Tag Archives: OWCH

GROWING AFFORDABLE COHOUSING

UK COHOUSING NETWORK ANNUAL CONFERENCE NOVEMBER 2015 – a report by Maria Brenton

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.

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SHARING EXPERIENCES OF DEVELOPING COHOUSING

On Saturday March 14 Cohousing Woodside organised a networking and social event for all cohousing groups in London.  It was a buzzy forum for exchange of information and ideas.

From North London, representatives of the Older Women’s Cohousing group (OWCH), Hackney Cohousing Project, LoCo (London Countryside Cohousing Group) and Cohousing Woodside attended, along with the only one based in South London, Featherstone Cohousing.   A total of around 40 people, including three university researchers, each pursuing different aspects of the cohousing process.   All the groups are still in the formation stage but at different points of the journey – OWCH is the furthest on, with construction having started;   Cohousing Woodside and Featherstone have secured planning permission, and the others are still in the planning phases.

Photography by Jan Potter
Photography by Jan Potter

This was the first time all the groups had come together like this and there was a lively interest in exploring key facts on each others’ progress so far.  Each group gave a short account of development milestones reached and successes and challenges encountered.  All had a tale to tell about how demanding of time and energy it is to set up a cohousing community with Loco and OWCH having managed best to share out the load.   As both have been working away for 12 and 16 years respectively, this is not surprising – it takes time for new members of a group to step up.  Discussion ranged over related areas such as building community and trust and taking decisions consensually in large groups.  Great ideas like ‘role playing’ exercises and ‘ever after’ task groups were shared.  All are struggling with issues like affordability, market pressures or tenure mix.  Hackney has a very interesting Council-enabled shared ownership model.

Loco is a now successfully self-developing and self-financing, having quit its brief partnership with Hanover; the small Hackney group is working with Peabody, and OWCH, Featherstone and Cohousing Woodside are all working with Hanover.  Cohousing Woodside is the only group sharing a site with a larger Hanover development and therefore struggling for recognition of the nature of cohousing, while the others have dedicated sites. The difficulties of reconciling the cohousing ethos with an organisational culture unused to equal relationships with end-users came out strongly in discussion.

It is clear that those assembled enjoyed the exchange and appreciated the opportunity to network with other cohousers. Another such get together before too long would be very useful and might form a basis for a ‘London Cohousing Network’.

CAPITAL DIARY – Maria Brenton

There is an encouraging flurry of activity on Cohousing in London at the moment.  March 14th will see a ‘get-together’ of the London cohousing groups for an informal exchange of their experiences so far, initiated by Cohousing Woodside’s Group Development taskgroup. See a forthcoming blog for a report of this event.

An ‘Introduction to Cohousing Ideas and People’ workshop will be held at Pollard, Thomas Edwards architects’ practice in Islington on the evening of March 25.   This is for interested individuals in London who are new to cohousing.   It will feature talks on: ‘Intentional Communities – what is Cohousing? (Jo Gooding, UKCN); ‘Building a Cohousing Group’ (Maria Brenton, UKCN); ‘Money and Sites’ (Toby Lloyd, Hackney Group); ‘Collaborative Design’ (Patrick Devlin, PTEa) and ‘What to expect from your builder’ (Steve Drury).  Representatives of existing groups active in the capital will be available to talk to those who come. Write to tim.metcalfe@ptea.co.uk for further details.

OWCH workshop 2On March 26, cohousing will be included in ‘Public Wisdom’, a conference at Caxton Hall, around ageing, creativity and the public realm.  This is funded by the Baring Foundation and will feature the eminent Professor Richard Sennett whose work as a sociologist has focussed on social ties in cities and the effects of urban living on individuals in the modern world. The programme also features Patrick Devlin, PTEa’s architect for the OWCH scheme in Barnet. He will speak about the participative process he developed with the Older Women’s Cohousing group, along with Rachel Douglas, an OWCH member, who will speak on the OWCH women’s experience of being involved in designing their own building.

New Ground Cohousing

On February 26, the OWCH (Older Women’s Cohousing) project took its first step towards becoming ‘New Ground Cohousing’ in High Barnet. Based on the site of an old school two minutes from the town centre, the project will see a start to drainage system and foundations now that the old school buildings have finally been demolished.

To mark this event, Theresa Villiers, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and also MP for Chipping Barnet, womanfully ignored tight skirt and high heels to climb onto a digger for the press to take photographs and marked the occasion with a short speech celebrating the achievement of the OWCH group in getting this far.

photo by Diana Deeks-Plummer
photo by Diana Deeks-Plummer

Hanover did the group proud and organised the whole event, followed by a splendid lunch in an adjacent church hall. 23 OWCH members listened to Hanover’s new executive director of development, Tracy Lavers, welcome this ‘landmark event’ and referencing the HAPPI Report (Housing Our Ageing Population Panel for Innovation) which, she went on to say,

“championed the idea of interdependence rather than independence, self-supporting communities as an alternative to the more traditional forms of retirement housing and housing that positively reflects the hopes and desires we all have for our later lives.

The New Ground housing scheme is the epitome of this and is a really interesting, innovative and exciting project. Hanover is delighted to play an integral role in this.

Hanover is an organisation committed to listening to its residents and meeting their needs. The cohousing approach offers us a unique opportunity to learn through co-creation, so that we’re hearing and learning from future residents, right from the start of the project, in a way that really fosters increased innovation”.

OWCH members will move in in February 2016. Their ‘Relocation’ task group is working on the transition and the next members’ workshop is on Decluttering.

Thoughts on media interest – by Maria Brenton

“Posh communes’ show the way to love thy neighbour” read a Financial Times headline on Monday, 29 April. “The philosophy behind cohousing lies in a rosy-hued vision of what life in town and village communities used to be like, when supposedly everyone knew their neighbour and helped one another out”, writes Elaine Moore.

This is the kind of lazy journalism the cohousing movement can do without – as one of those interviewed, I did my best to nail the commune angle. However, at least cohousing is getting some attention.

The article goes on to quote a spokesperson for the Ecology Building Society saying it had seen a big growth in enquiries for cohouse financing in the past 18 months. Triodos Bank also said it is working with more than 47 projects in their planning stages. Both the forming West Hampstead group and the mostly developed Lancaster scheme are cited.

The piece refers to Matthew Smith, a lecturer in real estate at Birmingham City University, who believes social media has helped boost the number of cohousing schemes by helping people find like-minded individuals. He concludes with the statement “As long as we remain in these very unsure times, it’s a model that will continue, but I worry that when the market does come back these will be the casualties”. Who knows what this means?

As part of the UK Cohousing Network and a project consultant to the OWCH (Older Women’s Cohousing) group, I get frequent requests for interviews or copy. This last week, I was part of a feature on senior cohousing by Radio Scotland’s religion and ethics programme (1hr 44min in). Also featured was a member of the Vivarium group in Fife, who are working with a housing association and have a site in mind.

In early April, an OWCH member and I appeared on BBC London news, focusing on the site in High Barnet and OWCH plans prior to its (successful) application for planning permission. This TV interest and a BBC radio interview were sparked off by an article in the local press – online and on paper – that we placed with the help of a PR agency.  TV and radio picked up this article before we even realized it was online – which just shows how the media feed off each other.  Some interesting lessons for Cohousing Woodside here.

Visitor interest in Cohousing Woodside