OWCH (Older Womens Cohousing) is a group of women over fifty who have created New Ground Cohousing, a shared-living community in a purpose-built block of flats in Barnet, London. The flats, which are due for completion this autumn, are the culmination of an 18 year journey that is a testament to the commitment and perseverance of its members. Custom Build Strategy spoke to OWCH Consultant, Maria Brenton, who gave us ten tips to help other cohousing groups successfully establish themselves.
1 Find your members
The people you bring together to create a cohousing group are the heart of your project. “You’re marketing yourselves, so it’s important to explain who you are and what your aims are.
“In the beginning we did absolutely everything to publicise the fledgling group,” says Brenton, “from leaflets in cafes and libraries to giving talks at conferences, as well as local press and radio. It’s essential to set up a website once you’re up and running, as this will be the hub for all your activities, allowing you to set out your aims, members’ obligations and news,” says Brenton.
Brenton explains that in The Netherlands, there are now small companies that act as intermediaries between groups, prospective members and housing associations involved in the sector, which helps facilitate the creation of new cohousing groups. “This is would be good to see replicated in the UK,” she adds.
2 Set group values
“One of the first tasks for a cohousing group to explore is the common values its members have, and work out what they want to achieve,” she says.
Brenton sees cohousing as a way of returning back to the concept of homes starting with the people who are going to live in them. “With the advent of post-war municipal social housing, we lost the bottom-up approach of starting with what the homeowners’ needs and desires are. But cohousing is brilliant at addressing this, as it’s a way of living with a group of people who hold shared values.
“These are often eco values, but cohousing is the ideal platform for groups based on ethnicity, gender, sexuality or age. However, at OWCH we’ve had to defend our decisions to have an older women’s group. When public money comes into the equation, it can lead to accusations of not being inclusive, which we take very seriously. For our members, an older women’s group gives us mutual support and interdependence as we get older, which offsets loneliness and isolation. It’s a positive, not negative thing.”
Whatever values your cohousing group decides on, it’s important to legitimise these in some form of written commitment, that’s also online. This value statement can then be used to explain what your aims are for new members, and ensures everyone is working from a common point.
3 Establish time commitments
Members need to understand what they’re signing up to. “Groups must meet up regularly, and it’s vital that members commit to this. OWCH meets once a month for a whole day, which not every group can commit to, but cohousing takes a significant amount of time to actually get to completion because finding a site or building is difficult, and the development and planning process is complex. It’s a long-term goal.” says Brenton.
Consequently, your group will need to agree how often they meet, and then set out the expectations of attendance. “Some people will leave your group due to the time constraints, especially as their circumstances change, but it’s vital to make this time frame clear to any new members, especially if they have to travel to attend meetings.”
4 Become a corporate body
OWCH is a fully mutual company, which was a requirement at the time it set up in order for it to access funding. But it is important to give your group corporate status that will enable it to have a bank account. This demonstrates that you’re serious about what you are setting out to achieve, and gives you a legal standing.
Brenton recommends Leeds-based Wrigleys Solicitors, which has a free guide to legal structures for cohousing and community-led housing. Typically, the company you set up to build your project will then go on to manage the finished homes.
5 Set financial commitments
Brenton feels that one mistake many new groups make is to not ask people to put serious money down. “In terms of unity and vision, one of the elements a group needs to organise early on is a financial commitment from the members. This shows a commitment to the group and discourages any cohousing tourists that aren’t serious about getting stuck in,” she adds.
Once OWCH eventually found its site, it required leaseholders to put down a non-refundable deposit of £2,000, and renters £200. Later on the leaseholders also had to put down 10% of the final value of their home, too. “Many people in our group are on low incomes, so this was a significant commitment, especially as they had to source it before they’d sold their homes,” she says.
As well as locking people in, this financial commitment offers valuable working capital for the project. It also offers surety to your contracting partners that the group is serious about its project.
“It gives you a serious powerbase when it comes to negotiating with contractors,” adds Brenton. This helps limit the perceived risk from partners, and also reduces the risk of single members dropping away, which can jeopardise the whole group.
6 Forge strong partnerships
Cohousing is reliant on its relationships, and to be successful a group needs to work well with its stakeholders, such as housing associations and developers, in a power-sharing way. “This comes down to having strong agreements in place between the parties, setting out expectations and understandings,” says Brenton.
“It’s a balancing act because with cohousing you’re dealing with a group of people who are coming from a fairly low knowledge base in terms of understanding building. But you’re also dealing with professionals with a limited understanding of working with alternative housing supply routes, such as cohousing,” she adds.
7 Make group decisions
Reaching consensus on decisions is vital to ensure smooth workflow. “This is not always easy to achieve,” says Brenton, “and the group must make it clear that people can object to some decisions based on certain parameters, but not just on a personal level. What’s more, once a decision has been agreed on, members need to back it, and stick to it.”
OWCH had consensus training to help them with this process, but there are practical elements that any group can do to facilitate this process. “If you have major, or contentious, decisions coming up, make sure you give members plenty of notice at which meetings the decisions will be made. This gives everyone time to collect their thoughts and discuss it, and come ready to make a decision. It also stops anyone who misses that meeting from objecting because they weren’t aware of it,” says Brenton.
8 Dedicate specialist teams
To help with the day-to-day organisation of the group, OWCH uses a series of small taskforce teams to deal with specific areas, which then feedback to the main group for decisions. “We’ve had, groups on legal, finance, inclusivity, membership and communications,” says Brenton.
These groups are far more able to focus and get on with specific tasks as they decentralise power, which helps momentum, but they also restrict members from bombarding stakeholder partners.
“For example, we’ve a two person site team, and they attend all site meetings and have been, until recently, the only ones allowed on site. The group also limits its members’ contact with stakeholders, which means that we don’t have 27 individuals chasing architects, contractors or the housing association, Hanover, about small things, which would just create chaos. This team then liaises with the main group, and is a conduit for questions or concerns.”
9 Prepare to manage choice
“When it comes to customising homes, it’s important that the group manages individual expectations,” says Brenton. Too much choice drives up costs as you lose economies of scale, and also causes delays. “The group realises this and is robustly reminded of this at intervals,” she adds. The OWCH members had the opportunity to work with the architects to customise their homes, based on a series of choices about finishes and layouts, but the members were aware that requests had to be reasonable and couldn’t be changed later on.
“One of the concerns that many contractors have about working with a shared living group is that they’re going to be getting endless, individual calls, so it’s important to allay this fear.”
10 Be aware of planning issues
While cohousing is all about building what you want, be aware that planning can put an awful lot of limits on your project, beyond constraining the external design.
Cohousing groups need to be aware that the council can require the group to provide affordable housing for people, which it then allocates to people on the housing need list. “The problem with this is that with cohousing you are working with a group that has fought to create a shared-living experience based on mutual values, but which council-allocated residents may not necessarily share or value.
“If cohousing groups had the power to select which people to allocate to from the list, then they could choose potential residents that are sympathetic to their philosophy. But councils can retain the right to put who they choose into any social housing, according to criteria that they select,” says Brenton.
“This creates unnecessary tension. A further complication is the fact that the cohousing group then has to work out how how these social units are going to be funded. A local authority or housing association could do this, but for cohousing to work well, prospective tenants need to be in tune with the cohousing ethos. It’s definitely something any cohousing group should discuss with its local authority.”
For more information about setting up a cohousing group, visit the UK Cohousing Network.
OWCH has achieved the seemingly impossible. Not the fact that it’s created affordable homes for its members – which is incredible in itself, but the fact that it’s held together as a group for so long. Brenton’s tips will help any fledgling group create a strong cohousing body – and this alone is the first milestone in creating housing. Cohousing represents grass roots innovation at it’s very best, but it’s hard to sustain, so make sure your group builds on OWCH’s experiences.