The idea for our cohousing community started in 2004 when a group of friends in Lancaster tried to buy an old school together to retrofit. The idea grew and eight years later we had created an £8 million development of 41 eco-homes and communal facilities by the river in Halton, a village three miles outside Lancaster.
Today it is home to around 60 adults and 18 children, aged between 2 and 79. Cohousing combines private homes with communal facilities – we have a common house where we sometimes share meals, watch films, have celebrations, play games or just hang out. We have a shared children’s room, bike shed, guest rooms, laundry, food store and gardens. Cohousing is designed, physically and socially, to encourage us to get to know our neighbours – a great help in the pandemic.
Our vision is to be an exemplar of sustainable living, and to make living this way enjoyable and easy. We do this both through technology and by supporting people to change their behaviour.
Our homes are passivhaus – one of the highest eco specifications combining excellent insulation, airtightness and a south facing aspect with mechanical ventilation. They also meet Code for Sustainable Homes (level 6). Most importantly, they are warm and comfortable to live in with very low heating costs.
Our energy is renewable. We get our electricity from two local community-owned energy cooperatives. We helped Halton Lune Hydro raise funds to build an 160kW micro hydro 250m upstream, enough to power over 200 homes. And we offered roof space to Morecambe Bay Renewables for 89kWp of solar panels. Profits from both go to local good causes. Our heating and hot water is provided by a district heating system, fuelled by a single biomass boiler, using offcuts from a local sawmill.
We reduce our environmental impact by sharing things. Most of us have given up our private cars and joined our car club, including three electric vehicles. We share four high spec washing machines among 40 homes. Our food store provides organic, ethical and locally sourced vegetarian and vegan food – so we don’t have to drive to the shops for everyday items. Our communal guest rooms mean we don’t need spare rooms for visitors. We don’t have to buy much stuff because we can borrow most things from our neighbours – anything from a power tool to a tent.
When we bought the site, we got a redundant factory thrown in. Halton Mill is now a low carbon work and event space, a working community where small enterprises can flourish. It houses private offices, a coworking space, a yoga studio, shared art studios, a community makerspace. Many of us work from there – no need to travel far to the office.
We have acted as a catalyst for other developments. Our members set up a Community Land Trust, which is currently building 20 affordable passivhaus homes for social rent and shared ownership nearby. Work is about to start on a Senior Cohousing project next door.
Community-led projects take energy, time and determination. So, you need to pace yourself, look for the talent and experience available in your community, and find ways to make it fun as you go along.
There is help out there. In the early days, we visited/talked to other cohousing communities, in the UK and abroad, and got very useful advice. Key bits of advice were: you need a steering group and weekly meetings to drive the project; don’t allow everyone to individualise their homes, that will add greatly to the cost; don’t have a member of the group project manage the build, it’s too stressful (we ignored that, which was tough on the member who did it); put as much energy into building a community as building homes; have a policy lock until after you’ve moved in, otherwise you will spend too much time revisiting policies every time you get a new member (we did this, which caused some frustration among new members); consider the risk of not doing things, as well as the risk of doing them.
Community-led projects can be seen as ‘weird’ or naïve idealists, with no track record. They often have problems getting professionals to take them seriously and in particular accessing land and funding. We set ourselves up as a conventional Ltd Company rather than a cooperative, so we seemed more ‘normal’. We got two grants – from the Rural Carbon Challenge Fund and Rural Development Fund for England. We also paid our members ‘sweat equity’ – a reduction in their house prices – to pay for some work. We offered a discount on house prices to early members before we found land to reflect the extra risk they were taking.
Our friends in the Lune Valley Community Land Trust partnered with a housing association, who had a track record and access to cheaper finance. Partnering also took a lot of the workload off them, as South Lakes Housing knew about house building, social rentals and much more. So, it may be worth looking for a partner to share the load.
Once you have a site, spend time and energy consulting with locals, listen to people’s concerns even if you don’t share them and try to address them. It will help with achieving planning permission and it’s the right thing to do.
There is more help available nowadays. The UK Cohousing Network has lots of useful advice, as does the Community Land Trust Network. The Government provides grants to help community led housing, which is not considered so ‘weird’ anymore. There are scores of existing or forming cohousing developments, compared to a handful when we started. Local councils can be very helpful – Lancaster City Council certainly is. Make use of this support and expertise.
Finding land is still the biggest challenge, followed by getting funding. Countries like Germany put the onus on local authorities to find land and seek out community groups to develop it, providing funds and advice – now that would be brilliant.
- Amount of energy used (15% of the heat energy and 30% of the electricity of average homes of equivalent size).
- Number of passivhaus buildings built in the area.
- Number of people on the waiting list to live in the buildings.