Britain's first new-build cohousing scheme

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

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 house.

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 left."

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 Rowbotham.

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 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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