Sunday, March 16, 2014

Sustainable housing

Last week I went to Eco-Build that is impressive display of the components of sustainable housing at the Excel Centre. A component of sustainability missing from the displays is 'co-housing' which is the way in which houses are used. This could be just good neighbourliness where many things are shared on an informal basis (ie tools, freezer space or even cars) but is also where the houses are designed with sharing in mind - a common house for group meals, guest accommodation, laundry, freezer room, library, office space, workshop etc. The ability of families to have relatively smaller areas and fewer rooms for their exclusive use with better facilities than they might be used to available on a shared basis, could make co-housing the most sustainable form of housing. And this matters in a planning sense due to the presumption in favour of sustainable development that applies to plan making and decision taking. This discussion arose in a session (probably the best attended of the (Wednes)day and featuring Kevin Mcloud, Paul Chatterton (from Lilac a co-housing scheme in Leeds) and Richard MaCarthy. It was the latter who said that co-housing was and would and could not be mainstreamed and would remain a minority pursuit while the volume builders would sort out the quantitative shortage of housing. I was allowed to challenge this assertion on the basis that building more of the unsustainable housing represented by the 'mainstream' would be contrary to the presumption in the NPPF and create an even greater need for sustainable housing. A wry smile from Kevin, and Paul responded that the demand for co-housing he experiences on his speaking circuit was substantial and enthusiastic (Lilac has a growing waiting list). This raises the most fundamental question running through my blogs - why is the planning system so bad at supporting and assisting with the supply of things that people say they want; access to affordable land and housing for small-scale agriculture, self/group-build/finish and co-housing. Why do potential co-housers have to battle with the system for years before giving up or eventually building their sustainable homes? The planners cannot claim neutrality as if this demand will be met without positive assistance. If the mainstream builders were challenged to design their estates in a sustainable way that these developments would resemble co-housing schemes and, as times get tough and/or people discover the advantages of sharing and neighbourliness, will be used as such. The main obstacle could be the commonhouse and I can only suggest that this is designed to be adapted to 3 or 4 dwellings and remains in the ownership of the social housing provider to be used as conventional housing if the demand for commonhouse use does not materialise within a couple of years of the completion of the scheme. Does anybody have any better ideas of providing co-housing in advance of the group intending to live together in this way? Mainstreamed it must be, and it would happen better and sooner with the help of the planners. It would also help if councils kept registers of those interested in housing themselves in this way (together with registers of potential self-builders and smallholders).

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