Mark Brinkley introduces us to cohousing projects and how they could be a viable alternative route for would-be self builders

Back in April 2013, the Financial Times headlined a feature on co-housing as ‘Communal Living for the Posh’. While fans of cohousing would doubtless quibble the gist, the very fact that the FT had taken note of cohousing seemed noteworthy in itself. Is cohousing about to become middle class and aspirational, just as self-build did back in the ’90s?

It may, but there are some considerable hurdles to overcome before cohousing becomes a significant feature of our housing landscape, like it is in Denmark and parts of Germany. Anecdotal evidence suggests that here in the UK, for every successful cohousing scheme, there are nine groups which form but never get beyond the exploratory talks stage.

You need to have a group that’s committed enough that it’s able to raise the finance to purchase a site in the first place, let alone build it out. That’s too tall an order for many, but an increasing number of groups are forming and some are, at last, getting schemes off the ground.

What is Cohousing?

While self-builders take control over their own home, participants in cohousing schemes influence every aspect of their new community — from the design and build of communal spaces, to the creation of the homes themselves.

The vision is one of neighbourly support and a way of living that is alien to most settlements (in the UK at least). It is quite common in Europe and new groups are forming all the time in the UK. There are already a few completed schemes in Lancaster and Leeds.

Design Tips for Cohousing Groups

Cany Ash, founding partner of Ash Sakula Architects who have vast experience of urban design and housing schemes, shares her top design tips for those looking to take on a cohousing project.

Think carefully about the size of the group

The bigger the group, the more costs can be spread out, but it will also mean it is far more bureaucratic, less spontaneous and – due to size requirements – there will be fewer potential plots to choose from.

Form the group with care

Form a group where the members are not necessarily friends, but share a certainty that they can make a better housing complex through being involved in the early development stages of design and management. A common vision between member is also a must.

Research

Go to see other cohousing groups on open days to find out how they ran their projects and how they overcame problems. They can also advise on group dynamics and how they held on to their essential shared vision.

Explore design as a group

Share some ‘live’ design discussions as a group by visiting developer homes, the homes of friends and other places which members of the group value from an architectural point of view. Discuss the benefits of big windows, well laid out rooms, storage, liveability, and the pragmatics of maintenance (ie. easy to clean surfaces and robust hinges).

Choose your architect carefully

Worry less about what they have done before, and more about what you think they can do for you. After all, this is a new field.

Make connections

Meet key people in your local authority when looking for sites and other support as the project progresses. They have a duty in the National Planning Policy Framework to support people who want to build their own homes.

Aim for coherent design

Allow your architect to drive the design process and understand that the project needs a coherent design approach, not a number of different ones.

Set up a protocol from the start

Set up your group so that decision making can be fast, painless and irrevocable. Don’t allow backtracking or changes of mind.

Communicate

Make sure there is a single conduit for communication with the architect. This means the group elects a single person to represent it. This is an onerous position and could be rotated among the group over the life of the project. Ensure all design decisions come through one point of contact to the architect.

Share your successes

Celebrate all milestones in the project with a party and invite the people who appreciate what it takes to embark on this adventure (imagination and nerves of steel!). Groups need to feel supported by not only one another, but by their friends and relatives too.

The Projects

K1 in Cambridge
In August 2013, Mark attended an open evening for a housing project in Cambridge which looks as if it is about to make it off the drawing board.

Read more about the project and their efforts to find more recruits.

Lilac in Leeds
Mark visited Lilac in Leeds, a cohousing development which residents moved in to in May 2013.

Read more about Lilac and find out how an intentional community can function.

We will be adding more projects over the coming months. Please check again soon.

The UK Cohousing Network is a hugely valuable resource for anyone interested in finding out more.

Main image by Michael Stefanow

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