In Cohousing We Trust
Stephen Hill is a firm advocate of the ideas contained within Cohousing in Britain: A Diggers and Dreamers Review
‘Warning: This book may harm your mental health.’ Not that it is anything other than highly readable, full of understated common sense and well mannered in its advocacy of cohousing. It’s just that reading it brings with it the crushing realisation of the inadequacies and inequities of current housing markets. There is nothing in planning and housing policy and practice that can change the fact that every new home we plan is already obsolete – socially, economically and environmentally – before we even start to design it.
Cohousing is already well established in Scandinavia, Germany and the US, but is only just taking off in the UK. It involves a group of people setting up a trust and acting as both client and developer, to build property that can be sold at both market and well-below market rates. Guest editor Martin Field acknowledges that Cohousing in Britainis set in the current political context and amid concerns about ‘how non-egalitarian and divisive the UK has become in its mainstream approaches to meeting social concerns’. He does not need to indulge the politics; the experience and stories of cohousing speak for themselves.
While the rest of the housing industry tries to do as little different as possible, cohousing groups, and community land trusts and co-operatives, are the only housing producers actively designing for the future. They are working on how to live in a time with fewer natural resources, less energy, less land for food, less help for age and infirmity, and more people. Their experience shows us that sustainability codes and fancy kit are irrelevant unless they can also relate to people’s lived experience and behaviour.
The LILAC project, now being built in Leeds, does what it says on the tin: Low Impact Living… (permanently) Affordable (housing)… Community. But go back to a survivor from the 1970s heyday of co-ops, the Sanford Co-op in south London, who recently used their major repairs fund, prudently accumulated over a generation, to leverage government grants for renewable energy kit. Knowing this was not enough, all the residents also signed up to reducing their collective CO2 emissions by 60per cent, growing food on site and increasing walking and cycling: something we will all have to do, and cannot do efficiently or cost-effectively on our own.
But talk to any mainstream housing producer about co-ops or community land trusts, and they will roll their eyes and talk condescendingly of time-consuming, costly, risky projects and difficult people, meaning: ‘This doesn’t fit our method of production and we don’t like communities with an agenda of their own’. That is a problem for cohousing that is uniquely British, unlike European governments which have been supporting cohousing for over 30 years as a highly successful housing solution for building stable communities and the demographic challenge of aging.
The cohousing projects in this book remind us of another important lesson that we mostly forget: it’s the space between buildings that creates the unique character of a place and provides much of the social glue for the people living there. Wise architects like Richard MacCormac have been saying this for years. Eric Lyons and Ivor Cunningham made the quality and management of shared space the dominant design principle for SPAN housing in the 1950s and 60s: housing now much loved and lived in by architects. Yet unpublished research on housing design quality by CABE(‘Whatever Happened to our Streets’, Stephen Hill, 2009) in its wind-down phase concluded that housebuilders and their designers had no idea about what the space between buildings was for. It was treated as an expensive but essentially inconvenient medium for retailing residential floor space. What a profligate waste of a hugely valuable and essential natural resource.
Meanwhile, mainstream housebuilders are still struggling with the illiterate economic argument that people need persuading sustainable homes will cost ‘more than’… well ‘more than’ what exactly? More than an obsolete, unsustainable home? More than an already unaffordable product, making sustainability a privilege for the better off? More than the price of a speculative commodity that we happily pay more for if it’s near to a good school, or if its price went up by two per cent last month… after all, that must be a ‘good thing’?
At the opening of the RIBA’s A Place to Call Home exhibition last month, heritage minister John Penrose said that his hope for the RIBA’s Future Homes Commission was that it could answer two questions. First, how has the way we live changed over the last 30 years? Second, how will we live together in the future, as a society? That is just the question that the contributors of Cohousing in Britain are trying to answer. We can’t know what that future will look like. The commission will need to ask new and better questions of the profession if it is not to repeat previous attempts to champion better housing design, which tickled the sensibilities of designers and enraged housebuilders, achieving little: completely predictably.
This book is not a compendium of answers, but it does show us what that adaptability and resilience might have to look like. RIBA president Angela Brady, in her enthusiastic preface to the book, calls cohousing ‘so utopian’. That is wrong. Cohousing, community land trusts and co-operatives are working out how to live in a necessary future of greater competition for finite resources. It is the rest of us who are stuck in an utopia of unlimited bounty that no longer exists. It never did.
Stephen Hill is a planning and development surveyor and director of C20 futureplanners
Cohousing in Britain: A Diggers and Dreamers Review, Eds Sarah Bunker, Chris Coates, Martin Field and Jonathan How
164pp, Diggers and Dreamers Publications, 2011