The door to Wright’s Houses stood at the top of a small red sandstone staircase. Beyond the door, with its large glass pains on either side, lay Scotland’s first student housing cooperative. The side windows offered a portal to the world beyond the glass. A transparency I would later discover transcended throughout the cooperation. The walls were bright and colourful, adorned with personal artistic endeavours. Catching my breath, hands clasped to my holdall I pressed the buzzer for apartment 8. The door sounded and I entered into Edinburgh Student Housing Cooperation, my home for the summer.
The entrance hall smelt rich with the odours of home cooking and the lingering scents of fresh fruit and veg. Adjacent to where I had just entered stood a communal box of fresh free produce offered to the Co-op members, to be used at their disposal. Drawn in by the profusion of colours and smells I ambled up to the first floor. Walking into the apartment for the first time felt like entering a home. The appearance from outside gave no indication that this would be anything other than student housing. Yet the interior, with its glowing colourful vibrancy, creative collaborations, and mismatched quirky furniture exposed the fact that this was anything other than your normal student halls.
Thoughts of my own former and forlorn student accommodation flickered in my mind. The two did not bear any semblance. I was used to any form of self-expression being ultimately quelled by a myriad of rules and legislations imposed by the housing organisation. The only form of expression legitimised would be to hang popularised cult classic posters, the ones available at high street record stores, and to be found in every student unit. This of course reinforced the same drab and restrictive living arrangements to all individuals, who would invariably be suffocated by a uniform and homogenous environment.
Through time though I learnt that the student cooperation not only bolstered an environment capable of encouraging self-expression, it did it all through a prism of collective and cohesive living. From the art on the walls, to the sounds of live music in the air, the individuals were all members of a greater community. The cooperation not belonging to an individual or group of individuals, instead belonging to all those that currently have a share. The students are therefore responsible for the running of the house and its upkeep. Decisions-making processes are fully democratic resulting in a living space that is affordable, enjoyable and manageable by the students for the students.
I was able to attend a couple of general meetings during my stay. They offered a time and place for the community to unite and discuss relevant points and issues within the Co-op. The meetings began with home cooked food provided by members and a flurry of activity. I watched as passionate people engaged talks and discussed pragmatic solutions to ongoing challenges. The sovereignty of the Co-op felt limitless and malleable, capable of change and progression. The whole process long removed from the dissociating ties with estate agents, distant landlords and one-size fits all student-housing organisations.
The only draw back of such a flat democratic structure was the heavy investment of time required to make seemingly quite straightforward decisions. As each member was capable of introducing a new point or angle to the agenda the talks proliferated into multi-faceted dilemmas. Yet this seemingly negative repercussion could also be its positive. It promoted an overall fairness, each point would eventually be addressed and the student cooperative could offer an individual assessment of every issue rather than blanket clauses and rules.
This type of immersive and interactive living harboured a unique and dynamic environment that is often lacking in student housing and halls. The innumerable rules and regulations of large private housing organisations tend to cling to you like a wet paper towel. Attempt to fight it off and you’ll find it tearing in your hands leaving you a disproportionate fine to deal with. Yet the positive friction of a diverse group of individuals given freedoms and responsibility can ignite a spark. The embers of these sparks are capable of engulfing the old parameters of student accommodation allowing the space for fresh thoughts and ideas to flourish in its place.
With my time in the student Co-up I was able to be apart of an immersive social hub of interesting and diverse individuals. The experience felt like the merriment of many small and beautiful moments over the months spent here. Even the way in which communal meals, often unplanned and uncoordinated, provided an inclusive atmosphere. This in turn facilitating the unification of members, neighbours and friends a like, strengthening the very fabric of this collective and cohesive cooperation over hearty bowls of food. The people here time and time would surprise me with their openness, kindness, integrity and vegan risotto.
Edinburgh Student Housing Cooperation is the very first of its kind here in Scotland. Since it was established in 2014 the model has been replicated and a number have appeared throughout the UK including Sheffield and Birmingham (the UK’s first ever). With high aspirations to reshape the current model of student housing it would appear that the necessary fertile conditions to do so are certainly there. Amidst fresh talks of expansion the Edinburgh Student Co-op already have their sights on a second building here in the country’s capital. Capable of housing a further 100 students, and given the waiting list accumulating here at Wright’s Houses, things are looking promising.
Find out more:
What is a Student Cooperative: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Sq3nCxtV7k
Edinburgh Student Housing Cooperative: https://edinburghcoop.wordpress.com/the-idea/
By Liam McGuckin