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NEWS FEATURE

Co-housing: we’re all in this together

Duggan morris web
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Co-housing – communities of self-contained homes with shared spaces – is set to benefit from a relaunched government fund, reports Kate Youde

Co-housing is expected to be a major beneficiary of the government’s forthcoming relaunch of the Community Housing Fund.

The growing housing model involves residents creating a community of self-contained homes with shared spaces such as a common house, guest room for visitors, garden and laundry.

The fund will help community-led groups build homes in areas with high levels of second-home ownership or low affordability. 

There are already 19 established co-housing communities, according to the UK Cohousing Network, but demand is ballooning. A further 44 groups are developing projects while 14 more are in the process of setting up. But what opportunities – and challenges – does the concept present for architects?

Common house verandha & terrace a eco arc luke mills

Common house verandha & terrace a eco arc luke mills

Lancaster Co Housing scheme by Eco Arc

Anne Thorne, partner at Anne Thorne Architects, has designed Cannock Mill Cohousing’s £10 million senior co-housing scheme in Colchester, Essex, due for completion this October. It features 23 new-build homes and a common house made from a converted mill building. 

Thorne, a member of the community, says co-housing is ‘very popular’ in the UK but that central and local government need to show the same commitment to the model as in the Netherlands and Scandinavia, where it is an established concept and local authorities make land available for it. Other nations do this not only because they think it a good idea, she says, but because ‘it’s also creating an intentional community, which is something local authorities want to see happen’. 

You don’t have to play it safe for a speculative developer because you know who’s buying it. It’s almost a perfect opportunity to design interesting housing

But community-led housing is gaining political momentum in the UK. When announcing the relaunch of the Community Housing Fund at the end of November, the then housing minister Alok Sharma told the first National Community-Led Housing Conference that community-led housing had ‘a serious contribution’ to make in fixing the ‘broken housing market’. Sharma, who had said the relaunch would take place earlier this year, was replaced by Dominic Raab in January’s cabinet reshuffle.  

The Community Housing Fund, originally unveiled in December 2016, is providing £60 million per year until 2019/20 in the form of capital and revenue funding, with a significant part in the first year used to develop an advisory network to support community groups to bring forward projects. 

UK Cohousing executive director Anna Kear says this money is significant because there is a ‘huge amount of latent demand’ for co-housing but many groups have been hampered to date by the lack of structured funding and upfront technical support. 

‘Co-housing is a way of living and should not be influenced by how much your income is,’ she says. 

Kear, who would like to see a revolving landbank fund to help groups acquire sites, says the relaunched fund provides the ‘stepping stones’ of technical support, revenue funding for professional fees and capital grants to make projects affordable. ‘It really does release that potential,’ she says.  

New ground  tim crocker

New ground tim crocker

Source: Tim Crocker

New Ground, Barnet, by Pollard Thomas Edwards

Last year, London mayor Sadiq Khan launched the £250,000 Homes for Londoners Community Housing Hub, a one-stop shop supporting people who want to build their own homes, advising them on accessing funding and unlocking land. It is through this hub that Pollard Thomas Edwards (PTE) is helping London Older Lesbian Cohousing to develop a business plan. 

The practice’s first co-housing scheme, New Ground in Barnet for Older Women’s Co-Housing (OWCH), was a finalist in the AJ’s inaugural Architecture Awards in December. The £7 million development is the UK’s first co-housing community specifically for seniors, and houses 26 residents in 25 flats set around a shared garden. Eight are let for social rent through the housing association Housing for Women; the others are leasehold.

PTE partner Patrick Devlin, who visited two co-housing schemes in Switzerland and Denmark when co-ordinating the 2009 Housing our Ageing Population: Panel for Innovation report, believes co-housing will ‘pull in a lot of architects’ because it is a ‘satisfying way of working’. 

He says: ‘You don’t have the need to satisfy one person because it’s a group but, on the other hand, you don’t have to play it safe for a speculative developer because you know who’s buying it. It’s almost a perfect opportunity to design interesting housing.’

We wanted nice places to live, but also a design that would throw us into each other’s paths so we would meet in the course of our lives

There are challenges for community groups, however. Land cost is a particular issue in London and the South East, suggests Devlin, while the lack of an established legal structure for the model makes it difficult to obtain a mortgage. 

‘[Co-housing] is not something that happens by default,’ he adds. ‘You have to really want it and be prepared to risk time and money.’ It took OWCH 19 years to realise its vision. 

The model requires a co-production approach. Devlin says that in his experience, the collaboration does not extend the design process or bring additional cost. The biggest challenge for architects, he suggests, is whether a group knows how to make decisions. OWCH did.

The group, which maintains a structure without hierarchy and makes decisions by consensus, chose member Marion Virgo to liaise between OWCH and PTE. 

‘It would have been intolerable for the project team to be dealing with 26 different people,’ she says. ‘But it was established we would have a large degree of participation in the design. The architects … really understood co-housing and involved the group in the design of the building from the very beginning.’ 

The scheme needed to reflect OWCH’s values, which include care and support for one another and providing a balance between privacy and community. 

‘For co-housing we wanted nice places to live, obviously, but we also wanted – and needed – a design that would throw us into each other’s paths so we would meet in the course of our lives,’ Virgo explains. This is facilitated by having only one point of entry and communal areas.

Kendal-based practice Eco Arc is drawing up plans for 20 units for over 50s at a site adjacent to the 41-home intergenerational scheme it completed for Lancaster Cohousing in 2014. The architects also submitted a pre-planning application in December for Cairnlee Senior Cohousing’s 22-apartment scheme in the grounds of the Camphill School on the Cairnlee Estate in Aberdeen. 

Com h interior

Com h interior

Common house at Lancaster Co Housing’s scheme by Eco Arc

As for Lancaster Cohousing, the proposed new homes will meet the Passivhaus standard. This means owners could gain a 1.25 per cent discount on their mortgage from the Ecology Building Society and be exempt from paying stamp duty in return for meeting Code for Sustainable Homes Level 6. 

Eco Arc director Andrew Yeats says co-housing is a ‘growing vehicle’ which, by sharing resources and designing together as a community group, allows people to make a much bigger stride in reducing their carbon footprint than they could as individuals. ‘It makes housing to a really high standard more affordable for more people,’ he says. 

Co-housing also requires a different approach to site development. In Yeats’s eyes, ‘community per se seems to have broken down a little bit … [Developer-led housing] provides a front door … but it doesn’t create a sense of place or sense of home or community.’ By contrast, co-housing groups are ‘creators of their own community … They have a sense of ownership over where they live.’

Most interest in co-housing is for communities for seniors, says Kear, because of the ‘lack of choice in the market’ and the ‘social connection’ it provides. 

‘Existing provision, particularly for older people, is not great,’ agrees Thorne, ‘so either people are isolated in their own homes or maybe in an institution where they feel they have no power or responsibility.’ She says she wanted the Colchester scheme to avoid these ‘two extremes’ and be self-governing. 

Julia Park, head of housing research at Levitt Bernstein and chair of the RIBA housing group, suggests co-housing, or co-living, comes in many different forms, some easier to realise and practise than others. 

She suggests they could include a developer buying land and then recruiting customers and working with them on the design. 

In September, Duggan Morris Architects won an RIBA competition to design a low-rent co-living scheme in London’s Forest Gate that ‘encourages community interaction without compelling tenants to give away their privacy’ (pictured top). 

The developers aimed to ‘integrate the participation of potential tenants during the competition process to engage with space and design’. 

‘I think co-housing does mean different things to different people,’ says Park, ‘but the root of it is more housing choice and more choice about who we live with and how we live, and a willingness to share and the benefits of sharing space.’ 

What choices communities favour should become clearer when the government finally announces the first allocations for its relaunched fund.

This article appears in the Homes issue

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