New Ground, High Barnet

Older Women's Cohousing Group

KEY LEARNING POINTS

  • Housing Associations are ideally placed to act as a custom build ‘enabler’ for groups, and are key to finding a suitable site.
  • Local authorities should proactively support this form of housing as it releases existing larger homes for families, and the mutual support provided by a senior cohousing community can reduce adult social care budgets. It also provides wider housing options for elderly people.
  • In many cases cohousing communities are capable of funding a substantial portion of the development cost themselves – especially older groups where many of the residents are probably already home owners. The Housing Association that effectively bank rolled this project – forward funding the site and all pre-development costs – would not do the same next time around.
  • Groups need to invest time and energy to ‘build’ a successful community organisation. It is difficult to create an effective group overnight. Time spent early on defining the group’s aims and values is time well spent.
  • Training for groups can have a big impact. OWCH members funded several training sessions for the group, and they also organised internal workshops too.
  • Groups should consider asking their members for a financial commitment; in this case a non-refundable £2,000 reservation fee was initially required, and then a 10% deposit had to be paid (for the private leasehold properties) when construction was about to start.
  • Split the group’s workload up between different sub-teams. Smaller task forces can deal with the detail required in areas such as legal, finance, site finding, project management, membership and communications

INTRODUCTION

 

The group was set up in 1998 following an event on cohousing hosted by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations. Several of the attendees were so inspired by the cohousing projects in Europe that they went to the pub after the event, and Older Womens Cohousing group (OWCH) was born.

In the Netherlands there are now thousands of older people living in more than 230 senior cohousing developments.

Many of the founding members were involved in The Older Feminist, the Older Lesbian and the Growing Old Disgracefully Networks. The group initially established a partnership with Housing for Women, a small housing association and charity that assisted by ‘brokering’ relationships with other housing associations to help them find a suitable site.

The homes are all single level, and are arranged over two and three storeys – with most of them overlooking a shared internal garden.

From the outset OWCH decided it wanted to create a community housing project specifically for women. The group recognised that loneliness in older age can have a big negative impact (one study suggests it is the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day). Aware that advancing age can mean increased frailty and possible isolation, the members joined forces to plan ahead so they could stay in charge of their own lives.

It took 13 years of perseverance – meetings, marketing, lobbying, debates, wooing housing associations, and occasionally despair - before the group secured a suitable site. During this period the group received valuable support from the Tudor Trust, which funded some of the early research work; the Trust also provided the finance to fund the eight social housing units.

Over the years OWCH comissioned trainers to run workshops for its members – these included sessions on equality and diversity; consensus-based decision-making; and conflict resolution. The members also ran many of their own workshops - on topics such as mutual support, disability and dementia. Members also participated actively with the architects during the co-design sessions.

Securing a suitable site took a long time with many false starts. In the end the land was sourced by the Hanover Housing Association, who partnered with OWCH and – in effect – operated as a custom build ‘enabler’ for the group.

The design process worked well, with significant input from the residents. The longest standing members were given priority over the selection of their preferred apartment, and each resident was able to customise their home a little. For example, they could choose the colours of the walls, specify different floor coverings and tiles, and some paid extra for fittings like walk-in baths.

The construction phase was challenging and the main contractor seemed to struggle when there was a change of key site personnel mid-way through. There have also been many snagging issues that have been difficult to resolve. Nevertheless, the innovative project has already won a string of awards.

The project’s success has also played a part in triggering around a dozen other senior cohousing projects that are now in the pipeline across the UK.

SUMMARY

This is the first senior cohousing scheme completed in the UK. The £7.8m development was ‘enabled’ by the Hanover Housing Association on behalf of a group of 26 single women aged 50+ who want to mutually support each other as they grow older. Each resident has their own bespoke apartment; 17 of the homes are privately owned; eight are for social rent

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Initiator: Community

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Scale: Medium

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Site: Urban

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Affordability: Intermediate

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Opportunity: Group

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Built Form: Apartments

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Country: UK

KEY STATISTICS

Completed November 2016

No. Units   25

Cost £7.8m

Definitions

For the purposes of this Toolkit we have made the following definitions:

Structure

The group is legally constituted as a not-for-profit Fully Mutual Company - OWCH (Barnet) Ltd. Effectively it is a housing co-operative where all the leaseholders (or prospective leaseholders) and all the tenants are members. This means it is the people that the co-op houses (or intends to house) who decide how it will be run, and no one else.

Membership is open to women aged 50+, or those that support the values and aims of the group. There is no hierarchy, and members volunteer for the various administrative and other roles. The group’s management committee is elected annually. Smaller task groups take responsibility for key activities, and these all report to the regular community-wide business meetings. As far as possible all important decisions are made by consensus.

Members holding one of their regular meetings in the common room. Photo Credit – Caroline Teo.

Housing for Women is co-opted onto the management committee and acts as the social landlord, managing the eight affordable homes.

Housing for Women owns the freehold of the whole development, and has issued a 999 year head lease to OWCH. Each of the private owners purchased their own flat (and a share of the common facilities) on a 250 year lease; the affordable homes are rented on an assured tenancy via Homes for Women. There are no local authority nomination rights to select people from the social housing waiting list.

The group stresses that it is not a ‘commune’, and it doesn’t have anything against men. Members can have friends to visit or stay, but if one of them did form a long-term relationship with a man their partner wouldn’t be allowed to stay permanently.

 

Type Private leasehold Social rent
One bedroom units (54-61 sq m) 3 8
Two bedroom units (66-80 sq m) 11
Three bedroom units (102-103 sq m) 3

Location

The development has been built on a former 0.32 hectare primary school site in High Barnet. The homes are arranged in an “T” shape, overlooking a communal landscaped area. The scheme is within 50m of the area’s main shopping street. High Barnet is inside the M25, on the northern edge of London. The site is about a mile and a half from High Barnet tube station, and there are good public transport connections.

The Union Street frontage is domestic in scale.

TOP TIP

Define what you are aiming to build.

Groups should spend time in the early stages developing a clear set of objectives. Training in consensus-based decision making is also a wise investment

Land

OWCH identified three key criteria for a suitable plot of land : -OWCH identified three key criteria for a suitable plot of land :

  • Broadly level and suitable for around 20-30 homes
  • Within the Greater London travel area
  • Walking distance from essential services like pubic transport, shops etc

Hanover was one of several housing associations the group approached for help in securing a suitable site. Over the years OWCH evaluated a string of potential plots suggested by various housing providers, but none were suitable. 

The High Barnet site - a former primary school - was first identified in 2009, and purchased by the Hanover Housing Association (on behalf of the group) for around £1.5m.

Schematic showing the broad layout of the site

Planning

The planning issues on the site were complex and there were significant delays. One of the biggest delays was triggered by the London Borough of Barnet’s initial view that it might be better if the site were re-used as a school, rather than being redeveloped for housing (at this stage, in 2012, a new wave of Free Schools was being encouraged).

The local authority therefore asked for the site to be marketed before disposal to establish whether there was interest from anyone keen to launch a Free School. There was no interest and this delayed the project by at least six months.

The site lies in a conservation area and therefore the local planning authority was seeking a scheme with an outwardly traditional design. There were also concerns about the height of one of the residential wings. This led to two floors being removed at one end of the wing (with the loss of two apartments).

The first meeting with the London Borough of Barnet’s planners took place in March 2011; permission was granted in April 2013.

OWCH members inspecting the original school buildings on the site
The homes are arranged in two main blocks, overlooking the communal gardens. There is a large common room/kitchen by the main entrance – shown shaded in light yellow
The one, two and three bedroom homes, and the social units are pepper potted across the site.
A guest apartment is available for residents’ visitors on the upper level.
All the homes have either a generous balcony, or (at ground floor level) a private garden area.
The elevation that backs onto Union Street is mostly two level, to match the scale of the neighbouring residential properties nearby.
The homes fit in well with the local streetscape.

TOP TIP

Be really clear about your criteria for a site

Don’t make it impossible by having an unrealistic set of strict criteria; be willing to compromise.

DESIGN AND CONSTRUCTION

OWCH, guided by Hanover, interviewed a number of specialist housing architects, and selected Pollard Thomas Edwards (PTE).

The group’s broad objectives were that they wanted their own sustainable homes, with shared facilities that would create a sense of community. The co- process that PTE facilitated helped the members really understand the practical issues associated with planning, design, cost and construction.

The co-design process

PTE facilitated the co-design process in a logical way, following the steps set out below. Most of the women attended the various workshops, along with a QS from Hanover who provided input on the cost implications of the designs. His role was to ring alarm bells if the design solutions the group preferred were going to significantly impact on costs. (Hanover had set a target budget of no more than £5m to build the 25 homes. This was based on the typical cost of a traditional extra care facility).
Site visit – the first session involved the architects and the women touring the site and the surrounding area, noting any distinctive architectural features they particularly liked or disliked (for example the types of doors/windows on neighbouring properties). PTE provided a Briefing before the tour to suggest the sort of things the women might want to look out for (for example the position of the sun in relation to the site, etc)
The ‘abstract’ session – two weeks later PTE organised the first formal workshop, splitting the women into three groups. Each group was asked to think about the ideal shape/form the housing could take, and to set out the logical position of the common room, and which way the homes might ‘face’ so as to benefit from views/sunlight. At this stage no preferences were identified; it was essentially a very free flowing ‘brain storming’ session.
Working to scale – the next workshop looked at the three ‘abstract’ ideas that had emerged, and each was drawn to scale on a site plan. The practical implications of the designs started to come into play more at this session – for example, vehicular access issues, location and number of lifts, the ‘depth’ of the homes and the impact this might have on natural daylight levels. No preferred option was identified at the workshop - the women were encouraged to think further about the options over the next few days, discuss them with each other and see if any consensus emerged.
Narrowing down the options – at the next session two main designs were explored further – one had the homes arranged in a ‘semi circle’ overlooking the communal garden; the other had the homes in two perpendicular wings. Some of the downsides of the options were identified at this stage (for example the semi-circular arrangement would have resulted in ‘wedge shaped’ floor plans, and smaller frontages onto the garden).
Pre-application meeting with local authority planners – it was only at this stage that PTE met with the local planning authority. As the site lies in a conservation area the authority was not supportive of curved forms or an overly contemporary design. The authority also expressed concerns about the height of the homes next to the western boundary.
The preferred approach emerges – PTE fed back the local planning authority’s views to the whole group. Clearly it would be more challenging to secure planning permission for the ‘semi-circle’ design option, so, mainly for practical reasons, the women agreed to go for the ‘perpendicular wings’ layout that was eventually built.
PTE says the co-design process was very effective. The group’s prior training in consensus decision-making paid dividends. Members were therefore very ‘open’ to all the ideas that emerged; they didn’t get ‘territorial’ and there was a clear feeling that the more people contributed to the discussions and designs, the better the end result would be.
Hanover said its QS’s had an advisory role, and he wasn’t trying to ensure the scheme was built for a specific budget. His input helped the group appreciate the cost implications of the various designs they were exploring. The women were as keen as Hanover to ensure the final design was both practical and cost effective, as they were going to be paying for the homes.

The scheme has its own distinctive character, while sitting comfortably with very different neighbours – a mixture of Georgian, Victorian, and more modern buildings. Like their neighbours, the new brick buildings that front on to Union Street have low pitched roofs, while the asymmetric roof pitches of the garden wing reflect the less domestic scale of the nearby High Street.

The main entrance opens into the shared common areas and out to the south-facing communal garden, with flats above overlooking both the garden and Union street.

The communal kitchen adjoins the main common room. Photo Credit – Caroline Teo

The shared spaces at the entry are the hub of the community. The sociable 82 sq m meeting room, kitchen/dining and office area near the entrance is complemented by a communal laundry and drying space arranged around the mews/parking courtyard, and a guest apartment on the third floor.

The eight parking places are accessed from Union Street, with apartments above. A separate mobility scooter park is also provided in this area.

Access to parking, refuse and the mobility scooter bay is all from the central lobby, which also functions an informal meeting space as residents come and go. The parking in the mews courtyard is topped by two levels of flats.

The large central garden is the focal point, with a hidden garden/vegtable plot and craft shed tucked into a more remote corner of the site.

TOP TIP

Good levels of insulation reduce the need for expensive heating systems

Because these homes are well insulated they only need a little background electric heating (so they also save on gas utility connections)

The construction of the homes is traditional – mostly concrete block, clad in brick. A standard Design and Build contract was employed and the main contractor (Quinns) was selected by competitive tender. Its tender came in at £4.3m, which works out at less than £2,000 per sq m. The final cost was £4.7m (just over £2000 per sq m. Compared to similar housing projects in London this is good value.

There was therefore no need to do any ‘value engineering’. The specification is quite generous with high performance windows and doors. The homes comply with Level 4 of the Code for Sustainable Homes. Each home has its own gas fired boiler (early plans for a central plant were scrapped), and mechanical ventilation heat recovery (MVHR) units are fitted in each apartment. Some residents don’t like these, complaining about the constant hum.

There have been several snagging issues and a change in the site manager during the project led to delays in project completion.

The residents worked with the architects over many months to develop a scheme design they were happy with.

TIMEFRAME

From the initial formation of the group, to moving in took a staggering 18 years. Finding a suitable ‘enabling’ housing association proved difficult, there were many false starts before the group secured an appropriate site, and then there were planning issues to overcome. Several of the original members of the group had died during this long-winded process.

1998 Following a workshop the group is formed
1999 OWCH teams up with Housing for Women
1999 to 2004 Support from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation funds research, visits to see overseas senior cohousing projects and a part time facilitator
2002 to 2006 Nine housing associations are approached and many sites are inspected (but rejected)
2006 to 2008 A site in Wembley (and others) fails to progress because of planning issues
2006 Tudor Trust funds facilitator and OWCH’s running costs
2009 to 2010 Hanover agree to help find site, and the plot in High Barnet is identified and purchased
2010 Co-design process with PTE Architects
2011 to 2013 Planning proves challenging but ius secured after long delays
2014 Construction begins
Late 2016 Residents move in

TOP TIP

Involve a Quantity Surveyor in the co-design process

A cost consultant should be able to provide informal advice on the cost and practical construction issues of the design that emerges.

PRICES AND COSTS

The rent on the eight one bed social rented apartments was £137 a week (in 2017).

Surveyors were asked to estimate the cost of the private apartments just before construction began, and the residents then had to pay a 10% deposit. The properties ranged in cost from £270,000 to £420,000 (note these valuations also took into account that the residents all had a share in the communally owned common house, office, guest flat, shared laundry and garden workshop). By the time the project had been completed and the apartments occupied the agreed prices were significantly less than the going rate for similar homes in the same area.

The residents also pay a service charge (typically about £1,600 per year for a two bed home) to cover the upkeep of the common areas. The members look after the cleaning of the communal areas themselves.

When a leaseholder (or their heirs) wants to sell a flat they have to approach OWCH, and together they determine a fair sale price “acting reasonably” (this is written into the lease and would normally imply getting two or three independent valuations of the property by chartered surveyors). OWCH then has six months to find a group member (or potential group member) who is willing to buy. If no OWCH member has come forward within this time, the leaseholder is then free to sell to anyone who meets the two fundamental criteria (ie a woman over 50).

Applicants for the eight social housing flats have assured tenancies with Housing for Women. To be eligible applicants must also be women aged 50+, who are:

• Recognised as eligible by a local authority; or are already tenants of an affordable housing provider such as a housing association or a local authority
• Private renters on housing benefit, or who are in unsuitable or insecure accommodation, or are referred by an approved referral agency
• A transferring tenant from another Housing for Women home.

FINANCE/FUNDING

The former school site cost £1.5m. The land was bought ‘at risk’ by Hanover, as it did not at the time have planning permission for residential use.

Professional fees and other pre-development costs totalled around £1.5m, and the building work cost just under £5m.

The total cost came to £7.8m.

Homes for Women funded the construction of the eight social units (at £1.5m) (via a grant from Tudor Trust).

Hanover effectively bank rolled the development, buying the site up-front and financing all the pre-development costs. Forward funding of site and development costs in their entirety isn’t likely to be repeated in the current economic climate. In Hanover’s view members of groups like OWCH should be able to finance the bulk of the project themselves, as most of them were already property owners.

Both the housing association and the architect put in a significant amount of (unpaid) additional time to help facilitate the project.

PEOPLE AND DEMAND

Sadly many of the original founders of the group did not live long enough to see the project completed.

The current residents are reasonably diverse (partly down to the eight social renters); a fair proportion of the private leaseholders are former academics, so there are (perhaps) more graduates among the group than average. Members include people who formerly worked as a doctor, a nurse, an actress, an administrator, a cranial osteopath, a teacher, a social worker, a costume designer and a set designer. Some are divorced or widowed; others are single. Most are retired; a handful are still working. There are two dogs and several cats.

The members want to stay in charge of their own lives, look out for each other, share resources and create a lively mix of sociability and shared activity with clear boundaries for personal space and a private life.

There has been quite a bit of media coverage for the project, and this has generated lots of enquiries from other women who are keen to move in, should a unit become available. Currently around 400 people have contacted OWCH about joining the waiting list.

Residents could select different floor, wall and tile finishes.

A non-residents members group has also been established comprising prospective future owners and tenants. Around a dozen of these are regularly invited to meals and community events, and occasionally take part in the cooking and gardening rotas, so they can be more easily integrated into the group when a vacancy arises.

In selecting potential members for this group OWCH has sought to balance the age profile towards the younger end, and to encourage women from the BME community.

New Ground is a very community-orientated housing project, where the residents keep any eye out for each other. One resident was told that the support her neighbours provided over just a couple of weeks after she had a fall would have cost thousands of pounds via an independent care organisation.

Groups like OWCH empower the elderly to be much more in control of their destiny – most older people don’t want to be a burden on their families or the state, and schemes like New Ground provide a way of genuinely managing their later years.

When this case study was prepared the residents had only been living at New Ground for a few months. Despite this the community cohesiveness was already strong – the communal kitchen is popular for the weekly group meals, the vegetable growing area was developing nicely, and a film night is regularly staged by the residents. Members have also organised group visits to local attractions, parties and other events, such as yoga and sketching workshops. There’s clearly a strong spirit of ‘togetherness’ emerging.

A shared laundry means most of the flats don’t need a washing machine. The facility also encourages resident interaction

Mutual Support

One of the guiding principles of most cohousing communities is that its members are willing to act as friendly and helpful neighbours to each other, to assist each other on occasions (especially in emergencies), and to be generally aware and supportive of each other’s needs.
OWCH members understand that they have to take full responsibility for their own health and welfare; and they should to be capable of independent living without recourse to the group. But they do clearly benefit from the group’s wider commitment to ‘mutual support.’
Mutual support does not mean providing long-term and regular personal care that more properly should be delivered by social services.
What mutual support means in general:
• The maintenance of a spirit of helpful and reciprocal caring in the group
• Watching out for the safety, security and wellbeing of fellow residents
What mutual support might mean in some cases:
• Someone is unwell and needs a prescription fetched, eye-drops administered, shopping done or a meal provided
• Someone needs a lift to a hospital appointment or the doctor called
• Someone needs plants watered and a pet fed while away from home
• Someone needs a neighbour to watch out for a delivery
• Someone notices and investigates a neighbour’s unusual absence
What mutual support would generally not mean:
• The right to expect the regular cleaning and upkeep of a member’s home or the regular provision of meals
• The right to expect personal care such as dressing, showering, toileting, changing dressings or other services of a personal nature
• The right to expect shopping or other services to be carried out on a regular basis.
Across England 70 per cent of women aged 75+ currently live alone. Research suggests that the elderly stay healthier when they have a strong circle of friends; and older people who are part of a stimulating social network are also less likely to be affected by dementia.
This type of accommodation brings many planning and social care benefits – it frees up larger homes for families by encouraging downsizing, the mutual support the residents provide for each other reduces demand on hard-pressed social care budgets, and it offers the elderly a new self-managed housing option where the residents are likely to have a more active, healthy and enjoyable retirement.

MARKETING

During the early years the members designed and circulated their own leaflets, ran stalls at events across London and spoke at conferences in an effort to recruit suitable members and convince people of the concept. One of the members also set up and maintains the group’s website.

There has been a lot of media coverage for the scheme – both in the UK and further afield. This has generated huge numbers of requests for site visits – so many, that these are now being ‘rationed’ so that the members’ privacy and enjoyment is not impaired.

The central courtyard is very attractive but there have been some issues with waterlogged ground
All residents either have a private ground level patio, or a large balcony.
Left: Access to the flats via the rear parking courtyard. A lift serves all levels. Right: The balconies are generously proportioned and very popular with the residents

What are the potential health and social care cost benefits of senior cohousing?

There have been no robust studies into the health and cost benefits of senior cohousing schemes, but there is a growing body of evidence that suggests that older people living in a mutually supportive community are likelier to be happier, healthier, and will require less social care support.
Loneliness kills
• More than one million older people in the UK say they always or often feel lonely.
• Loneliness can be as harmful for our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day
• People with a high degree of loneliness are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s
• People of the same age who live alone have twice the risk of developing dementia.
• A study of almost 3,000 nurses with breast cancer found that women without close friends were four times more likely to die than women with 10 or more friends
• People who are lonely are more likely to smoke and be obese , and are less likely to take regular exercise
• Lonely people are more likely to have a heart attack, and if lonely people experience a heart attack they are less likely to survive it.
In Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands, successive governments have encouraged the development of senior cohousing communities on the grounds that the residents will be less lonely and will generate reduced demands on expensive health and social care services.
Danish housing association Lejerbo undertook a survey of the residents of a senior cohousing community project comparing the resident’s views when they moved in with their views ten years later. Before moving in 85 per cent said that they often felt lonely. A decade later the figure was only ten per cent. Before moving in, 70 per cent had often needed help with small repair jobs, shopping etc. Ten years later none needed this.
There is a wide body of research that demonstrates the positive impact of close relationships with others on people’s health and wellbeing.
A Personal Social Services Research Unit study, undertaken in 2010 for the Department of Health, evaluated the impact of social isolation among older people. The study concluded that providing practical help and emotional support to older people could significantly affect their health and wellbeing. The researchers calculated that, for every £1 spent on activities to avoid social isolation, local hospitals would save £1.20 in emergency hospital care; additionally overnight hospital stays would be reduced by 47 per cent, and use of A & E Departments would drop by 29 per cent. Overall reductions in therapy and clinical services resulted in an estimated average cost saving of £2,166 per person.
Senior cohousing communities are a positive way of addressing loneliness and isolation and, because of the mutual support provided by the members, residents are also less likely to need support from local authority adult social care services. Older residents that require home support in the London Borough of Barnet currently need an average of 12 hours assistance a week which costs councils £8,860 a year.

The communal garden is very popular, with its funky shed/tool storage structure
 

THANKS TO… 

This case study was compiled with reference to the following sources:

Maria Brenton
OWCH 
Patrick Devlin, PTE Architects 
Claire Anderson, Hanover Housing Association

Credit 

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

 

Further Reading

The following case studies may also be of interest: