Co-Housing: The missing ingredient

Co-Housing: The missing ingredient

Which housing model works best?

East End Community Land Trust came into being in 2009 of which I became a founding board member. As a result, I realised there were different models of housing still needing to be properly explored in the UK.

The Swansea Co-Housing group recently visited the competed project on the former St Clements Hospital Site in Bow, East London. This model ensures affordability in perpetuity for local residents wishing to stay living in the area. This is an amazing feat considering how unaffordable much ‘affordable’ housing really is for many.

Swansea Co-Housing Group visits East London Community Land Trust scheme at St Clements Bow, 2019 with UK Citizens, Wales.

Since then I have explored how housing schemes can become better by placing a stronger emphasis on community.

We all love models to work to, like templates, especially if we want to get something done.

Co-housing is the new kid on the block. Nevertheless, it has ancient roots which go as far back as monastic communities to the present.

The refreshing thing with co-housing is that you can make up your own model. This means that to fit best with your circumstances including family and neighbours, the process can be carried out either quickly or slowly.

Yes it involves others. Its not all about me or you.

The case for more community

As Matthew Taylor, CEO of the Royal Society of the Arts (RSA) puts it, “Co-living can offer new choices for those who see greater communality as part of how they want to live, work and thrive”

There was a time when this would not have been something that needed to be debated. This is because by and large, everyone helped each other. Mothers, Fathers, daughters, sons, grandmothers and grandfathers all had to muck in to make life comfortable for the whole family. In addition, this applied to members of the community, because the extended family included neighbours too. 

With the emphasis on individualism that arose during the ‘never had it so good’ era – remember that? – funded by cheap fossil fuel for 100 years – we didn’t have to depend on anyone. We could just pay for another service which would replace the helping hand. 

The trouble is, this independence comes at a price which seems to be rising.

Sid, in the movie Ice Age, said about his adopted tribe that they were a ‘bunch of lone, lonely loners’. 

Why are we feeling lonely all of a sudden?

More people are living on their own now, more than ever before. For many, this is a lonely and isolating experience. Depression among young and old in many countries is considered to be nearly, if not already, at epidemic levels. 

The nuclear family unit puts almost unbearable pressure on couples when juggling with finances and the complexities of modern life. With no support in place from the neighbours or family, often living miles away, relationships can soon break down.. 

Things are not working as they should. 

What is the missing ingredient?

Market houses, socially rented houses, shared equity homes and affordable homes, may all be missing a vital ingredient. 

‘I need an egg to finish this prize gateaux I’ve started – Oh no, the shop is shut’. Who can I turn to?  ‘I don’t feel like cooking tonight or washing up the pots and pans again’. 

Well you can get your egg tonight! You don’t have to cook every night either if you are living in a Co-Housing community. 

Is the missing ingredient the extended family we can no longer rely on?

What is Co-Housing?

It is the creation of a community by a group of people who come together intentionally with the purpose of living together. Each resident has their own private space with a bathroom to address the need for privacy. Likewise,the provision of shared space addresses the need for community.

The nature of the shared space can have a wide interpretation, but often includes eating area and a community kitchen. Specific needs for socialising such as parties and making music can also be facilitated.  Careful design of shared space is essential and may require soundproofing to ensure those wishing quiet are not disturbed.

In all, it is about making up for not being part of the traditional extended family. These are just some of the reasons to consider Co-Housing: to reduce social isolation; to feel better about my life; to improve my physical and mental wellbeing and to enjoy a quality of existence which I can afford.

Images from ‘How Co-Housing can make us happier (and live longer)’. Grace Kim. USA

However, efforts to provide for these things fall short of their full potential when offered through the main housing providers. Some housing models can be adapted for use with Co-housing. Above all the real motivation for Co-Housing is to live in community first and foremost. 

“The current housing system is both one which denies people choice but also one which directs people to make choices they might prefer to avoid.” Mathew Taylor goes on to say in the RSA Co-housing report, “Most obviously, to own a home means, for many, a career’s worth of debt to pay back, extended travel to work and the loss of existing community and attenuation of family connections.”

Examples of Co-Housing

Some co-housing projects have arisen out of a desperate need in a particular county or neighbourhood to strive for something better than mass housing market products or social housing providers can provide. In these cases communities have come together and have pioneered a way to build a community. Their buildings have been designed to serve their stated values and goals.

Block of apartments designed using Co-Housing principles by Grace Kim architect. Communal areas for living and eating with an edible garden on the roof.

LILAC in Leeds is one such recent venture in a semi-rural location. Here the community group had the additional goal to make the buildings environmentally low impact. LILAC stands for Low Impact Living Affordable Community.

Co-housing at LILAC, Leeds, UK, developed over six years by a very persistent Co-Housing community group using straw bale construction.

However, dense urban settings are equal candidates for co-housing developments. They gain automatically from the already sustainable attribute of being close to other facilities and services. In this setting, walkability and social interaction are more likely, both of which contribute to a lower carbon footprint.

It’s not utopia

No one who is or has been part of a Co-Housing group will say it’s utopia. 

There are certainly pain points.

Participants have to begin to come to terms with how to live with one another in harmony once again. Many however testify to the amazing experience of getting to know the older or younger generations. Supporting and helping each other through life’s ups and downs brings a sense of fulfilment. There are also great opportunities for more enriching shared spaces for children to play in. Outdoor space provided by many housing providers often amount no more than an isolated, fenced in excuse for a garden.

Greater experience of community is possible with improved communication and physical connections with each other. This is rare in many of today’s suburbs.  Even in parts of more recently built metropolitan areas the options are not great. Our relationships have veered towards the virtual.

The library in the world’s largest co-living complex which promises residents “everything at their fingertips”. South London. Residents will have so many services to hand they may never have to leave the building, according to the entrepreneur.

The future can be different and ought to be.

On the one hand, the nuances of community living, need to be more understood by the housing providers. On the other hand, communities have an opportunity to become more active and engaged. This can encourage better forms of local democracy through the process. The result will be to break out of the existing moulds that housing models tend to impose. But not only that, it will renew the age old adventure of properly connecting with each other again, as community. The result will be to stave off creeping social isolation.

Housing groups in Swansea are beginning to understand that things need doing differently and are exploring new avenues. Starting small by recycling existing buildings can be a good place to start integrating Co-Housing principles. Through the architectural process we encourage potential co-housing participants to imagine how they would like to interact with each other. This includes both living and opportunities to work. The distinction between working, either at the office or at home is much more blurred now.  This needs to be recognised in the design. We explore together how ideas for social interaction can affect the design of the shared spaces.

How can we encourage the sense of community? Are the joys of life, hope, fun, the fears, sense of belonging, peace and and other qualities, supported by design? Can we avoid the soulless shared space often provided in standard schemes such as student accommodation?  The shared space at the heart of such a community needs to be well considered. The space should be as good as an active street or piazza at the heart of a vibrant neighbourhood.

Conscious Contracts

So, it’s clear that work is required to ensure that such communities thrive and not dive. For instance, clear agreements should be put in place at the start and boundaries well defined. Then, once agreements are nutted out, these ‘intentional’ communities can thrive where the benefits far outweigh the inconveniences. 

New ‘conscious contracts’ are now available with lawyers who have experience in this field. The agreements use language which makes the process more accessible and understood by all. This allows people to more easily understand their rights and responsibilities and will help facilitate cohesion.  It won’t necessarily guarantee complete harmony but it will reduce the chance of misunderstanding from the start.  The ‘intentional’ aspect of the community is important. This means getting to know the residents well before hand, with whom you will share your life. This is key to success. 

Starting out on this journey can seem daunting, especially when you may not know others in the group all that well.  There comes a point, for instance, when you have to commit for the project is to go ahead. 

But as Sid the sloth put it, “You’re hangin out with us now buddy. Dignity has nothin to do with it”

Swansea Co-Housing group placing an emphasis on multi-generational community, local carbon construction and recycling heritage buildings.

Read about developing a sustainable vision for your scheme. Get free access to this publication here:

5 Steps Towards Sustainable Buildings And Places

If you are establishing or considering developing a co-housing scheme, you may wish to contact Noel Isherwood Architects for a free preliminary discussion.

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