One of the most recent cohousing schemes to get off the ground is LILAC in Leeds. They are committed to ecologically sound building and have an interesting ownership structure,
Recreating the village
Although very strong on the continent (15% of new Danish housing is now cohousing) and well established in the US and New Zealand, this is still rather a novel concept in the UK. Although a definition of cohousing is difficult to pin down, the idea originated in Scandinavia in the 1970s when people who had experimented with communes for some years realized that they liked a certain amount of intentional shared community but also wanted private space within it. There was also a desire to recreate the best of what traditional villages had to offer. What sprang up were a number of new “villages” which tended to have certain characteristics –
- at least 15 but in some cases up to 60 houses, large enough to create a diverse community of people. (note that there are all kinds of intentional communities such as communes, shared houses and communities for older people but they are not really cohousing because they don’t usually have the size or diversity of cohousing or the degree of shared facilities). However there have been a few examples of cohousing for older people.
- some shared common areas owned by the group as a whole, typically –
- a place to share meals and relax together with teams of members taking turns to cook
- laundry and drying facilities
- visitors bedrooms
- workshops and office space
- communal gardens and food growing areas
- collective brewing and winemaking
- children’s play areas
- often there are interests in common which have been catered for and have helped the group thrive. Examples are –
- a certain amout of shared child care
- a political standpoint
- a strong ecological emphasis
- live music
- performance arts
- a spiritual perspective
Although there is an emphasis on sharing and community there has also been a strong sense of the individual’s right to be alone in their own house if they wish to and to not be obliged to join in if they don’t want to. Kind of having your cake and eating it.
The self build element of cohousing has generally not been so much about hands on work but mainly about the design and implementation of the project, working with an architect to achieve the best outcome for the group as a whole. The few recent and current schemes in the UK have tended to have a very strong green element in the design.
Quality rather than cost cutting
It has not particularly been seen as a cheapskate way of getting housing. Rather a way of pooling finance around aspects of life which benefit from shared ownership.
At the mundane and practical level, shared washing machines make sense ecologically and because less space is required. Shared visitors bedrooms also make sense because they are not often in use by one family so they too save space (and building costs).
With shared child care it means that babysitting is less of a problem and kids get to have friends around in a safer environment, especially if cars are kept to one corner of the development.
In some cases such things as workshop facilities, musical equipment, computers or food growing and processing equipment can be of much higher quality if shared.
The way all this is achieved financially is that typically about 12%-15% of the equity is transferred from the individual house into the common facilities. So individual houses are 12%-15% smaller because they don’t tend to need a spare bedroom, a clothes washing and drying area and need less of a dining room etc. The savings on the houses goes to the building of the communal spaces.
The way it is achieved socially is by a number of techniques based on mutual support and group decision making. This is quite elaborate and is covered in both the books on cohousing . See below.
The possibilities for raising finance for such a venture are rather different from the normal mortgage route because building societies and other traditional lenders tend to want to be able to throw you out of your house and sell it on the open market if you default. This is not so easy if part of the value of the property is linked to communal buildings. There are however several other legal structures which fit better such as the whole development being owned by a company or cooperative and the residents being shareholders with the right to live there. This is in fact little different from lots of up market private housing developments which have some facility such as a gym or health club built in. What is a little more difficult to handle ethically and practically is the situation where somebody wants to move out of the cohousing and establishing the value of their share in it (possibly after many years of inflation (or even deflation!) since they moved in. There is probably also the matter of the whole group having to approve the new buyer. However there don’t seem to be many, or even any stories of cohousing groups having had major problems yet in this respect and there are various lenders who have a policy of promoting this type of housing, especially if it is ecologically progressive. Three of the major ones are –
all of whom seem to have been hardly phased by capitalism’s recent liitle hiccup.
The Cambridge K1 Orchard Park Cohousing development comprising 42 custom designed homes is in an advanced stage of development and is looking for more members. see their brochure
The two main books on cohousing are both excellent and well worth reading partly because of the range of examples they give on the continent and the US.
The other book
covers what is something of a relatively recent departure from the central idea of cohousing,. This can be seen as a bit of an anachronism because the original idea of cohousing was of a fairly balanced community albeit often with its own particular flavour, rather than being age specific. Anyway, not wanting to split hairs……