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
Click to follow
The Independent Online

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 community".

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 says.

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 interest.

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.