Not quite The Reef: Some lessons from ROAM

Nadia and I are at ROAM Ubud. ROAM is a company that runs several sites worldwide (Miami and Ubud are fully operational, London and Tokyo are just kickstarting, more are supposed to follow). At least here in Ubud, it offers an experience which is about 3/4 hotel and 1/4 co-living. It has 21 en-suite rooms, a rooftop coworking space, a café, and a communal kitchen opening onto a a courtyard dominated by a small swimming pool (“the chill room”). It’s not cheap, especially by Bali standards: a room costs 500 USD a week, or 1,800 USD a month. For this money you get the use of all facilities, weekly housekeeping, some free stuff in the kitchen.

It is much more sociable than a hotel. We have a community manager, a private Facebook group, a dog called Lu. We are given stickers and other ROAM-branded freebies to foster a sense of identity. We smile and say hello, and hang out around the kitchen.

But it is not a “real” home, either. Everyone is passing through: two weeks, three weeks, a month. The person who has been here the longest has been here for four months. One guy came to ROAM at first, but then he moved out to a cheaper hotel. He continues to use the coworking space. Someone joked that it must be hard for Lu to live in a place where people keep leaving. I smiled and nodded, but could not help thinking it must be hard for people, too. I think about The Reef as a real home, for myself and others. No doubt, some people will be passing through; but others will stay. Transients contribute to The Reef by bringing new information and experiences. Residents contribute by encoding them into institutional memory and social capital.

Something else that’s missing is the sense of a common orientation. The unMonastery, whatever its other problems, definitely had that. People pursued different goals, but it was clear that we were all going to the same place. To the extent that there is an orientation here, it is that of advanced “hot money” capitalism. Most people are midlevel tech freelancers, doing remote work for clients in America or Europe. Two people (out of a dozen we spoke to) qualify themselves as investors. Their goal is not work-related, but life-related: be in a warm, hospitable, low-cost-of-labour country. To achieve this, it is not so important what you do. Just make sure you get paid American or Northern European fees, and spend them where yoga classes, massages and margaritas are cheap. This only works if Balinese labour is (and stays) cheap for middle-class Westerners. For the moment everything works, in the sense that the Bali province is better off than most other Indonesian territories. But it turns out that real estate prices are rising fast. Landlords are getting wealthy by renting or selling prime real estate to Western entrepreneurs, the only ones who can pay top prices. Bali’s (and ROAM’s) relaxed, fun vibe is underwritten by participating in exploitative, long-run unstable social dynamics. This is not what I would want for The Reef.

That said, there are quite a few tricks we can learn from ROAM Ubud.

  • About 20 units. ROAM has 21 rooms, about 2/3 occupied now. The Bovisa co-housing has about 30 apartments. This size makes the space always alive and populated. It is quite ambitious for The Reef Version 1. Maybe we can find some hacks that will produce similar effects with fewer residents. One is to have the Edgeryders office there, which means 2-3 people will almost always be around.
  • Only one kitchen. As in the unMonastery, ROAM's kitchen is the undisputed center of communal life. It makes unplanned, random encounters much more likely. Good.
  • "Island" cooking area. The cooking area is not lying against a wall, but free-standing. This means more people can use it at the same time, and chat to each other as they work.

  • Nametagged shelves for personal food items. Nice touch. Nametags allow for some private food purchases, and remind people that they are a part of a collective.

  • Free staple foods. ROAM bulk-buys things like tea, milk, bread and oil, and makes them available for free. It is a nice touch that costs very little but makes a big difference in our quality of life.
  • En suite rooms. Not everyone wants to be social all the time. Your own room and your own bathroom form a little cocoon where you can isolate yourself when you want to be on your own. Again, this may or may not be possible in Version 1.

Do you have experience of a co-living space? We would be grateful if you shared it with us.


Examples are great!

Especially they way you’ve written it makes it easier to visualize things from high level to tee spoon concreteness.

Some questions (really chapters I guess): kids?

Related: singles / partners?

Here is a link from the pop-blogosphere with some considerations. Communities that Abide—The XIII Commandments – The Burning Platform

I wonder if there is much academic research on the topic. I’d guess not (although it really is a topic if you want to go to Mars for example). That is perhaps another angle one could take into account. If you have some form of trusted and agreed upon data acquistion this could be helpful.

Now, some comments on your highlights:

  • Staple foods, absolutely! That also would alow the “monks” to push cost of living down. Even if they eat more staple, overall it’ll be cheap.

I’d also consider a “fruit pool”: small incentive to pool perishable items for more variety and less waste.

  • En suite: there are quite a few things to consider here. For example one can do a decent amout of hygiene etc. without hot+running water - if some preps are made. I’ve become a big fan of large thermos flasks (hi qual) over hot water on tap (this would also be something to consider if there is opportunity for solar thermal). For many things it is more convenitent and efficient than the expensive version.

Peraps also consider having one room as a shared “teleconference room”.

  • Nametags: The shelf solution is good even though perhaps not optimal. I would have two types of tags per person, one is “ask before/tell after, but please use” the other is “hands off”. Stickers, punches, laser engraving all options.

  • 1 kitchen as island: Yes, this is good and important I’d say as well. That also means thought and potentially money should go into it. For example a ventilation system that allows you to still have a conversation.

  • Number of rooms (and stay duration): That is an interesting question. There are a couple of “social sound barriers” (if they really exist - a la Dunbar’s number/monkeysphere) that are relevant here,

long story (Redirecting…) short: I’d aim for 8-12 permanents. If you go above that you have enough to spin out a viable group (4-6) and ride out the ensuing disturbance for the permies. The pragmatic approach would be to fill the rest up with temporaries. I see a group of 5 as the most impactful way to get shit done with low overhead (full trust, fast updates, some leeway for preferences) - and that’ll often be what you get since not all permies will be active on every front. That would also allow realistic continuous working on 3 projects: 1 ramps up, 1 is stable, 1 ramps down and each has some member overlap.

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Splitting & safety valves

I’ve heard some religious communities that grew pretty successful in their days had a ritual where they would ALL pack their bags the evening before a split and the next moring the results for who goes and who stays (probably semi-random) were announced.

I wonder if one could/should do a riff on that: You do a weekly happy-o-meter for everyone (results can initially be kept secret). And if it collectively drops below a certain level for a certain time that puts the question of member reduction (or increase?) on the table.

Roamed their site a little and

it seems to me their business model is more on the upper end of things, ie fighting boredom for people with too much money.

Doesn’t mean there is nothing to learn, but underlines your 3/4 hotel characterization.

Reef would be decidedly more about cost reduction and a “common drive/destination”, right? I think the latter may have to be outlined in a witty way that avoids ideological conflicts etc. but is distinct enought to have some appeal.

Perhaps Reef could also allow for a certain range that includes 2/3 hotel for some of the temporaries.

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@trythis, thank you for tirelessly pitching in some ideas :slight_smile:

I’ve read about roam long time ago and I disliked it straight away - it’s just a project that taps into a well paid group of people who prefer to spend time with other international creatives rather than have something to do with the surrounding world. Seeing how tourists spend their time in Bali made me feel really weird - everyone white and shopping because in top tourist areas there is not much more.

Anyway, charging 500 dollars a week in a place where you can get an excellent room for 100, run by a local family, makes very little sense to me - but it will appeal to people who want to see the good western design, for example. Also seeing what’s the difference of wages between westerners living in Bali and the locals, and the real estate available to them, is stunning. Indonesians rent 15 square meters big studios for 80 dollars a month (which is 1/3 of their wage usually), around 20-30 min out of the center of Kuta or Denpasar. Luckily, gas is cheap - but that causes a disaster on the roads, I bet you experience it every day. Meanwhile, local developers invest heavily in villas everywhere they can - because this is what the tourists would rent. And this costs a couple of times more than the locals earn monthly, leaving them very few choices. Even families with kids sometimes end up in these tiny studios because there’s nowhere else they could afford to go without losing their jobs. And 300 euros is a good pay there.

Definitely, nothing like roam in my opinion :wink: I would maybe vote for having one or two boutique rooms which we could sell to wealthy nomads who want to support the community by paying a bit extra, for a good quality sleep and a nice space. But that’s just a small addition to very affordable, ideally very competitive prices for rent. Or being able to give it to some for free.

Settlers, not tourists

@Natalia_Skoczylas , I see your point about tourism in Bali. However, a co-living space is not a place dedicated to tourism. As a Reefer, I will not “live with locals”; that’s what (sustainable) tourists do. I will be a local, in my own way. Being a  local means making a stand, a long-term commitment to the city and its people. It means adding our own note to the city’s song. It means being there for the long haul. It means getting involved – voting in the local elections, participating in the local life, learning the language, getting to know the art and literature – all things I am already doing in Brussels, my adopted home city. We are settlers, not tourists.

And our settlement will be a productive one. It will be where we make our money. It will be a work place as well as a home. One way that a permanent space contributes to our productive lives is by helping make connection with clients, partners etc. So, it needs to be attractive for us, and not intimidating for a broad range of other people with which we want to work, in spite of (or better, because of) our differences. So, of course it will be beautiful. SImple, but not barebones. As cheap as we can, but without sacrificing comfort and beauty. I want to live and work in a beautiful place, and I want it to be attractive to others too. ROAM got that one right.

Commitment to place is the real difference. The people in ROAM are all passing through. The Reef will stay, and engage, and make a serious attempt at embedding itself in the local community, much deeper than the unMonastery did in Matera.

Well said.

Just to chime in for a +1 in matters of cost reduction - I think the Reef’s affordability would send the right message if it will become an Edgeryders space. How else could interested people already living on lower costs than Western Europeans (imagine rent in Romania, or Georgia…) come by?

One thing I liked about the squatting model Loic described in Brussels was its inclusivity and differential contribution “Half the people (of 60) don’t have any revenues, and everyone contributes a little - from 60 eur a month to approx. 150” (source)

Thank you Alberto, it’s good to check various ideas and existing projects also to make sure where we stand, and how we see their models. It’s also reassuring to see we see things similarly. I also think there is no need to compromise quality in order to take a stance. I worked with squats for years and I do see where these places fail to become inclusive or drive the change around them successfully. Something i’d rather not see happening to our space. Let’s keep on exploring and collecting ideas.

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More questions.

Nametags, kitchen Island and free staple foods are great things to learn. En-suites also would make a big difference. Communal bathrooms would be fine in short term, but not for prolonged periods.

@trythis, good point with kids, partners (and I would add elderly) if we are talking about a fully functioning community. unMon/monks/St Benedict’s way is not family orientated. As I see it, unMon leans towards a mid-range age group. How does Reef differ? Does it begin with a 25+ age group in preparation for family, for those who want that path, while also remaining freindly to those who do not? Maybe it starts with services for the young and old so they are included and Reefers learn what they need from that.

It’s very reasuring to hear being part of the local community flagged as important. Do skillsets then become a factor in the Reef? I’m not sure if listing skills good and bad would be productive, it could be a path to unintentionally alienating or devaluing members. Although if the majority of Reefers were midlevel tech freelancers, we’d have to work a little harder at integration.

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… The Reef would accommodate life choices. Nadia and I are already accustomed to (some) intergenerational living: in our home ages go from 24 to 50 (me). Children would, in principle, be welcome. Of course, in the end the space constrains you. This is why an “expandable” space would be so great. For example a derelict industrial site, where you renovate a bit of it, and then add more rooms as the need arises. Again, this might be too advanced for the first attempt.


That makes sense. Thanks.

Elderly - of course!

I think it would make a lot of sense to have elderly people as well. One thing is what @Alex_Levene I think it was said about caring for elderly but not ANY elderly would be welcome.

A second aspect is, if you do this in Europe from a demographic (and possibly financial) perspective it makes a lot of sense for those reasons alone. Add to that the fact that a careful selection of 1-2 elderly people will make you so much more a part of the community by onboarding very many years lived in that place - perhaps including some network resources.

Third, if open care remains an aspect (which is likely in Europe) it certainly simplifies a lot of things.

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Wider context video

I came across for intersecting searches. This is pretty long but covers a lot of basic ground (by the Dunbar number guy):

Basata is an eco-lodge,
There is a common kitchen, a school for the owners children and bedouin children of the area, the did some recycling projects with the bedouin’s and HEPCA. The owner is open minded and progressive, his wife is German. No co-working space, but people do actually meet and talk in a common area. I met some people who actually worked there.

@alberto is the reef, unmonastery, etc a place for single people who do not have a family. People who can move easily without responsibilities and specific requirements like schools for children. If I understand well, it’s something in between commercial co-living / co-working and community life as experience by another edgeryder’s member which I can’t recall his name?

No settlement is sustainable if does not accommodate for children. The unMonastery is no longer being actively developed as such (not by us, and I think not by others either). The Reef is live. In its present incarnation it hosts unmarried people and one married couple. No children. This is a function of the architecture of the specific building we are hosted in. In the next building, we would very much like to experiment with more mixed family setting. Not clear that we can get hold of a building that will support it, though.

The Reef is an urban model, at least in my head. No point making schools: plenty of schools in Brussels – unless, of course, someone sees an opportunity!

Basata looks great, but it is an Eco-Lodge – a kind of hotel, not a co-living. Its sustainability is guaranteed by people coming over for short stays (maybe 1-3 weeks) and paying well. The kind of stuff we do is attempting to produce high quality and affordable living. In Brussels, this means a goal of 500 EUR per month per room, inclusive of utilities. We are not there yet – we need a larger place for that.

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Thank you for your reply. The idea is clear for me now. Yes Bassata is a family run eco-lodge. While I had in mind a remote area co-living / co-working. The idea is more of an urban model. So again, the area of Sheikh Zayed / Six’s of October would be ideal for a Reef in Egypt, now.

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I think this is a key concept - very good points!

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Thanks Xaver!