Cohousing – a case-study in custom-build

‘I’m the customer in Custom-Build,’ Maria Brenton, of Cohousing Woodside, announced to a seminar audience of planners and local authority officials at City Hall on Oct 27th.

Her presentation, ‘Cohousing – a case-study in custom-build’ was a contribution to a programme of regional workshops organised by the National Custom and Self-Build Association (NaCSBA). Introduced by the GLA’s Deputy Mayor, Richard Blakeway, the workshop was intended ‘to share practical lessons on how to deliver more self and custom build homes’. Nick Taylor, leading for custom-build for the GLA, gave a talk on vanguard councils in the UK.

NaCSBA members Ted Stevens and Mario Wolf gave everyone the benefit of their Continental tour of self and custom-build projects, including quite a lot of cohousing in Germany, the Netherlands and elsewhere.   They showed inspirational examples from places like Freiburg in Germany and Almere in Holland and gave an overview of projects to be found in London and the South East.

Part of their mission was to stress the importance to local authorities of measuring demand for self and custom build in their areas by setting up a Register and encouraging initiatives through use of the forthcoming NaCSBA Toolkit which was previewed at the workshop.   Gus Zogolovitch, of Inhabit Homes, London’s first custom-build developer, gave an account of building his own home and his current activities building five self-finish homes in Peckham.

Maria was one of the few speakers who has not built her own home, but stated that if ‘custom build is about a partnership between architects, developers, planners and consumers, Cohousing IS a part of custom-build’.   She began by reflecting on the exciting ‘Can Do’ emphasis of the Continental planners and developers whose work was previously illustrated in the workshop.   Calling for a shift of mindset among UK local authorities, away from a ‘Can’t Do’ mentality, she stressed that Cohousing is not just about bricks and mortar and financial investment . Far more importantly, it represents Social Capital. whereby people invest in social relationships, group cohesion and community-building and this is cemented through participation in design.

Groups like OWCH and Cohousing Woodside should, she said, be viewed as a joy to work with, committed as they are to working constructively with planners and developers.   Illustrating her case with the example of the OWCH (Older Women’s Cohousing) group who are due to move into their new building in High Barnet in early 2016, Maria contrasted this first and only Senior Cohousing Community in the UK with more than 200 developed in Holland. There, over three decades, successive government policies had encouraged and promoted cohousing by older people so that they would stay more active, healthier and happier.

The Cohouser is not a passive recipient or silent end-user, but an agent with an active role in a collaborative process, and whose capital in most cases is finally paying for the development. This was Maria’s key message.   That UK housing associations, developers or planners find this form of Co-Production a difficult relationship to adjust to is evidence of the need for a radical shift of culture in the housing sector.   This workshop should have given them food for thought.