Cohousing: a model for tough times?

LILAC Cohousing Community - British Gas Business

From its early origins in 1960s Denmark to the hundreds of sites across the US and Canada, cohousing has always been about achieving a better lifestyle. It’s a community-driven, sustainable and more affordable way to live. And with more than 18 completed projects in the UK, and over 60 projects under way, it’s a growing trend.

So how does it work?

Groups of residents – sometimes up to 40 households – buy a plot of land together and, by consensus, see to the financing, design, construction and management of their own community. Households can usually sign up on a social housing, leasehold or freehold basis.

While some groups design and build on their own, others (including the Hackney Cohousing Project) employ professional firms. In fact, the UK Cohousing Network is now trying to engage traditional construction companies in the cohousing trend, encouraging them to include dedicated areas in new developments. The idea is that as people try to escape rising house prices, the market for cohousing space will grow, making resale easier in turn.

Naturally, this type of design and construction carries its own challenges. Each household has its own self-contained dwelling – private kitchens, bathrooms, living and sleeping spaces – but shares gardens, play areas and a communal dining area. You can enjoy the benefits of a close-knit community and mutual co-operation – including reduced costs – while retaining a sense of ownership and privacy.

In this sense, cohousing is an ideal model for those running a business from home. It affords lower costs for energy and some services, and removes the isolation that many home workers feel.

The UK government has even introduced funding for self-builders and traditional builders working on cohousing projects – partly in recognition of the benefits to local councils squeezed for resources. While a number of banks, including Barclays and Triodos, offer cohousing mortgages.

Sustainability, community and affordability

The benefits, it seems, are tangible.

1. Greener living – Carpooling, the sharing of gardening and household equipment, and growing produce are common practice among cohousing residents. And, according to a 2011 survey, more than half of communities use solar panels for their electricity, with over 90% engaging in composting and community-managed recycling.

2. Sense of community and social activity – The sharing of expertise and skills, such as childcare, home repairs and cooking, means that help is at hand when you need it. What’s crucial is the balance between social and private lives: most communities encourage communal dining and the joint management of housing affairs, but still allow individuals or households to opt-out of community activities.

3. Increase in affordability – Homes in London’s Copper Lane project are 40% cheaper than similar builds in the neighbourhood. Shared facilities mean individual homes can be smaller, resulting in energy savings. And thanks to shared equipment and the exchange of services, the cost of living can be significantly lower. You might never need to pay for a babysitter again, or bear the cost of running a car. In addition, if residents own the freehold of the property they can profit from any rise in value.

Is cohousing the way forward?

If you’re an economically- and environmentally wise person who welcomes the company and help of your peers, cohousing could be the right step. For architects and builders, this type of project offers an opportunity to stand out from their competitors. While for local councils, self-builders can help relieve the strain on housing resources.

Do you think cohousing will catch on as a sustainable model? Leave your comments below.

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