Living together in Stroud - 21st century style

Gerrard Winstanley office at
Mon Mar 13 18:28:20 GMT 2006

Britain's first new-build cohousing scheme 
Living together 21st century style

They were 35 families, all wanting eco-friendly homes, community 
spirit - and some privacy. The result? Britain's first new-build 
cohousing scheme. David Pearson reports 
Published: 13 March 2006 

Sarah Lunnon was living in a terraced house in Caerphilly and was 
looking to move her family somewhere more congenial. A historic-
buildings surveyor (and now a local Green Party councillor), she was 
interested in environmental issues. So when she read that Springhill, 
the first new-build cohousing project, was under construction in 
Stroud, Gloucestershire, she made contact. 

Referred to as "the greenest town in the west", Stroud, a former wool-
town, has a Green town council, a thriving farmers' market, the 
largest LETS alternative currency scheme in the country, organic and 
whole-food cafés, natural health practices, and a growing network of 
talented artists and musicians.

"Although I was interested in environmental and community ideas, I 
didn't know much about cohousing at first," she says. It started in 
Denmark in the 1960s, and since then has gained in popularity around 
the world, especially in the USA where there are now over 30 cohousing 
communities. It is a co-operative process where people create their 
own housing and combines privacy with community. Each household owns 
its own self-contained home yet can share facilities in a large common 

Coming to the project just before her house was built, Lunnon and her 
partner, the performance artist James Lee, were actively involved in 
the development. It took three years from seeing the advert to moving 
in. "It has not been all plain sailing," she admits. "Firstly, we had 
some difficulty in raising a mortgage owing to the project's 
unfamiliarity and the houses being built of timber - unusual in the 
UK. But we did find a sympathetic bank and all was well." However, the 
cost kept rising and we had to raise more finance. In the end, the 
house cost over half again more than we first expected - but we don't 
regret this at all now we are here." With a new baby, they now need 
more space and have offered on a bigger house in Springhill.

The project was the brainchild of the property developer David 
Michael, who discovered the two-acre site and brought people together 
to invest. They included singles and families looking for a better 
life and those actively seeking cohousing. After forming The Cohousing 
Company, Michael appointed the architects Jono Hines of Architype and 
Pat Borer of the Centre for Alternative Technology. Inspired by the 
two seminal books, Cohousing by Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett 
and A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander, and informed by their 
wide knowledge of eco-housing, the designers came up with a scheme for 
35 houses and flats, ranging from studios to four- and five- bedroom 
units, grouped around the hub of a common house.

Central to the design is the pedestrian layout. Car-parking is kept to 
the periphery, and pedestrian walkways link the houses and make for a 
safe, quiet environment. A sustainable urban drainage system deals 
with rainwater, which is conducted through a series of swales, ponds 
and rills planted with aquatic plants that run beside the walkways. 
Excess flows into a nearby stream, and in very heavy rainfall water 
temporarily fills a grassy soak-away area that doubles as a green.

The timber-framed houses are designed to a high standard of energy-
efficiency with triple-glazed windows and extra insulation, and are 
specified with green materials where possible. Some eco-features, such 
as district heating and reed-bed waste management, were not economic 
and had to be abandoned, as, reluctantly, so were rainwater recycling, 
lime render and the common house's turfed roof. But the project was 
successful in winning £320,000 finance from the DTI for large areas of 
photovoltaic roof tiles - the largest residential system in the UK.

Although six standard housing types were planned, a consensus among 
the cohousers that each could customise the interior of their units 
resulted in almost every house-plan being slightly different.

Many of the more intimate communal features, such as the outdoor decks 
and front porches overlooking the main pedestrian street, have 
fostered informal contact between the residents. "It was lovely last 
summer," recalls Lunnon, "to sit out on the cool of the front porch 
and say hello to everyone as they passed by."

The common house was last to be finished and has been a real boost 
with communal meals, workshop facilities and a big room for parties, 
celebrations and member meetings. "We already have a small choir and a 
gardening group" says Lunnon, "and there's lots of ideas coming from 
the new people moving in." Her partner, James Lee, proudly points out 
of the window to the new tree-house built of salvaged timber in a big 
yew. "All the children in the community love it and so do I. It's got 
stained-glass windows, recycled shingles and lots of decks and 
ladders. We had a £300 budget but didn't need to spend it all."

"I like the fact that it's safe for my children to play outside the 
house in the pedestrian street," says Lunnon. "I know everyone who 
walks past my door. I know the children's parents and even some of the 
grandchildren. It's also a big relief to eat at the common house and 
not to have to cook every day of the week. We have rotas."

Things were a bit different for Max Comfort, a small-business adviser, 
and Jo Rowbotham, an event facilitator. The couple had been living in 
London and were seeking a greener way of life. To find out how to live 
in a more eco-friendly and communal way they attended the Findhorn 
eco-villages conference in 1995. "But we weren't keen on the idea of 
living remotely. We wanted an urban option," says Rowbotham, "so we 
became part of a cohousing group in London." They met for a couple of 
years but people came and went and they could never find a site. 
"Every time we heard of one, some developer or builder had pipped us 
to the post," she recalls. "You must to be able to pay up front. 
There's no time to raise cash." Then they heard about Stroud.

"We had to put £5,000 in the Cohousing Company, " explains Comfort, " 
and after this each household nominated one of their number to be a 
director." Then they had to raise £36,000 for their plot. They sold 
their London flat. While the project developed, the couple spent a 
couple of years living in a terraced house in Stroud with another 
cohousing family. During this time, the project designs went out to 
tender and a shock was in store. The project had included around £4m 
for the houses and roads, paths and landscaping. But this came in at 
around £7m! "We heard word had gone around contractors not to touch 
it," remembers Comfort. "The steep site, the unusual homes and our 
multi-headed client structure put us beyond the pale."

But new contractors were found who hoped the cost would be kept in the 
region of £4.6m. Yet rising prices have dogged the project. "We had 
originally been advised that we should budget for £70 per square foot,
" says Comfort. "But this rose to around £90 and then a final figure 
of £120 - a 71-per-cent increase. Some of us had to dig deeper and 
abandon ideas of income from savings, some sold properties, and some 

But the group had their vision to get them through. "Even in the worst 
times, David always looked for a way to solve the problem and to reach 
the next stage," says Rowbotham, "and we were all roped together in 
this and we had to find a way through."

In September 2003 the first of the group took possession of their 
homes. Comfort and Rowbotham admit it has been a roller-coaster ride. 
"Green building definitely has a price and, although a lot of our 
original ideas got sheared off, as a community we are much further up 
the green scale than most. We all recycle like mad and I'm even using 
a worm-bin for compost - something I never thought I'd do," laughs 

Springhill Cohousing is at www.; the UK 
Cohousing Network is at www.; 'Designing Your Natural 
Home' by David Pearson is published by Gaia Books

What is cohousing?

Developments of between 20 and 40 homes that share communal facilities 
and green space are called cohousing

Residents live in their own private homes with kitchens, but share 
facilities including larger kitchens, dining rooms, laundry rooms and 
child care

Communities design their own developments to meet their specific 
needs, so no two projects are the same

Cohousing can be urban, suburban or rural, and varies from low-rise to 
town-houses and detached houses

Shared green space is important, whether for gardening, play or a 
place to gather. Houses are normally built close together to leave as 
much open land as possible for shared use

Old-fashioned neighbourhood values are the emphasis of developments, 
so houses are arranged to look out on a common garden shared by all

Communal areas are pedestrian, so neighbours see each other more and 
children can play safely

Communities are in charge of maintaining their own developments and 
are in charge of upkeep and repairs

There are distinct environmental advantages of cohousing as it is 
usually sited on a brown-field site

50 Danish families came up with the idea of co-housing and organised 
the first community project in 1967. Five per cent of the Danish 
population now lives this way

Canada has seven completed communities with 15 more planned

Amy Winston

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