Housing communities: close for comfort
April 28, 2011 | By:

Co-housing communities are growing up around the country. Christopher Middleton assesses the benefits

Communes have changed since the Sixties. {a href=”https://www.flickr.com/photos/scragz/429695535/sizes/m/in/photostream/” target=”_new”}Photo by scragz{/a}

Let’s face it, the feeling of belonging to a community is a bit of a rare sensation these days. But not for those few hundred souls who have opted for the co-housing lifestyle.

Adopters of this little-known social model choose to live in communities where you have your own private home, but you also have clearly defined public responsibilities to your fellow residents.

At the Threshold Co-Housing Centre in Gillingham, Dorset, all the adult members of the 20-strong community are expected to put in four hours’ labour per week, cleaning, cooking or working in the communal garden. And, while they each have their own kitchen, they are also expected to take part in communal meals two evenings a week.

“We bring food and share it with each other,” says Michael Giddings, one of the founder members of Threshold (which opened 18 months ago). “In a way, the meals are the glue that binds us together, that helps us get to know each other on more than just a ‘Hello, good morning’ basis.”

Asked to describe the atmosphere, Michael likens it not to a hippy commune, but to an old-fashioned village. His description strikes a chord with Jo Rowbotham, founder member of Springhill, at Stroud in Gloucestershire, the first purpose-built co-housing project in Britain.

“Listeners to The Archers would have a very good sense of how Springhill works,” says Jo, 47, a freelance education consultant. “There are 34 homes here, and 75 people, of all ages from small babies up to late-seventies and beyond.

“It would be untrue to say we are all best friends, but there is a high level of support that operates between us. If someone puts out a request for help, it is answered unquestioningly by everyone here.”

Compared to the Threshold Centre, there are more communal meals each week (three), but fewer hours of community work required (just 20 a year, and help with cooking one meal a month).

Claustrophobic? Not at all, says Jo. “We’ve all got our own front doors, we’ve all got as much of a moat and drawbridge as anyone in the outside world. What the proximity of other people does, though, is to provide a great richness of opportunity: we’ve got a singing group, a yoga group, a Pilates group. And of course, if you go round to someone’s house for a drink, you don’t have to drive home.”

It’s accepted that Springhill homeowners are free to sell their houses to who they like (there’s a three-bedroomed property currently on the market for £399,000), but the buyers are invited to come and vet the co-housers beforehand, to see if the life is for them.

By contrast, the residents of Threshold – a mixture of homeowners and affordable-housing tenants – retain their right of veto over would-be incomers.

“If the idea of living in a close-knit society causes you anxiety, then co-housing is not for you,” says Jo. “However, if you share the impulse to lead a more ecological, more community-minded life, you can create something truly durable.

“Co-housing is nothing to be scared of. It’s not a religion, it’s not an ideology, it’s just a plan to be neighbourly.”