Tuesday, March 15, 2011

More on the great leap northwards

My first journey on the 81A.

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.




Anonymous Al said...

It does sound awesome. When do you make the move?

11:59 am  
Blogger Jo said...

The build starts in June and ETA for the co-house and the first batch of homes (of which ours is one) is May 2012. But we need to sell before then to pay back our loan and have some financial flexibility, so we are planning a sort of phased retreat north over 12 months... I'm hoping to retain my job in some form or other, so I'm planning to be based in Oxford most of the time, but it's all a bit up in the air.
And if you know anyone who's interested in an eco-house or flat in the NW, let me know! All the communal food will be vegan...

1:49 pm  
Anonymous jonathan said...

Listen Joella, this is such a momentous and life-changing moment that any comment at all risks coming across as glib, that's why I never commented straightaway (I think I've read the post three times now). But, really- fair play to you and M for making this great leap forward into a whole new model of living- I bet there are plenty who have thought of doing so but not gone through with it.

Also (this is the glib bit) I clicked on your 'check us out' link and was very pleased with myself that I spotted you straight away among the 40 thumbnail photos that popped up. All those years of practice with the random snaps at the top right of Joella, you see. And I loved your biography in particular the quote at the end about small groups of committed people, one to commit to the memory.

12:09 am  
Anonymous looby said...

Well well well - I know some of teh people involved in that co-op because it's a small distance both ideologically and physically (about 2 miles in teh latter case). I'm full of admiration for the Herculean effort of negotiating a consensual path through the minefield of conflicying desires and characters that are brough to bear on such a project. For trying to get things done in this way, a big hats off to you.

Well done, and I look forward to hearing about the future successful developments up there at t'Mills!

2:55 pm  
Blogger Jo said...

@jonathan - I know that fear of glibness! And thank you for getting over it! To be honest, I reckon huge decisions don't seem so huge if they hit you at the right moment. Confluences. What I feel really lucky about is that it hit us both at more or less the same time. It would be very hard if one of us wanted to do it and the other one didn't. And we'll be much closer to Manchester so we might finally get to have that beer!
@looby - I keep meeting people who know cohousers and/or Lancaster and I live 200 miles away! Ideologically it's a very small world. And yeah, feels pretty Herculean at times. But I find myself amazed at the range of skills in the group, and I think if we get to the point of moving in, then actually living with each other will be a piece of cake!

5:39 pm  
Blogger Spine said...

Joella, You'll be glad to know that the Republic of Turkey has lifted its ban on your website, allowing me to celebrate both your move and the magnanimity of my moustached masters in a single post.

Go, moves toward freedom, community and consensus-based policy creation!

6:46 am  

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