Friday, 26 May 2017

Strength in numbers

A housing co-operative in Leeds has created a one-of-a-kind affordable eco-community for residents. Jess McCabe reports

We had our first shared meal in the common house,’ says Alan Thornton. It was, he explains, ‘some Moroccan thing with sweet potato’. He and the other 41 members of the Lilac cohousing community had to eat those yams in two sittings (one for children, one for adults).

This communal meal was an important moment for Lilac members, as they had just moved into their homes at the new eco-cohousing project in Bramley, Leeds.

Lilac stands for ‘low impact living affordable community’, and it is a fully mutual co-operative, registered in May 2009. Its members came together four years ago to form an ‘intentional community’. While everyone has their own home, the common house sits in the centre of the community, providing a place for communal meals, events and doing laundry.

Thirty-three adults and nine children finally moved into the 20 flats and houses at the beginning of May, and Lilac already has a waiting list of people eager to join when those first families leave.

Lilac isn’t the first affordable cohousing project. And it isn’t the first green cohousing project. But it might be the first in the UK which aspires to be both green and affordable.

Cohousing is becoming an increasingly popular way to live, if the number of projects is any indication. Jo Gooding, co-ordinator of the UK Cohousing Network says there are 40 projects in development, a massive increase as just 14 cohousing developments have ever been built in the UK. Around 35 per cent of planned projects include some form of affordable housing.

Big ambitions

Helped with a grant of £450,000 from the Homes and Communities Agency and the Department of Energy and Climate Change, the £2.1 million Lilac project is built on the site of a former school.

So what of its green credentials?

The most striking green component is the material from which the homes are built. Bales of straw are packed into a timber frame, then finished with a lime render. Lilac is the first time this system, called ‘Modcell’, has been put to use in a residential development.

One of the benefits of using straw, Lilac says, is that it actually stores the carbon dioxide it absorbed while it was growing. It is estimated that packing the straw into their walls captures 12.25 tonnes of CO2 per house.

The group has also installed solar panels, which will be used to generate about 29 kilowatts of electricity and some hot water for the homes. These panels will also earn a subsidy for each kilowatt hour of electricity they generate - £3,000 to £4,000 a year - under the government’s feed-in tariff, which will help pay the development’s utility bills.

Community living also lowers Lilac’s footprint, through sharing resources. Writing before she moved in, new resident Amanda said: ‘I can’t wait to live in an eco-friendly, super-insulated, quiet and well-built house.’

In future, the project will expand from shared meals and ownership, to clubbing together to provide care and childcare, Mr Thornton explains. ‘I always thought it would be a great place for children to grow up, with a whole variety of adult and child influences beyond the nuclear family.’

Architect Craig White, who invented the Modcell system, explains: ‘This is a combination of thinking sustainably, about how we build, and thinking sustainably about how we live.’

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