More on the great leap northwards
So we made our big decision, and, while we were paddling in the sea off Morecambe on an unseasonably sunny Sunday last October, our new Lancaster Cohousing comrades voted us in.
There was a strong chance that they would – applications are only turned down if you can’t raise your house deposit (which is 30%, so pretty hefty) or if the group feel that you don’t subscribe to the values or vision of the project (for example, if you were looking to buy a house primarily in order to make a profit, or to use as a cannabis factory). The values of the project are pretty much our values writ large, and we’d managed to borrow the deposit pending the sale of our house in Oxford, but still, it was a bit nerve-wracking.
And it turns out that was the easy bit. Maybe it’s a bit like trying for a baby – a momentous decision, a blue line which tells you that you are on your way, but it’s only then that you have to deliver something and bring it up to make a positive contribution to society.
It’s very exciting, no question. There will be 34 or 35 households in the main cohousing project*, and about 29 of us are already signed up. The core group are local Lancaster Greens and community activists who set up the cohousing group in 2006, and they have gradually been joined by other like-minded people, mainly from Lancaster and the north west, but increasingly from further afield. Check us out.
I didn’t know anything about cohousing before we stumbled upon it, but the basic concept is that you have a private home, like any other (though maybe a smaller one than you would have otherwise), but also share communal facilities with your neighbours. So there will be a co-house, which will have a big kitchen, eating area and terrace, and the idea is that we will cook and eat together several times a week. This is friendly, but also economical, as you can buy food in bulk, and time-efficient, as you only have to cook once or twice a month, and the rest of the time you can just turn up and eat. The co-house will also have a room for children to play in, community guest rooms and a laundry, and in attached outbuildings there’ll be lock up storage, bike sheds, and workshops. The main street is pedestrianised, and there will be a car pool on the edge of the site so you can book and use a vehicle when you want to.
All the houses are going to be built to the Passivhaus standard, so they will be super-insulated, and they all more or less face south, looking out over the river. They’ve been designed by Eco Arc, and they’re not that big (which is about managing costs, but also in line with cohousing principles, as it encourages people to use the communal facilities), but they have lots of light, and private terraces and balconies. They will be built using recycled and eco-friendly materials, many of which are locally sourced. Heating and hot water will be provided from a central biomass boiler. There is plenty of wild space and woodland as well as communal gardens and allotments, and there’s direct access onto the footpath down one side of the Lune and the cycle path to Lancaster and beyond on the other.
It all sounds AMAZING, doesn’t it? And it is. What’s even more amazing is that this group of 40-odd adults aims to make all its decisions by consensus. So we meet for a weekend every month to discuss everything from the project budget to composting to how to recruit new members.
And that’s the exhausting bit. The project is so amazing that people have moved personal mountains to be part of it, and continue to move them to stay part of it. Everyone’s reasons for being in the room are different, and different people care about different things for different reasons. One person’s flippant comment may strike at the heart of another person’s values. The membership team don’t want anyone to leave, the non-confronters want everyone to be happy, the build team want something that can be built, and we all need the budget to balance.
For the last month, we have been engaged in an exercise called ‘value engineering’. This is basically a euphemism for ‘cost cutting’, as the project costs had come in at 10% over the project budget. Some people lost things that were really important to them. Everyone lost something that they didn’t want to lose. There was tension. There were some people speaking out and some people keeping quiet. There were conversations that went round and round and round and never seemed to go anywhere. I don’t think anyone particularly enjoyed it.
But we got there. And that in itself was a pretty amazing experience. Consensus is a very powerful thing when it works. As President Bartlett said, decisions get made by the people who show up. And when that’s everyone, we all get something we can live with.
We’ve a shitload to do this year (anyone want to buy our house?), and I’m already beginning to mourn the loss of Oxford, but I’m feeling pretty good about my major life decision.
*There will be a terrace of six more houses just outside the main development. These will be built to the same eco-standards but will be normal private homes, with gardens and car parking.