainable development goals (n°3,6,7,9,11,12 & 13). Sharing amenities such as washing machines, dryers, dishwashers leads to a huge impact on sustainability. For example, for 10 tenants instead of having 10 cheap washing machines we install 2 high quality energy machines.
I do not believe in speaking purely about environmental sustainability without taking into consideration social and economical sustainability as well as they are all linked. We need to be realistic, and we are fully aware that as we scale and grow bigger at Colonies we can have bigger power to implement even more substantial sustainability factors, have bigger purchasing power for sustainable materials, thermal and acoustical insulation, smart ways of water usage including grey waters, smart energy systems in our large new-built buildings, have top notch recycling systems and so on.
Most buildings that will be used in 2050 are already built NOW, reuse and repurpose is predicted to be the future for sustainable living, as well as optimizing spaces and SHARING more. For me personally it is super interesting to be part of the research and development of these new ways of living. Who knows, maybe very soon (perhaps not in my lifetime, or maybe YES) we will live completely differently, on spaceships in orbits around the world or we will actually be the ones to install Life on Mars? We need to constantly think outside of the box in fact whilst still having a foot on planet earth.
Now, let’s have a bit of fun. Say you are living in one of the many coliving spaces (hopefully soon) available in Finland:
● What song would you be blasting?
Arja Sajomaa ‘Hogt over havet’.
● What movie would you watch over and over again in the shared/building’s movie theater?
● What food would you teach others to cook?
● And then what book would you donate to the building’s library?
Don’t Read this Book: Time Management for Creative People by Donald Roos.
Before we go, please tell us more about the next openings for Colonies and, also what is happening in the Nordics with Co-liv, we’ve heard a little about it and would like to know more!
We are opening Colonies Homes shortly in Lille, Marseille, Paris and Berlin both in coliving and in new formats, such as managed apartments in Berlin, and coming soon is a new product and countries I cannot yet tell you about… More to come soon!
And of course our Co-liv Nordic events are monthly and I organize and host these by passion, in my spare time, so please look out for the next ones on the Co-liv website or follow me/us on Linkedin to know more!