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Co-housing conference: an individual’s view

Dan Aktivix | 27.02.2005 20:07 | Free Spaces | Social Struggles | Sheffield

This weekend (25th to 27th February 2005) a hundred people descended on Lancaster for the first UK co-housing conference. This is one person’s view of how it went, and how it was for me.

First: for those as don’t know about co-housing, here’s a very rough idea for you, paraphrased from

Co-housing is a type of co-operative living that attempts to overcome the isolation of modern urban and suburban life, in which individual households each operate as self contained, atomised units, and where there is little if any sense of community. It is the creation of an intentional community. It’s been going for decades, in the US and Denmark especially. For various (mostly governmental) reasons, it hasn’t taken off in the UK.

Co-housing works hard to balance private ‘sacred’ space with extensive common facilities and interaction. A common building, often called the 'Common House' may include a large dining room, kitchen, lounges, meeting rooms, recreation facilities, library, workshops, childcare etc.

Co-housing communities are designed and managed by the residents, and are intentional neighbourhoods: the residents are consciously committed to living as a cooperative community and the physical design itself supports that and facilitates social interaction. A typical co-housing community has 20 to 30 homes within a pedestrian 'street' or clustered around a courtyard.

The hundred people present ranged from residents in the currently very small number of UK co-housing developments, to experts in planning, architecture, law and finance, to groups who’ve been fighting to get their project off the ground for several years, to people just thinking about starting on a path to co-housing.

There was a fantastic energy throughout the weekend: no-one really had any idea that this many people were doing co-housing related things around the country.

Listening to the trials that current co-housers have gone through was sobering – but it felt to me like there was a critical mass of people and expertise that made the future seem full of co-housing hope!

A few things that really struck me:

There was a shared sense of values – some that I picked up on were:

That co-housing was about changing our relationship to both housing and land ownership itself.

Living in a genuinely sustainable way means, in some way, that all communities must develop organically and intentionally from the ‘bottom-up’. No developer could build a co-housing site and then sell it on: it would be soulless.

Everyone was, if you’ll excuse me, ‘well-up’ for working at local and national government. And it seems a very opportune time for doing this – the North faces huge swathes of demolition, at the same time as the South will be getting stupid amounts of new-build. And the government’s approach to housing is still very, very stuck in a purely economic mode. Despite all the language of social cohesion & sustainable communities, the powers that be still seem to somehow miss the point completely…

This is probably the most important: everyone thought that mixed tenure and affordable housing was vital. As someone said, the co-housing ethos is not about bourgeois self-interest groups.

Tying the last two points together – what’s really exciting is the amount of will, ability and knowledge there was that could – really could – lead to opening up this way of doing things to many, many more people. This could include ‘retro-fit’ co-housing as well as affordable new build, through organisations like the Co-operative Development Society, who are working on co-operative housing association set-ups based on ‘mutual home ownership’, co-operation and resident control and ownership.

A new web-site is to be set up to push some of the following things:

*Networking among co-housers for practical advice and mutual support
*A forum for co-ordinating lobbying
*Getting across to planners and professionals – and the ODPM we hope – that co-housing, by combining housing and social networks in a unique way, can achieve a lot of the things the government says it wants.

Of course, there’s a hell of a battle to be had convincing anyone that our idea of sustainability is better than theirs. But this conference filled me with hope that not only will there be a lot more co-housers in a few year’s time, but that the network will

1. Grow
2. Succeed in changing the way people think about how they live.
3. Get back some of our land!

Another key point someone pointed out: the buying power of just the people in that room who wanted to set up was somewhere in the region of £60 million. (Not that we’ve got a lot of money – but if you set up your co-housing company and get organised, places exist to get most of the capital.)

This kind of buying power will mean, as a network, co-housers will have people fighting to help supply us. And if we assume that the room contained 10% of all people who’d like to co-house (a very conservative estimate I think), we’re talking a combined buying power of £600 million. That’s a lot of locally sourced timber and straw!

Which will be nice, especially as – because it’s led *by* the co-housers – we can dictate our terms of contract. For example, we can stipulate maximum profit margins, choose to work with not-for-profit developers (of which there are more than you think), work with someone who knows local sources of materials, and generally do our little bit to slow the filthy profiteering currently besetting the property and regeneration sectors.

And another thing! Someone mentioned how much we had in common with organisations like Diggers and Dreamers and The Land is Ours. True: and there’s some work to be done there on linking up. Fighting together to get our land back –plot by plot if we must, but Duke by Duke if we can too.

There’s so much more that I could tell you. If anyone’s interested in finding out more – and pending the new website – either contact me by e-mail or join the UK co-housing e-mail list (pretty much no traffic so far) by writing to:

I’ll post here when the website’s on its feet.

Dan Aktivix
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