As cohousing takes off, Bevis Watts calls for a new age of 'considerism'.
As a society, our focus on sustainability is hugely biased towards environmental issues, on developing new products and technologies to address climate change. Yet the reality is, these solutions will not be effective unless we are all inspired as human beings to take more responsibility for our everyday lives and the decisions we make. At Triodos, we believe that a sustainable society can only come about if we can instigate a very different way of engaging with each other – one that inspires that conscious choice. I see it as a new age of 'considerism'.
So what does considerism look like in action? One emerging and inspiring example is cohousing. Most conventional development focuses on the immediate needs of individual households. Beyond perhaps some shared outdoors space, there's rarely any provision for common ground – both literally, and between the people who live there.
There's more to sustainable societies than a room of your own
Cohousing comes at things from the opposite direction. It sets out to create a community through shared development of a living space, which includes both communal and private areas. In the past, cohousing communities were only open to those who could afford to buy a share (or unit) in the development. Now, housing associations are taking an interest, and it's possible to join some communities on a rental basis. On top of this, residents pay a service charge to cover maintenance of common facilities and utility bills. It's a way of combating the isolation many people experience today, by recreating the neighbourly support of a traditional village or urban neighbourhood. Yes, it's about providing homes, but there's more to sustainable societies than a room of one's own...
Lancaster Cohousing is behind the country's second purpose-built cohousing project, at Forge Bank near Halton in Lancashire. (The first was Springhill, which opened in 2003 near Stroud in Gloucestershire.) In 2005, a group build of visionaries came together with the plan to create an intergenerational community founded on ecological values, trust, respect, friendship and understanding, and which would live "at the cutting edge of sustainable design". It became a not-for-profit company in April 2006 and, after five years of planning, construction began in August 2011. Now, future residents are gearing up for their big move, planned for this month.
In the Forge Bank development, financed by Triodos Bank, each resident will have their own private home, but also access to a common house, with a shared kitchen and eating area, where residents will regularly cook and share meals. Other communal facilities include gardens, guest bedrooms, a children's playroom and a laundry. It is all being developed to state-of-the-art 'passivhaus' standards, requiring minimum lighting and heating, and the shared facilities mean private houses can be smaller than in conventional developments. A car pool scheme – stipulated for occasional use only – will replace personal vehicles.
Getting this far was no mean feat, acknowledges Luke Mills, a founding member. With no prior development experience, the nascent community has had to overcome many practical challenges, from refurbishing a large mill and installing a woodchip boiler for hot water, to developing a 160KW hydro-electric power scheme (in conjunction with the wider community in Halton).
"We have all gained the odd emotional bruise and grey hair", he says. "All decisions are made by concensus, and the need to compromise can leave people feeling sore", he explains. But this hasn't diminished his desire for "greater connection" with his neighbours – a need that "years of communting in and around London had not met".
To some degree, joining a cohousing project requires a leap of faith. It's not just about the efficiency savings of shared resources. The whole structure prompts those involved to become much more conscious of the impact of their own lives on the community they live in – and of their personal contribution to its wellbeing. There's a commitment to actively participating with your neighbours – to a life beyond your front door.
For some, it may be a commitment too far, but those who are willing to make the leap get the ultimate reward – being part of a genuinely cohesive community. And perhaps, by focusing on something more their own needs as an individual, they become an inspiration to us all.
Bevis Watts is Head of Business Banking at Triodos.
Triodos Bank is a Forum for the Future partner.
Photo: Lancaster CoHousing