Living together in Stroud - 21st century style
office at evnuk.org.uk
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. springhillcohousing.com; the UK
Cohousing Network is at www. cohousing.org.uk; '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
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
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