Listen to this article
Sparks fly behind the shutters of a unit in a drab industrial estate in east London. A man in a dressing gown wearing plastic safety glasses bends over a fast-spinning steel lathe. Among his machine tools there are a jumble of electronics components, piles of sawdust and an empty pizza box, rightly giving the impression of a frenzied inventor’s lair.
It is inside this three-metre by two-metre room, annexed to a larger workshop, that 27-year-old trained physicist Oliver Coles has worked for six months producing portable biotechnology hardware for a start-up company that he founded last year with PhD colleagues from University College London. The dressing gown, however, is not so much a sign of eccentricity as domesticity.
“We outgrew the university facilities but couldn’t afford to rent space elsewhere,” says Coles. Instead, the team decided to develop prototypes at his home, a nine-bedoom warehouse converted to mixed residential and work use, where he and his partner pay £675 a month in rent for a room that is a stone’s throw from the workshop.
The gambit has paid off: after much testing and tinkering, the company is receiving commercial interest and recently obtained a £25,000 loan from the university that will soon enable it to move into larger premises.
Residential and commercial property prices remain high in London, and Coles is among the thousands of artists, craftspeople and entrepreneurs in the capital who are opting for “live-work” rentals – typically industrial premises converted into communal dwellings with studio space.
The phenomenon is in keeping with the wider blurring of work-life boundaries, as a result of which some people are adopting unusual living arrangements that fit around their livelihood. A shortage of urban housing – particularly acute in London – plays a part, as do changing employment patterns, environmental concerns and the impact of technology. It can be seen from the once-derelict warehouses that are home to artists in Berlin, to the “hub” offices of San Francisco where would-be “technopreneurs” work, eat, and sometimes sleep. “There has been a complete redefinition of work and home spaces,” says Judy Wajcman, professor of sociology at the London School of Economics. “The separation between domestic and commercial is shifting, largely because of technology. In quite a few workplaces if everybody came to work, there wouldn’t be enough space as they are organised on the basis of hot desks.”
In London’s financial district, it is an open secret that a number of law firms have installed “sleeping pods” where late-working lawyers can rest or occasionally spend the night. Many prefer not to talk about them for fear of portraying a gruelling work culture.
Yet at one firm, Hogan Lovells, six such pods figure among other facilities – including a staff restaurant, coffee bar, chapel, gym and games room – provided to help foster a good work-life balance, says Susan Bright, regional managing partner for the UK and Africa. “[The pods] are no different to staying in a standard hotel room, with bed, bathroom, television and a small kitchen with microwave and toiletries. Most of our people go home every night to their own beds . . . [But] if someone has to stay overnight, we want to make that as easy and comfortable as possible.”
Bright uses a pod herself once or twice a month, when she has either a late-night function followed by an early engagement or is working on a transaction across time zones and wishes to avoid her long commute.
She adds that technological advances – such as cloud storage of documents and teleconferencing – have made it much easier for employees to work remotely, with less need to be on-site, but this has not stopped a growing trend for sleep pods elsewhere.
Three years ago former City worker Jon Gray founded Podtime, a start-up that builds and supplies mobile sleeping pods, which measure 1.2 metres by 1.2 metres by 2.2 metres, weigh 100kg, and start at £925 apiece. Originally, the company had a showroom in Canary Wharf where tired bankers could nap for £9.99 an hour, but inquiries for in-house pods led Gray to offer a build and installation service. Clients now include Facebook and Nestlé.
For other people, an unconventional abode stems from a deliberate decision to step out of the mainstream in pursuit of a vocation or calling. Deep in the woods of Sussex, southern England, Richard Bates lives alone in a small caravan and timber hut that he built himself. In modern terms, his life is an ascetic one. Completely off-grid, he cooks on an outdoor fire, uses a compost toilet and fuels a wood burner in his caravan from the coppicing he does in return for occupying the 26-acre patch of land, which belongs to a couple who live nearby.
There is a “tiny village with a pub, shop and church” two miles away, but Bates is not cut off completely: a solar panel charges two indispensable appendages, a mobile phone and a laptop, with internet accessed via a dongle.
He says the desire for a “simple, low-impact life on the land” is why he has lived among the trees for six years since completing a woodsman apprenticeship. The 38-year-old is part of a small revival in an ancient occupation that largely disappeared from the British Isles in the 20th century after the introduction of plastics and cheaper timber from overseas.
“Keeping a traditional craft going is addictive,” says Bates. “[The lifestyle] gives you a lot of freedom. In the summer you’re never inside, you live constantly outside.”
In summer, he earns money from chair-making courses, frame-building and festivals through his business Green Wood Creations. Yet during the colder months there is little money coming in and everything gets “physically and mentally much tougher”.
Even so, he has no plans to change. “I would like to be part of a landshare or buy some land for myself and build a small house. Now I’ve gone down this road I’m never going back.”
One theme that emerges from the disparate arrangements is that living in such close quarters to a labour of love can take its toll on relationships and psychological wellbeing. The tension between flexibility and “feeling vulnerable to being constantly available”, as Wajcman puts it, is often calibrated by a person’s socio-economic status and why they share living and working quarters in the first place – whether out of choice or necessity.
“It depends on where people are in job hierarchies and how much control they have over their work,” she says. “The self-employed can feel at the beck and call of clients and high-tech entrepreneurial culture involves long hours.”
Back in east London, this rings true for Oliver Coles. While his experience helped him to obtain freelance work arranging electronics for art installations, it came at a price. “I was working 14-hour days, often late into the night as I found it difficult to separate work from life,” he says.
The planning obstacles
Blending a work space with a dwelling can involve certain legal hurdles. ‘Live-work’ arrangements usually require planning permission for a change of use.
In the UK, the boom of warehouse conversions in post-industrial areas has increasingly come under the radar of local authorities keen to prevent ‘backdoor gentrification’ by developers who misleadingly label premises as mixed use. In some deprived parts of London, where councils wish to keep commercial zones as sources of employment, it can make obtaining permission tricky.
Similar strictures apply in rural areas – even if you are the landowner. A local council in South Wales ordered the demolition of an eco-home, dubbed a ‘Hobbit House’, which was built by a local sculptor with recycled and natural materials for lacking planning permission.
However, mobile sleeping pods installed in offices do not require such authorisation as they are not permanent fixtures and considered a piece of furniture, says Jon Grey, the founder of PodTime.
Michael Pooler is an FT journalist
Photographs: Hal Shinnie; Podtime