Britain's first purpose-built commune

Paul Mobbs mobbsey at
Mon Jul 25 23:33:00 BST 2005

Hash: SHA1

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 
all worthwhile."

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 
communal living.

- -- 

"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

Paul Mobbs, Mobbs' Environmental Investigations
3 Grosvenor Road, Banbury OX16 5HN, England
tel./fax (+44/0)1295 261864
email - mobbsey at
website -
Version: GnuPG v1.2.5 (GNU/Linux)


More information about the Diggers350 mailing list