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Rise Of The Commune: Why More And More Brits Opt For Co Housing

The image of several families living together on the same plot of land, sharing facilities, childcare and costs, conjures up one of various ‘alternative lifestyles,’ from hippies through Hare Krishnas to the Kibbutzim of 1960s Israel.

But more and more British families are forming ‘co-housing’ groups for purely practical reasons, rather than for religious or ideological ones. As rents and property prices both rise, and the cost of living outstrips wages, many people now lack both the traditional support structure of the extended family, and the readies to hire cleaning and childcare staff. The solution?

This month the first residents moved into a purpose-built co-housing development, Lilac in Bramley, in west Leeds. The development consists of a mixture of houses and flats with a communal central house, all constructed from ‘ModCell,’ a prefabricated, modular straw-bale construction system.

Meanwhile another group is setting up in a 41-unit zero-carbon development called Forgebank, on the banks of the River Lune in Lancaster. The community there will share an orchard, as well as workshops and office space.

The development is three miles from Lancaster city centre and is close to a small village offering amenities. All Forgebank’s homes are built to the ‘Passivhaus’ specification, 90% more energy-efficient than the average home.

Jo Gooding, co-ordinator of the UK Co-housing Network, says, ‘there has been a stable number of about 14 co-housing groups in the UK for a number of years, but in the past two or three years a further 40 have begun forming.’

And it’s not likely that they’ll be motivated by environmental concerns; worries over the cost of heating traditional homes play a part, as Kate Tunstall, a Passivhaus owner, explains: ‘We were really concerned about fuel bills in our previous house,’ she says, ‘[and we’re] coming into retirement our fuel bills are going to increase; as retired people, our income is going to go down, and we wanted to address that.’

This pragmatism is typical of a Forgebank home; while they range from individuals in their 20s to retired couples by way of young families, what they have in common is that they have bought their own homes, and that they are happy to cook a monthly meal for over 50 people; pragmatism is tempered by an idealism that deliberately tries to transplant a version of the past sense of community into the modern age. But it’s far from a ‘commune’ in the sense we’re used to hearing the word.

Instead of voting on issues and letting majority rule hold sway, the co-house group is committed to finding solutions everyone can live with; more time-consuming, but more inclusive. With its eco-credentials and its mixture of pragmatism, environmentalism and practical collectivism, it’s no surprise to find that these groups are already popular in Scandinavia. But, as house prices continue to rise and traditional communities seem to fall by the wayside, the co-house could be the wave of the future here too.