OWCH – BBC Radio London

The Older Women’s Cohousing Network in Barnet were interviewed by Jo Good of BBC Radio London. You can hear it on the link below at 2hrs, 11 mins into the programme.



Is Cohousing the future of Urban Design

One of the UK Cohousing Network’s members discovered this very useful infographic recently. An unusual overture from the world of commerce, it offers a wealth of information about cohousing in a most accessible way.  It was created by Tower Insurance to pique the interest of its landlord customers and open their imaginations to working with groups of people in the cause of building community. We could do with more helpful and visonary landlords!

BBC Story of OWCH – 3 February 2016

BBC cameras visited the women who will be moving into a new Cohousing community in Barnet to find out what it will mean to their lives.

OWCH (Older Women’s Cohousing) is a group of women over fifty who are creating their own community in a new, purpose-built block of flats in Union St., High Barnet, N. London.

As an alternative to living alone, they are getting to know their neighbours – and friendly, helpful neighbours, at that. They meet regularly each month and are planning to move in together in a few months time when the new flats are completed.

The OWCH site will be completed in May 2016. It offers 17 flats for sale and 8 for social rent.

For more information – OWCH website: www.owch.org.uk

Incentive to downsize?

If you are ready to downsize from a substantial property and are keen to put energy and time into nurturing a neighbourly way of life – read on.

As Cohousing Woodside reassesses and regroups, it is clear that the prices for Woodside Grove reflect the market values Londoners expect of new build dwellings.   There’s no doubt that prices are not cheap.  Furthermore Woodside Square is a serviced development so those of us who are downsizing from freehold properties have to re-acquaint ourselves with budgeting for ground rent and service charges.

Developer's CGI aerial-view of Woodside Grove
Developer’s CGI aerial-view of Woodside Grove


Can we or can’t we?

a report by Maria Brenton

January 16 and 17 saw the opening of the Woodside Square show flat for Cohousing Woodside members to meet sales staff by appointment.   We have received prices for our 30 units  but are not able to publicise them on this website until the end of January when the sales launch proper commences.

Suffice it to say, prices are high, based on Savills’ market assessment for Muswell Hill.   We are currently still waiting for Hanover to tell us what their service charges will be.

Our numbers have decreased by six households since then, as members whose budgets are less elastic departed reluctantly and sadly.     We shall miss them and feel aggrieved that they have put so much into our cohousing project only to be priced out of it.    Those of us who remain are seeking out new recruits to the group who are able to afford these properties and who are keen to put effort and energy into the group.

The developer's CGI perspective of Woodside Grove
The developer’s CGI perspective of Woodside Grove

We regret very much the impact on Cohousing Woodside of being kept waiting for several years before being told the prices.   Cohousing accrues its own priceless value in slowly building trust and familiarity between individual members as a basis for a well-functioning community of neighbours.   Hammering out shared values and aspirations  is a rich investment, though sadly not one that general developers’ profit motive respects.

Any one who comes to our next meeting, on February 21, will for sure receive up to date information on which to judge the affordability of our scheme in Woodside Grove.   The added bonus of a group of people who have already set out to build a sense of community where neighbours know each other, look out for each other and share some activities, is beyond any market value.   We are looking for people who care about how they live as they grow old in this day and age and want to contribute actively to Cohousing Woodside.

‘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?’


A report by Maria Brenton

A Guardian Live panel debate at the National Theatre recently brought together politicians, journalists and housing experts to discuss the state of London and the ever growing focus on housing as an investment asset.

Campbell Robb (CEO, Shelter) citing a member of the audience (a member of the Older Women’s Cohousing group) who has set up a small housing co-operative in her community,  said everyone should follow her example. “Work with others in your communities.   Make where you live a better place and make it happen by getting angry about it because if we get angry about it we can make it change.”

David Lammy MP warned that the capital is in danger of creating ‘Paris ghettoes’ with an outer suburb that is increasingly poor, over-crowded and depressed.   Yolande Barnes, Savills’ Director of World Research (who knew?) commented on London’s failure to urbanise the suburbs and ‘build the new London that generation Y want to live in’.


A report by Maria Brenton

Your roving Londoner recently attended a seminar on Community Led Housing,   organised by the London region of the Housing Learning and Improvement Network (www.housinglin.org.uk) which I was, in a past life, employed by.  The seminar was held at the Design Centre in the Angel Building – a stylish venue.   The main reason I was there was because I and Patrick Devlin (architect at Pollard, Thomas, Edwards – who also worked on the Cohousing Woodside design) were reporting on progress on the OWCH (Older Women’s Cohousing) development in High Barnet.  Patrick took them through the visuals for a building that nearly has its roof on.    I followed my usual themes which are that participating in design helps develop a sense of ownership and togetherness in a cohousing group and, more importantly, that group-building needs to have a higher priority than bricks and mortar.

The theme of the seminar was ‘Design benefits of engagement’, kicked off by a representative the Design Council on efforts to produce a better class of design in housing where people are enabled to feel connected with where they live and able to shape and improve it.   Various schemes for tenant and resident involvement were described.  These aimed to empower and build capacity to counteract the break up of communities through gentrification and pricing people out of their area.

A really interesting presentation from the Central & Cecil Housing Association gave an account of the regeneration of their Dora House, near Lords Cricket ground.   Replacement of 200 bedsits by up-to-date flats is challenge enough, but doing it in meaningful consultation with their elderly occupants is really praise-worthy. Said occupants are now almost all decanted around alternative accommodation in the area but are bussed back at regular intervals to be briefed on how the regeneration process they have helped shape is moving on.   The involvement of these tenants in such practical issues appears to have acted as a catalyst in community development.  They got to meet and know each other better in the course of deliberating on the design and shape of their new building, which promises a better sense of community for those who move back in in 2018.



No-one ever dreamed there would come a day when the national conference was oversubscribed and had to turn people away.  With more members joining every week, the cohousing movement definitely now has wind in its tail and the next conference will need a larger venue.   140 people gathered in Birmingham around the theme ‘Growing affordable cohousing in the UK’ . The atmosphere was peppy and optimistic and full of energy and the whole thing superbly organised.

Cohousing conference 2015We started with an open mike session, chaired by me, Cohousing Woodside’s representative on the Network, reflecting on ‘Cohousing: an idea whose time has come?’, with speakers from the Network, the K1 Group in Cambridge and the asset-based-community-development movement.   This set the scene on opportunities and possibilities offered by cohousing.

Then we broke into workshops and learning circles.   Mine was about ‘Money, money, money’ which I took myself to for self-education about available sources of funding for new groups.   Other topics included ‘Design – more than buildings’; Legal issues; ‘Finding land and property’; ‘Cohousing when the honeymoon is over’ and, finally, ‘How to write a business plan’.

In the lunch hour we circulated and could take advantage of various support surgery sessions from concerns like Triodos Bank and the Ecology Building Society, as well as Wrigleys solicitors, who have specialised in cohousing. Some contributed their favourite recipes to the Network Cookbook, others took part in Vox Pop snap interviews.

The afternoon session I attended focused on Retrofit. Some expected it to discuss refurbishing old buildings; I expected it to highlight community development methods.  Well it did, indirectly, and we heard much that was interesting and valuable from Transition Streets, based in Totnes.   Small groups of neighbours who had never spoken to each other before were brought together to examine their use of energy, water and other resources and to help spend £625,000 of government money in three months on putting PV panels on their roofs.   63 transition groups made an average household annual saving of £570.   In the process, they also got to know each other and those small steps led to neighbourhoods where sharing and a sense of community took root, cars were ‘surgically removed’ and food habits became less wasteful.

An OWCH member ran a decision-making workshop on ‘The N-Street Decision-Making Process’.   Lilac and Lancaster combined with a workshop on building community.   Another workshop told the story of the K1 ‘Professionally Enabled’ Group in Cambridge.

The conference ended with a lively ‘Soap Box – 100 Communities by 2015’ where individuals spoke up their ideas for the future where ‘Cohousing would be the new normal’, as in countries like Germany. Ideas tumbled over each other:

  • ‘Inventing a new Planning Use Class C5 for Cohousing’
  • ‘a toolkit for maintaining (not just starting) cohousing’   ‘documenting existing cohousing experience and making it available online’
  • ‘transforming the notion of housing from a speculative commodity to a human right’
  • ‘re-invent the building society’
  • ‘persuade the Ethical Property Company to develop housing not just offices’
  • ‘the Network to give as much attention to collaborative working as to bricks and mortar’
  • ‘Join forces with other similar movements and organisations – crossover working’
  • ‘use the buildings we’ve got for cohousing – it’s all too slow’
  • ‘Engage the National Landlords Association with cohousing – they would benefit from it’
  • ‘Show citizens how to get their voice heard by politicians’.

By the end, it was not 100 cohousing communities that were aspired to, but trillions!

This conference was the swan song of the Network Coordinator, Jo Gooding, who is moving to another job and will be missed.

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.