KEY LEARNING POINTS
- ‘Cohousing’ groups form all over the world in order to develop groups of homes in which they can live as a neighbourly ‘intentional community’. There are a number of successful projects in the UK that have been built this way and fledgling groups are forming all the time
- The group behind this project was well organised – and split its responsibilities (into sub-teams) in an effective way. This also reduced the burden of attending many meetings
- The group found that the transition from building the homes, to living in the community was challenging and it took time to adapt
- The homes are timber framed, as this was relatively expensive. If the group was doing it again it would use brick and block construction
- The homes could have been smaller; the group now realises that it is possible to live in a more compact home (if there are some shared facilities), and smaller homes are cheaper to run
What is Cohousing?
Cohousing communities are intentional communities, created and run by their residents. Each household tends to have a self-contained, personal and private home but residents come together to manage their community, share activities and often eat together too. Cohousing is increasingly viewed as a way to combat alienation and isolation in contemporary society, by attempting to recreate the neighbourly support networks of the past.
Cohousing communities are often formed on a basis a principles and priorities, such as: –
For further information you may want to visit the website of the UK Cohousing Network – www.cohousing.org.uk
The Cohousing sector in Belgium
Around 40 small cohousing developments have been completed in Belgium in the last three decades, and in recent times this type of housing has become increasingly popular. At present there are 30 new projects on site or in the pipeline (collectively these will deliver about 300 homes), and there are an additional 80 to 90 groups that have formed up and are currently looking for sites.
This expansion has been driven by Samenhuizen – a small organisation of three part time staff. It has helped to promote the concept more widely, it assists groups to form, and it has supported them as they progress their projects. A number of independent ‘cohousing coaches’ have also emerged – providing practical help for groups. Several local councils have recently identified and reserved sites suitable for cohousing schemes – especially groups that provide homes for seniors or disabled people.
The Samenhuizen team was funded by the Belgian Government (for a five year trial period), and, because of the results it has achieved this support has recently been extended for a further five years.
The Cohousing Vinderhoute project, near Gent in Belgium, provides 17 houses, plus a shared communal space and garden. The group initially came together in 2006, and the homes were completed in 2012. The group agreed the design and layout of the site and commissioned a contractor to build the properties, and the communal building (the Common House).
The group was driven by the concept of living in a shared neighbourhood, and in an environmentally friendly way, so all the homes are built to Passive House standards. A typical three bedroom (150 sq m) home cost about €370,000 (£270,000). This includes a share in the large Common House and other facilities.
The bulk of this case study describes a recent cohousing project in Belgium; towards the end there are also short descriptions of three recent UK cohousing examples in Lancaster, Leeds and Cambridge
Detached, Semi-detached, Terraced and Apartments
Belgium and UK (three locations)
For the purposes of this Toolkit we have made the following definitions:
Click here to open/close
- ‘self and custom built homes’ as properties commissioned by people from a builder, contractor or package company (this is known as ‘custom build’ housing). When people physically build themselves, sometimes with help from sub-contractors, this is known as ‘self build’ housing. We call all these people ‘private homebuilders’.
- ‘serviced building plots’ are shovel-ready parcels of land with planning permission, laid out and ready for construction with access and utilities/services provided to the plot boundary. Some private homebuilders just purchase a plot; others opt for a ‘shell’ home (that they then finish off), or they select from an extensive menu of options offered by developers/builders.
- ‘group projects’ mean homes built by private homebuilders who work as a collective.
Typical cost per home
The development is located at 14 Bergstraat, Vinderhoute, which is about five miles North West of the city of Gent.
The area is largely suburban, and the site is about 1.1 hectare in size Layout of the homes on the site
The 17 current properties (two more will be added shortly) are all arranged in short terraces of two or three homes. They all cluster around the Common House. Most cars park near the entrance. The homes have small ‘private’ gardens, though most of the land is managed and maintained communally.
The homes vary in size to match the needs of the different families. The smallest properties are 110 sq m; the largest 200 sq m.
The Common House has 340 sq m of space.
The main entrance (above). Most of the site is free of cars, with parking provided on the perimeter
If you plan to provide generous communal facilities it is possible to make the ‘base’ homes more compact
The two storey Common House (pictured above) provides a large multi-purpose/dining space with professional cooking facilities on the ground floor. It also houses two guest bedrooms, a shared office facility, a TV room, a communal laundry and a music room/gym. During the day it often operates as a children’s nursery. When the residents come together for a meal – which is usually two or three times a week – they gather here. It cost around €500,000 to build and this was shared between all the households
The development provides homes for 32 adults (mostly in their 20’s or 30’s) and 28 children. The current age range is from under one to 58. The two new houses are likely to be allocated to over 45’s to help rebalance the age profile.
Plans of the two new homes that will be added shortly All of the homes are timber framed – some are timber clad; some are rendered. Many have PV’s on the roofs
Construction of the homes – at various stages The Common House under construction Residents were involved in fitting out the Common House The homes sit in an attractive wild flower meadow
Organise the delivery of the project in a professional/commercial way – so that sub-teams are empowered to drive key responsibilities. It is impractical to have everyone involved in every debate about every issue. This will dramatically reduce the number of meetings that people have to attend
Completed homes with abundant green space that is largely maintenance-free meadows, with the occasional fruit tree and self-built play equipment
Don’t under-estimate the culture change that’s needed when the group moves from the construction phase into living/occupying the homes
The group was formerly constituted early in 2006 and acquired the land in 2008. Planning permission was secured in 2010 and construction began in 2011. In September 2012 the residents moved in, and the Common House was competed early in 2013. During the development of the project the group were involved in 580 meetings.
The land cost just under €1m – the 1,100 sq m plot was priced at €90 per sq m.
The group explored a number of Belgian towns (all in the Lovendigm area, near Gent) looking for a suitable site without much luck, until the opportunity to buy the land at Vinderhoute was identified. The local council was keen to support the group and introduced the members to the landowner, a farmer, who was looking to work with a developer to build four large villas on the site.
The council had no land of its own, and it had recently rejected the farmer’s planning application for the four villas, but it liked the idea of supporting a local cohousing initiative.
The farmer was also keen to help, so he granted the group a three-year option (this meant he would only get paid if the plans were approved by the council).
People and Demand
The residents have a wide range of backgrounds – about a quarter work in the IT sector, 20 per cent in the social sector, 13 per cent in education, and a similar number in local government. Ten of the families have young children; there are also three young couples, two older couples and two singles.
The core group initially had three couples; throughout 2009 another six households were recruited, and in 2010 five more joined.
The group set up a company to manage the common areas, which is run cooperatively. The company receives the bills (such as the utility costs for the Common House) and organises the individual households’ shares of the payments.
Costs and Funding
The land cost €1m and the construction contract came in at €6.8m (for all 17 homes, including the Common House)
Triodos Bank was very helpful, loaning the group the funds it needed to cover the construction work. BNP Paribas provided mortgages for those purchasers that needed them – it has dealt with cohousing projects before and sees them as being no different, or inherently riskier than a normal private sector new home mortgage.
The group implemented a ‘proof of funds’ check on all its new members to ensure they could afford to participate. This required the members to get a letter from their bank confirming they could finance their home and their portion of the cost of the Common House. One household dropped out about two weeks before the group was to complete on the land purchase (the household’s bank pulled out, because they were in their 50s), but the group was able to fill this as it had a waiting list.
All households had to pay their share of the Common House upfront.
The land was purchased using the ‘CPO’ model (this is commonly used in Netherlands), where each individual householder (or their mortgage provider) pays their share of land purchase and build costs directly, in a coordinated manner and using a staged payment mortgage. This means there was no need for a group mortgage or development loan.
Marketing was largely conducted by word of mouth, though the members also produced some flyers that were distributed at markets and supermarkets in and around Gent. The local paper also publicised the group’s plans, and the dates of its meetings.
The group found that once it had the site, it was much easier to recruit additional members.
Planning permission was obtained straight forwardly, as the council’s planners were supportive. The planners particularly liked the provision of wildlife areas and water buffers, which previous developers had not considered in their proposals for the site.
The group was keen that the landscaping should be low-maintenance so it has opted for native plants that don’t need ‘gardening’ (wild meadows, etc), or edible plants and fruit trees (where people picking fruit take care of the ‘gardening’).
This case study was compiled with reference to the following sources: –
Luk Jonckheere – SamenhuizenFederico Bisschop – www.cohousingprojects.be
Paul De Cannière – Cohousing Vinderhoute
Koenraad Depauw – Cohousing Vinderhoute
For further information visit the Samenhuizen website – www.samenhuizen.be
Cohousing Projects in the UK
Cohousing started to develop in the UK at the end of the 1990’s. The movement has gradually built up momentum and there are now 19 completed projects. More than 60 cohousing projects are in the pipeline and new groups are forming all the time. Two key projects are described briefly below – but you may also want to visit the UK Cohousing Network’s website for the latest up-to-date information: www.cohousing.org.uk
This development provides 41 Passive House homes on a former industrial site next to the River Lune at Halton, near Lancaster. The homes are quite compact, and there is a strong ecological/environmental commitment among the families. The members bought the original site for £600,000 using their own resources. The construction work cost around £8m – some of this was forward-funded by the members themselves, the rest was covered by a £4m loan from Triodos Bank. Once everyone moved in (and those that required mortgages had set them up) the loan was cleared. The properties cost between £110,000 (for a one bed flat) and £300,000 (for a three bed house) – a little more than similar homes locally. However, it is difficult to compare like with like, as traditional properties do not have the higher spec/low energy features, and a shared stake in the communal facilities.
The development took eight years from inception to occupation and was completed in 2013. A good case study on the project is available here:
This innovative and award winning cohousing scheme has been constituted as a Mutual Home Ownership Society (MHOS). It provides 20 homes on a former school site at Bramley in Leeds. The homes are timber framed and employ an innovative offsite straw bale construction technique. Like many cohousing projects there is a strong environmental commitment from the members. The MHOS concept is also unusual and it means people on quite modest incomes can buy a ‘share’ in the development.
Each member has a lease that gives them the right to have say in the community. Under the terms of the lease, members pay an equity share to the co-operative and retain equity in the scheme. After deductions for maintenance, insurance etc, these payments pay the mortgage. The payment that leaseholders contribute each month and the number of equity shares they hold depends on how much they earn. Monthly payments are set at around 35 per cent of net income. A typical one bedroom home cost £64,000. Under the MHOS scheme a resident might pay an initial 10 per cent deposit from their savings, and then £365 a month (35 per cent of their net income). In just over 20 years everyone’s contributions will have cleared the loan and the residents will effectively own their own homes. There is a good book that explains the whole story, available here: www.routledge.com/products/9780415661614
The project website has a lot of additional information too: www.lilac.coop
The K1 parcel is part of the Orchard Park development on the northern edge of Cambridge, next to the A14
The K1 development forms part of the 900 home Orchard Park residential scheme on the Northern edge of Cambridge. The project was initiated by the Property Services team at Cambridge City Council, who explored alternative ways to develop part of the site following the 2008 financial crash, when there was an exodus of traditional residential housebuilders from the area.
During the early exploratory stages there was still a strong directive to secure the maximum receipt for council-owned land, in order to help recoup the local authority’s significant investment in the site’s infrastructure. For this reason the council initially planned to sell the K1 parcel to a developer, even though it was only being offered about one third of the pre-crash value.
At this time much of the Orchard Park development area was a bit of a mess – with some sites still vacant, others only partly built and some sections fully occupied. Several roads were incomplete, and the site had not been connected to any public transport links. The site was also bureaucratically complex, as it was owned Cambridge City Council, but the local planning authority was neighbouring South Cambridgeshire District Council.
The City Council had good contacts with residents in the area via the Orchard Park Community Council, which had been set up to represent those already living nearby. It was also willing to listen to alternative development ideas, which included suggestions from a number of fledgling self build groups and cohousing communities in the region.
Cambridgeshire Horizons – a council department responsible for delivering the county’s growth strategy – agreed to support a feasibility study by sustainable consultants C20 Future Planners. This study identified how private homebuilding could unlock the site and secure an adequate receipt for the land.
Following the feasibility study, the council agreed to a two-stage process for developing the initiative further, with staged sign-off points from council members.
For the council it was importance that whoever took the site on was really able to deliver; so as part of the process it sought to find a suitable development partner.
- Stage 1 involved the development of a Client Brief, which could inform a tender for a development partner (as well as an outline planning application)
- Stage 2 involved the preparation of a detailed planning application in collaboration with the developer and a group of private homebuilders, prior to the construction of the project. At this point the developer would take the majority of the development risk, with the council putting in its land
Cambridge Cohousing Ltd was formed to represent the private homebuilders in this process.
The council proposed to sell the land on a long lease to the selected development partner, with an agreement obligating the developer to build the scheme to match the agreed Client Brief.
The developer would then sell the completed homes to members of the cohousing group, with the freehold of the land transferring to Cambridge Cohousing Ltd at a future date.
The council was also adamant that it could not be seen to be supporting subsidised housing for relatively affluent households – and so this led to a stipulation that all homes had to be for open market sale.
The council funded Cambridge Architectural Research (CAR) to work with Cambridge Cohousing Ltd to develop the Client Brief – part of these costs were also supported by the ‘Community Led Project Support’ fund administered by the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG).
Once the Client Brief was ready, competitive tenders were sought from potential development partners, and these were evaluated jointly by the council and Cambridge Cohousing Ltd. All the bidders had to submit a pricing schedule as part of their tender so that the cost of homes was completely transparent – and members of the cohousing group who bought in at this stage could fix the price early on.
“we knew we’d be buying ‘off plan’ in a similar way to any new build….but we also knew we’d be buying off our plan, which made all the difference!”
K1 group member
The council asked for a residual land value calculation to arrive at the price of the land, which included an agreed profit for the developer. The council required key information on both the demand for cohousing and the financial viability of the proposals in order to secure a decision from council members to proceed with the project.
This first stage was completed in April 2014.
The second stage involved building a core membership group who would ultimately end up living in the new homes. This stage also involved further development of the Client Brief through design workshops to suit the group members’ specific needs.
CAR continued to work with the group, along with MARK Architecture, Landscape & Urban Design, to develop the proposals to a stage where they could form the basis of an outline planning submission, recruit further group members and help with procuring a development partner. The main goal was to establish an indicative site layout and a planning strategy.
By May 2014, the project was ready to submit an application for outline planning permission. At this point the local planning authority(South Cambridgeshire District Council), required a draft Planning Performance Agreement (PPA).
In December 2014 the initiative received the go-ahead to proceed with the tender process to procure a development partner. TOWNhus – a partnership between developer TOWN and Swedish housing company Trivselhus (and Mole Architects) – was selected in mid-May 2015.
To check the demand for cohousing, TOWNhus took advice from real-estate consultant Savills who confirmed there would be no trouble selling the idea in the Cambridge area.
The council also required the cohousing group to have at least 18 households signed up in order to proceed with a planning application and the procurement of a development partner.
In February 2016, 33 of the 42 units had been allocated and the group state that demand has continued to be strong. The developer effectively underwrites the marketing risk of any unsold units.
The council was always happy for all the homes to be for market sale. Most of the members are reasonably local, but others are planning to move to the area from further afield.
Design and Construction
The project will be built using the developer’s Trivselhus high environmental performance timber building system imported from Sweden. All of the homes have been designed so that they can be customised – for example resdients can choose their fixtures and fittings, as well as the arrangement of internal walls and number of rooms on each floor.
The homes are predominantly arranged in terraces – including three to five bedroom houses, and ground floor and ‘walk-up’ apartments.
The Common House – a key feature of cohousing developments – is in located in the northern part of the scheme, strengthening the relationship between this building and the shared garden that weaves between the homes. A block of two bedroom apartments shares a lift core with the Common House and there is also a shared workshop in the south-west corner of the scheme, with apartments above it.
Car parking is located at the edges of the scheme so as not to impede upon shared spaces. A total of 50 parking spaces (1.25 per home) are provided, as well as 120 cycle parking spaces (three per home).
An initial sketch of the scheme produced by CAR Impressions produced by the developer as part of the planning application A plan of the K1 project showing the location of different ‘housetypes’ developed to suit different members of the group Plans for the common house which sites at the centre of the scheme A typical section through one of the homes The customisation process the group have developed with their enabling developer Each housetype has a number of customisation options that the developer and architect have laid out clearly and visually to help the group choose
The cohousing group had originally hoped to be one of the first post-recession parcels of land to complete; but in reality it is going to be one of the last – something that all parties attribute to the highly participatory process the group has chosen to pursue.
The project now expects to start in site in the middle of 2016. The latest delay is due to changes required by the developer, who wanted to improve the financial viability of the scheme by increasing the number of units from 38 to 42.
An additional planning requirement that two of the extra four units be ‘affordable’ added further delay and has subsequently exposed the project to rapidly rising building costs in the Cambridge area. This – along with a roughly three per cent per quarter increase in house prices locally – has also affected the scheme, adding a corresponding three per cent to the prices payable by incoming residents.
Personnel changes at South Cambridgeshire District Council has also meant that new staff have had to learn about the approach to supporting this unusual project, which has slowed things down. The group feel that there was an unnecessary delay in appointing the developer following the tender process – and the developer has also had to invest more time than usual in negotiating with the council.
The group also acknowledge that making decisions by consensus also takes time and that this has meant that the project has proceeded slower than planned.
Getting planning permission took longer than expected and some group members have encountered problems securing mortgage offers, which are typically only valid for a maximum of six months. To get round this, the developer offered two purchasing routes – the first allowed residents to make an early exchange, which worked well for those releasing equity. The second route asked residents to make a payment of 2.5 per cent of the property’s value upon the receipt of planning permission with no legal obligation to buy. Other than these two routes, the purchasing process is identical to the normal way homes are bought and sold.
At the start of February 2016, the group had just reached the end of the statutory consultation period associated with its detailed planning application and had allocated 33 of the 42 homes. The developer had also begun tendering for a contractor and the group now expect to complete the project between spring and summer 2017.
The group has developed six types of home, each with customisable options: –
- Type A homes are all 5.2m wide and can be customised as two, three or four bedroom houses. Each also has the option of a converted loft space with or without en suite bathroom . They cost between £367,500 and £415,000
- Type B homes are all 6m wide, and can be customised as three, four or five bedroom houses. They also have the option of two rooms in the roof, and cost between £409,000 and £475,000
- Type C homes are two bedroom walk-up flats or one bedroom ground floor flats with a private garden. They are arranged in pairs resembling the form of a 7.8 m wide terraced house. These homes cost £255,000
- Type D homes are two bedroom apartments priced at £325,000
- Type E and F homes are both one bedroom apartments, above the workshop and Common House respectively, and are priced between £241,500 and £273,000
All prices are set at the equivalent of open market values in the local area and include an equal share of the cost of communal facilities like the Common House and workshop.
The group expects the prices to increase by around three per cent by the time detailed planning permission is secured, in line with open market valuations in the area.
The group and the developer have found space for the extra units required by the planners by subdividing each of their largest ‘E-type’ units into two homes. They have also placed on of the affordable units above the common house.
To join the project, prospective residents must pay a fee of £1,250, which includes a one-off, non-refundable membership fee of £250 plus an investment of £1,000 in Cambridge Cohousing Ltd. This secures a place on the allocation list for the project. The group intends to refund this investment if people resign their membership, although this is at the discretion of the group’s directors and dependent on the project’s finances at that point in time.
All members who intend to buy a home also need to invest an additional £3,000 in Cambridge Cohousing Ltd in order to pay their share for the company’s professional fees, such as legal, project management and quality assurance services during the build stage. The group and developer are proceeding in partnership on this front.
Initially the group planned to employ a Project Manager, Clerk of Works and an Employer’s Agent, which would have cost it between £60,000 and £80,000. But by working with the developer the group has saved the costs of the Clerk of Works and Employer’s Agent, which brought the overall cost down to around £40,000.
The level of investment is set by the board of directors of Cambridge Cohousing Ltd, based on consensus decisions by members. These investments must be made before a member can purchase a house or pay any deposit to TOWNhus.
Finally, a £1,000 reservation fee is payable to TOWNhus in order to secure a home, followed by a five to ten per cent deposit payable upon the exchange of contracts. Both the deposit and the reservation fee are deducted from the agreed sale price of the home.
Jan Chadwick – Member & Director of Cambridge Cohousing Ltd
Dave Prinsep – Head of Property Services, Cambridge City Council
Neil Murphy – Director, TOWNhus
The K1 project will provide 42 homes on the edge of Cambridge. This development is the UK’s first partnership between a council, an enabling developer and a cohousing group. Work is due to start on site in the summer of 2016, with completion scheduled for the summer of 2017.
Group projects benefit from a good Client Brief
The council say that this was essential to ensuring a robust development process and the long-term success of the project
The NaCSBA Research & Development Programme is funded by the Nationwide Foundation and aims to promote the self-build and custom build sector as an affordable route into housing for a greater number of people in the UK.
For further information, please visit:www.nacsba.org.uk or www.selfbuildportal.org.uk