‘Rethinking the way we live – Cohousing’

A report by Maria Brenton

Just before Christmas, your roving Londoner spoke at a Museum of Architecture event held at the Building Design Centre for an invited audience of 150 architects, town planners, housing association people and others.   Its theme ‘Rethinking the way we live’ was dear to a Woodsider’s heart and absolutely something the audience needed to hear about.  The other speakers besides me were Stephen Hill, Chair of the UK Cohousing Network, Meredith Bowles from Mole Architects and David Saxby from Project00, and our convenor was Irena Bauman, an architect and Sheffield University’s professor of Sustainable Urbanism.

Stephen did some broad scene painting with an account of ‘Cohousing for everyone’, its focus on collaborative living and sustainability, and progress in the UK so far – did you know there has been a 25% increase in searches on Zoopla for cohousing?   The audience heard about the Network’s 3 year development plan, its action research programme with partners and its new focus on retrofit cohousing, particularly for older age-groups.   Everyone laughed when he quoted ‘a housing association chief executive (salary over £200k) describing cohousers as “completely pre-occupied with what they want!”

Stephen went on to outline the reasons why cohousing is difficult to achieve in that factors like scarcity of access to land, lack of capital and structure in the ’self-build’ sector and the power of corporate interests are all compounded by political reserve in the UK about people doing things for themselves.

‘The adaptation of regulatory systems to support building cohousing’ was the subject of Meredith’s input.  The new Planning Framework of 2012 requires a wide choice of high quality homes planned for a mix of housing needs, including for people wishing to build their own homes.   Legislation coming in in 2016 will make it a duty on Local Planning Authorities to grant suitable ‘development permission’ for serviced plots of land to meet the demand for self-build and custom-build in their area.   This and the work of ‘vanguard authorities’ will, it is hoped, provide a stimulus for and open up possibilities for more cohousing.

David talked about how to develop collaborative/participative/shared tools to lower the threshold to user-led housing, citing various of Project 00’s digital platform projects and the scale of community they have helped build, how they make the global local, etc.

'Rethinking the way we live' event

I finished up at the micro-level with a visual account of the OWCH (Older Women’s Cohousing) project due to complete in March this year, and how their participation in the design of their building helped give them a sense of ownership of the project.   Far more important than bricks and mortar, however, I stressed, is consciously building a cohesive group that works collaboratively – a sense of community does not just happen on its own.

The event finished with a lively debate between the speakers and the audience facilitated by Irena around key questions we directed at them – such as ‘Do we need a new Planning Class for Community Housing? or ‘Can we transform the developer-end user relationship and how?’

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