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Co-housing: the only producers actively designing for the future

20th July 2012

By Rob Cowan


Stephen Hill of C2O futureplanners reminded me earlier this week how the current breakdown of trust in politicians, bankers, the press, the housing market, the development process and other former pillars of the establishment offers a rare opportunity to refocus on what we value. His comment reminded me of a review he wrote in the Architects’ Journal in March of the book Cohousing in Britain. These were the extracts that I marked at the time:

‘While the rest of the housing industry tries to do as little different as possible, cohousing groups, and community land trusts and co-operatives, are the only housing producers actively designing for the future. They are working on how to live in a time with fewer natural resources, less energy, less land for food, less help for age and infirmity, and more people. Their experience shows us that sustainability codes and fancy kit are irrelevant unless they can also relate to people’s lived experience and behaviour....

Stephen Hill went on: ‘But talk to any mainstream housing producer about co-ops or community land trusts, and they will roll their eyes and talk condescendingly of time-consuming, costly, risky projects and difficult people, meaning: “This doesn’t fit our method of production and we don’t like communities with an agenda of their own”. That is a problem for cohousing that is uniquely British, unlike European governments which have been supporting cohousing for over 30 years as a highly successful housing solution for building stable communities and the demographic challenge of aging....

‘Meanwhile, mainstream housebuilders are still struggling with the illiterate economic argument that people need persuading sustainable homes will cost “more than”… well “more than” what exactly? More than an obsolete, unsustainable home? More than an already unaffordable product, making sustainability a privilege for the better off? More than the price of a speculative commodity that we happily pay more for if it’s near to a good school, or if its price went up by two per cent last month… after all, that must be a “good thing”?... Cohousing, community land trusts and co-operatives are working out how to live in a necessary future of greater competition for finite resources. It is the rest of us who are stuck in an utopia of unlimited bounty that no longer exists. It never did.’

Stephen Hill’s comments are an eloquent reminder that it won’t be easy to reinvent the housing economy, but that there’s really no alternative. The housing economy that we have just does not work. I’ve written before in this blog about the current reinvention, by the TCPA among others, of Ebenezer Howard’s garden cities. That is another tricky business, but progress is being made. Another of Howard’s enthusiasms, back at the start of the twentieth century, was co-housing. If he were to return today and sit in on some of our current debates, he would be amazed at how little we have achieved since his time. But he was a practical guy, and he would agree with us that, once again, we need to rethink the fundamentals of land, housing and development.   

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  • Dan Bone 5th October 2016

    Hi Rob
    Looking forward to meeting ups again at the UDG Conference tomorrow. In preparation I thought I'd check out your great work on your website. I found this post re Co-Housing. You might like to check the Owch website...their scheme is just about complete at the end of my street. This project is the future. http://www.owch.org.uk
    Cheers Dan

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