An emotionally exhausting weekend away: preparing our cohousing proposal for the planning committee

September 24, 2014 8:51 am

Now that the excitement of acquiring our site has faded, our cohousing group is confronted by the reality of building houses in the 21st century.

To design the perfect mixture of communal space and private houses should be a thrilling experience, and it is, but it is also a highly emotional process. An emotional process that we all share as members of our cohousing. To keep us focused on the essential our Architect/member, Anne Thorne, got us all together in one place for a long weekend with very little time to do anything else than discuss the issues in her presentations. She fed us well; and listened a lot, but it was sunny outside with the trees of the attractive Colchester Castle Park’s waving green branches in the wind, calling us to play.LoCo Board pictured during a meeting break

Anne’s first move was to list all the constraints we had to accommodate. It was a very clever plot to prevent us making personal-reasonable but collectively-contradictory demands on the scheme’s design. Anne never says no, she just puts reality under our noses. Reality is a conversation killer.  All those constraints, which are preventing us building a marbled underground heated swimming pool, are of our own making or legally compulsory for our own and our neighbours’ sake. Still they are constraints and limit the choices we can make. On the Friday evening, after a very pleasant meal, it was a sobering thought that we were unlikely to get a vivid pink Spanish courtyard next to our very British pond. A lot of us were relieved.

There is, of course, the money constraint which prevents us getting our dream designer-created, hand-made tiles for the kitchen and bathroom. There is the site topography constraint as well as the ecological one. We want to respect nature as much as it is humanly possible, both when the homes are built and during the building process. We are designing as responsibly and as sustainably as we can afford. Never mind the hand-made tiles imported from Turkey, let’s develop the site in an  environmentally friendly way, promoting ecological diversity.

We aim to build houses exceeding the minimum criteria for low energy use.  We want Passivhaus. Passivhaus is the ultimate cosy home. These are normal houses with super-insulation and air tightness, with plenty of windows to get the sun in and, if the weather is warm, fresh air. There is a clever (I didn’t get all the technical aspects patiently explained by Anne, sorry!) heat recovery system which recycles heated or cooled air. Somewhere in a heat exchange box, cold air meets warm air and they exchange their relative warmth. A love story!  I visited a Passivhaus last year and was surprised by the air quality. Thanks to the filter, the air in the house was cleaner and dryer than outside. It felt fresh inside, never cold, stuffy or stale. It felt very healthy.

The Lifetime Homes standard, with its 16 design criteria, was more of a challenge. When Anne our member architect told us that the next session was about stairs we all expected to discuss colours, material and texture. She surprised us with description of steps’ height and stairs’ width. Those were among the non negotiable design constraints we had to sign up to if we wanted our houses to be accessible and adaptable for the pains of old age.  We do want to make our houses both cosy in winter but with room for a wheelchair if necessary.

The last constraint: Secured by Design – the Government-backed initiative for ‘designing out crime’ seems sensible so we agreed to consider it further without even reading.

At the end of the weekend we realised that we had never discussed our own specific private houses. We had been concentrating on how and what the cohousing group wanted to achieve cooperatively.  By so doing we had de facto designed our own houses. By discussing what the group wanted cooperatively we had planned our individual house without disagreement; a feat we would had never achieved if we had started discussing the particular. We would have been gridlocked by our own self-centredness. Thanks to this softly-softly process we are considering using as cornerstones of our eco-build project: green roofs, non toxic materials like real timber, environmentally friendly paints, heat recovery, solar water heating, photovoltaic cells and, very importantly, a sustainable urban drainage system (SUDS) to help minimise flooding.

I cannot pretend that I have taken in all those very technical aspects of my future home. Too often I was not thinking about the group needs but rather my own.  What’s more the planning committee may have very good reasons to refuse some aspects of our shared plan and ask us to make changes. Fair enough. Designing my dream house is a negotiated process between my husband and me, between the members of our group of which I am only one and between our group and the wider community.  It is as it should be: respectful of all needs, impatient of whims.


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