Britain's first purpose-built commune
mobbsey at gn.apc.org
Mon Jul 25 23:33:00 BST 2005
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Britain's first purpose-built commune
At Britain's first purpose-built commune, residents share the land and the odd
meal. But don't call them hippies, says Clare Goff
The Independent, 25 July 2005
"It's the best way of living since we left caves," says David Michael, a
property developer who now lives in Britain's first new-build estate based on
co-housing principles. He and more than 100 families, couples and singletons,
of ages ranging from 18 months to 76 years, have given up their
self-contained, one-family properties to live along more communal lines in
Springhill Co-housing Community in Stroud, Gloucestershire.
For most people, the phrase co-housing might suggest beards, kaftans,
tambourines, hippies - even wife-swapping. But the old clichés of communal
life aren't obvious in Springhill. There are a few beards, and there's a
pottery class, but nudity and bed-hopping aren't on the agenda.
Michael believes Springhill is merely an extension of private living. "We are
social animals and like to live in a community, but we're lucky or unlucky
with our neighbours." There's no pressure to interact on the estate, he says:
"If you want to have a cup of tea with someone in the common house, you can."
At Springhill, residents own their own properties but share a common house and
land. Each was involved in the design of their houses, and of the estate
itself, which was built for maximum interaction. Cars are restricted to the
periphery, and residents meet a few times a week to share meals, tend the
communal garden and solve the inevitable neighbourly disputes that arise.
Max Comfort, another resident, is well versed in communal living. "I have
spent a lot of time in communes here and in the US," he says, "and
experienced their extremes, and everything in between. Often they were either
highly organised and immaculate, and everyone was told what to do, or they
were the opposite - full of chaos, tepees and mudbaths. I didn't want to
share my roof or - in some cases - my bed with strangers," he says.
Co-housing, he says, offers the "perfect balance between privacy and
For most residents here, this is their first experience of any form of
communal living, apart perhaps from student housing. They include teachers,
social workers, a transport consultant and a photographer. Some commute to
London to work. The only thing common to all is a desire to recreate a sense
of community often lacking today.
Michael, who paid the initial deposit for the site out of his own bank
account, had no trouble recruiting residents. "There was an overwhelming
demand," he says. "In six weeks, I was paid back in full."
Families with young children enjoy the safe neighbourhood and greater
childcare options, while older residents are reassured by the safety of a
community that will look after them as they age. "It's about looking after
each other and doing the sort of things good neighbours would do," Michael
The co-housing movement has flourished alongside environmental concerns as
people seek more efficient ways to live. Springhill has eco-principles at its
core. Each of the 35 houses and flats has a timber-frame construction, made
with wood from renewable sources. Walls are insulated using recycled
newspaper. Houses have south-facing decks, windows are triple-glazed, and
roofs have photo-voltaic tiles, enabling houses to generate around half their
electricity needs. An urban drainage scheme allows rainwater to exit the site
into a nearby stream to prevent flooding and clean the water.
But the eco-technology used in the houses comes second to the creation of a
sustainable community, Michael says. "The technology may well be seen as bad
practice in 30 years' time, but the pedestrian site and large common house
with shared kitchen is human-scale and will outlast any technology."
For Jonathan Hines, director of Architype, the environmental and social
architecture practice behind its construction, the development of Springhill
was a challengingprocess. Each house incorporates the individual design
requests of each resident, while the layout of the estate redefines
traditional notions of public and private space.
"The physical layout reflects a different set of principles," Hines says. "It
has community at its heart." Most of the outdoor space is communal and open,
while remembering the need for privacy. The hedges, fences and boundaries of
conventional housing have been abandoned for communal areas, and street space
has been liberated for social events. "It feels completely different," says
Hines. "Seeing everyone playing on the green on a Sunday afternoon makes it
The finishing touches are now being made to the common house, where residents
will eat together about four times a week. Groups for gardening, kitchen work
and maintenance are beginning to form, and, inevitably, a disputes committee
is undergoing training.
Co-housing began in Denmark in the 1970s when the baby boomer generation
wanted alternative living arrangements to their parents'. Almost 200 projects
have been completed in Denmark since 1972, and an estimated 5 per cent of the
population live in a co-housing structure.
Britons have been slower to adopt the same principles, but they are coming
round to the benefits of communal living. Earlier this year, the UK held its
first Co-housing Conference in Lancaster. The organisers expected about 20
people to attend, but more than 100 turned up. "It would be great to see if
we can take the energy of Lancaster forward in a practical and meaningful
way," Comfort says.
The Bristol Co-housing Project is now looking for land for a minimum of 14
households. While co-housing developments rely on residents stumping up
equity, it wants to create a mixture of housing opportunities within the
estate, both rental and purchased.
Mark Johnston, a Bristol member, says: "The simplest way is to get people
together who have equity to buy land. But we have a more diverse membership,
and don't want it to be just an élitist project for people with money."
Other ways of funding are emerging. Some are exploring the idea of a community
land trust, in which land owned, say, by a local authority is part-leased to
a co-housing group. This could be combined with a mutual home ownership
scheme, which ensures that houses developed on the land remain affordable.
Socially-minded property developers like Under the Sky are also taking an
Alan Heeks, a fiftysomething single man, has moved into a small co-housing
development, The Threshold Centre, near Gillingham, Kent. Sharing with four
other "post-marriage, post-children, over 50-year-olds," he believes
co-housing addresses several social problems, from the lack of affordable
housing to caring for the elderly.
He's hoping that his ambitious vision to create an eco-village for up to 600
residents in Dorset will spark interest in co-housing at government level.
"It will demonstrate sustainable living on quite a large scale," he says.
Meanwhile, he's enjoying his place among the "co-housers" who are reinventing
"We are not for names, nor men, nor titles of Government,
nor are we for this party nor against the other but we are
for justice and mercy and truth and peace and true freedom,
that these may be exalted in our nation, and that goodness,
righteousness, meekness, temperance, peace and unity with
God, and with one another, that these things may abound."
(Edward Burroughs, 1659 - from 'Quaker Faith and Practice')
Paul's new book, "Energy Beyond Oil", is out now!
For details see http://www.fraw.org.uk/ebo/book.html
Paul Mobbs, Mobbs' Environmental Investigations
3 Grosvenor Road, Banbury OX16 5HN, England
tel./fax (+44/0)1295 261864
email - mobbsey at gn.apc.org
website - http://www.fraw.org.uk/mobbsey/index.html
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