Passivhaus housing architect - concrete architectural model showing houses in a cohousing design

This article discusses how to start a cohousing group, from deciding your values and community type at the outset, to assessing the funding available and finding land.

Cohousing is a method of creating new homes based on values determined by the future residents to establish a certain way of life. By focusing on the specific needs of the community rather than profit, cohousing often delivers a higher standard of home at a lower cost.

There are currently around 21 completed cohousing developments in the UK with a further 60 in development. Because each cohousing project can have different causes and needs, the result is a diverse set of housing types.

By implementing the community’s values from the beginning of the design process, the needs of the residents can be put first.

Visit Architecture for London’s portfolio to see recent work, or contact us on 020 3637 4236 to discuss your cohousing project.

Some cohousing developments have been very intentionally intergenerational, forging relationships between different age groups and backgrounds. Other cohousing groups focus explicitly on older people, providing independent life for longer.

There are many existing cohousing groups that might fulfil your desired housing typology. To find one that is looking for potential residents and could match your ambitions the UK Cohousing Directory is a good place to start. Another option is to start a cohousing group of your own.

How to start a cohousing group

When starting a new community-led housing group, it is helpful to have already formed a small steering team that works well together and can make decisions. To grow from this small group, you can hold events or publicise your values and aims online to find further members.

Early on you should define whether the cohousing is only for the community you are forming or the wider community. This is often determined by whether the housing revolves around a shared value or common interest, or if the housing is geographically specific and open to anyone living or working in your area.

If open to the wider community, it is helpful to hold public meetings to ascertain the needs and interests of the local community you wish to provide homes for; establishing core values and aims.

how to start a cohousing group

Trudeslund Cohousing Community

If the aim of the group is a common value, rather than a geographical location, it is important to establish what these values are to ensure future decisions and living together in a community works. Values are usually set by consensus and are not intended to be strict rules, but rather a means to follow a lifestyle valued by all.

Once you have determined your group’s values, be it geographical or otherwise, it is necessary to decide on financial values. Are you looking to create a cohousing group to purchase a cheaper home, or to build homes of a higher quality? Do you want to reach Passivhaus standards of comfort and sustainability?

It is good to establish how much each member can afford to contribute, as this will need to be understood at an early stage.

Finally, when it comes to financial values it is important to consider whether your housing will be ‘affordable’ and how to define it as such. This could be in relation to a mixture of tenures such as social rent, shared ownership or offering some homes at a discount. This can be made possible through savings made from self-build, project managing and grants or discounted land made available.

Promoting your cohousing group

You have formed a cohousing group, defined your values and know which area you would like to build in – what’s next?

Throughout the whole process, it is important to document your ideas and values. Now would be a good time to create a website for your cohousing group to create awareness of what you hope to achieve and gain local support.

Funding for cohousing developments

It is necessary to open a bank account to keep track of all your spending and to manage any money raised. It is common practice at the start of forming your group to charge a small membership fee to cover costs such as printing, travel and room hire.

Transparency is key when managing the group’s funds. All spending and money raised should be clear for all to see within the group.

Grants are available to help with early feasibility studies. You will first need to set out clearly what your objectives are and estimate how the grant money would be spent. It is often helpful to show independently raised funding to show your group’s commitment.

Incorporate as a legal entity

Once you get to the stage that you are ready to enter negotiations for land or commission architects, it is necessary that you incorporate by creating a legal entity such as a company. You should choose the cohousing scheme’s legal format and decide how the organisation will be run and governed. Select the funding options required and determine how the housing will be affordable in perpetuity.

You can register your organisation with the Financial Conduct Authority through Co-ops UK without the need for solicitors.

cohousing in denmark

Trudeslund Cohousing Community

How to find land for cohousing

Now that you have your group of potential residents, documented your values and incorporated, it’s time to find land for your cohousing development. To successfully find the right site for your homes, it helps at this point to write a site brief.

The brief should include the following: project area, size, type (housing or mixed-use), and what access is required. Also, consider how much funding you have readily available along with which consultants have been appointed.

Once your group believes they have found the right site to build a new community, it is a good idea to seek professional help to determine whether the site is suitable, if it is financially viable and if you are likely to get planning permission.

At this stage, an architect’s initial services will be useful. They can produce sketch scheme layouts, giving an idea of how you could make the most out of your chosen site. An architect will also give advice and arrange reports from consultants on whether the proposal is likely to gain planning permission and how much it will cost.

The London Community Housing Fund

In January 2019, the Mayor of London announced £38m revenue and capital funding to support 500 community-led homes starting on site by April 2023. The three common principles required to be eligible for grant funding are:

  • Meaningful community engagement and consent occurs throughout the process.
  • The community group owns, manages or stewards the homes in a manner of their choosing.
  • Benefits to the local area and/or specified community group are clearly defined and legally protected in perpetuity.

Assuming you meet all these criteria, your project may be eligible for funding to cover specific activities such as pre-development costs, preparing planning applications, post planning costs and fees.

Case Study: Marmalade Lane

A development of 42 homes in Cambridge built on a leftover plot that couldn’t attract developers. The cohousing development has a common house with a large kitchen and children’s playroom along with a workshop as a place for hobbies.

At the centre of the development is a large shared garden for relaxation, play and food growing. The houses are designed to be fossil fuel free and to near-Passivhaus standards, benefiting from much lower energy bills than typical new developments.

Case Study: Aylesbury Cohousing

Architecture for London is currently designing an architect-designed Passivhaus Cohousing in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire. The development will create ten sustainable new homes with a carbon-negative cross-laminated timber structure, built to Passivhaus standards.

A large communal ‘barn’ offers a large kitchen and dining room for communal gatherings. It also offers guest bedrooms for accommodating visitors along with a library overlooking the central gardens.

The Aylesbury cohousing group are currently seeking potential residents. Please do get in touch if you would like to be involved.

An attribute inherent to the success of community-led projects is that the residents become deeply involved in all stages of the design and development of their homes, giving a greater sense of ownership and providing homes that will meet long term needs.

To see our recent projects, please visit Architecture for London’s portfolio.

Images: Trudeslund Cohousing Community, Copenhagen 1979-1981

Architect: Vandkunsten

Photographer: SEIER+SEIER

Cohousing FAQ

What is the London Community Housing Fund?

In January 2019, the Mayor of London announced £38m revenue and capital funding to support 500 community led homes starting on site by April 2023. Funds from this may be available to cover specific activities such as pre-development costs for cohousing groups.

What are the benefits of cohousing?

A cohousing group can build homes tailored to their needs, these are frequently better quality homes as the group doesn’t need to pursue profit. Cohousing provides economic benefits with shared resources, and can prevent problems of isolation.

What is cohousing?

Cohousing is an intentional community of people based around values determined by the group. Residents are typically part of a close-knit community and benefit from shared space and amenities that might otherwise be unaffordable.