A not so common house
I’ve recently moved into a new cohousing community, a few miles from Lancaster, where private homes mix with communal living. The heart of any cohousing community is its common house - a cross between a village hall, and a communal living/dining room; a space to help us deepen our connections with each other.
Our Common House is both cavernous and intimate. Halfway along our pedestrian street, it’s big enough for the sixty of us who will eventually live here to squeeze into for meetings, meals and celebrations, and cosy enough the rest of the time for groups to sit at tables or on sofas around the wood burning stove to meet, eat, chat, read and even work.
It has absorbed great deal of thought, design and planning over several years, with a dedicated group of people meeting regularly to plan furnishing and decor, devise cleaning and cooking rotas, food ordering and meal preparation. The whole community has also contributed ideas: we’ve had sessions on what we want from a common house, discussions on whether there should be a TV or wifi in there (no to the first, probably yes to the second). One of the most emotive arguments was about whether we should remove our shoes or not.
Yet, in the end, as with so many other aspects of our cohousing community, it has developed organically since we actually moved in. No one could have designed the random assortment of donated furniture - from a big Habitat table with matching chairs and bench, to formica tables rescued from the old engineering works next door (which we are refurbishing to let as workspace). This haphazard collection of (often much loved) furnishings rescue it from looking and feeling in any way like a canteen or hotel lobby and make it a home.
Built to the same eco standards as the rest of our houses, with thickly insulated walls, a sedum roof and lots of recycled materials, heated by our wood chip fired district heating system, the architect didn't think it needed a wood burning stove, but this has become one of the best-loved features, especially on cold winter evenings.
The red walls soar up to the sloping roof, huge glass doors open on to a terrace looking over the River Lune, sound bounces off the glass and reverberates around the ceiling space - an acoustic nightmare for many of us, hoping that the money won't run out before baffles can be added to to absorb some of the noises. The Common House opened in time for a Halloween party and it's been very wet and cold since, so we are really looking forward to pulling the tables out onto the terrace on balmy summer evenings.
It's so special to come back after a day at work, or walking in the surrounding hills, to be greeted with a lovingly prepared meal and you don't even have to clean up afterwards. I wanted the first meal I cooked to be special, so ambitiously cooked a full roast meal with nut roast, sauce and plenty of roast vegetables. It's daunting for most of us, but also incredibly satisfying to pull it off and bask in the praise and appreciation of the diners afterwards, knowing that for the rest of the month it will be someone else's turn. As a vegan I'm better catered for than I could ever manage for myself, but even the meat eaters seem mostly content (having the option to cook what they choose in their own kitchens). The four times weekly meals are paid for with a 'magic hat' donation system and we are well in the black - whenever we have decided to trust rather than regulate, things seem to work out fine.
Groups sit around often for hours afterwards, talking about everything under the sun, the children building with lego or bouncing on the sofas with care of the little ones often rotating between several adults during the evening. It's one of my favourite features of cohousing and the Common House, that there is usually someone around to have a conversation with about the issue closest to my heart at that moment. I've learned so much, especially about the area that we'd never visited before we joined the community a couple of years ago.
As well as meetings the Common House has already hosted wine tasting, face painting, art and bird box building workshops, parties, Christmas lunch and a New Year's Eve revue. I call in several times a day, to collect post and freshly made soya milk from the fridge, to collect and return car club keys, to check the menu and events for the week, as well as to have a casual conversation with whoever happens to be around. It's been used as a kitchen and lounge for residents who haven't moved in yet or are having their kitchen built, great because it can feel a bit cavernous and empty if you're the only one there. There are books and most of my favourite magazines, left after they've been read by their original subscribers.
We have other communal rooms too: a laundry, food store, guest rooms, children's room, workshop, toilets and bike store. All of these allow our houses to be a bit smaller and scarce resources like tools and spare rooms to be shared. But it’s the Common House that brings us together. Does a common house have to be designed at the building stage, or could existing streets and communities create their own common house? Wouldn’t that be wonderful.
For more information go to http://www.lancastercohousing.org.uk/ There are still a few homes left for sale.
Pictures: full Common House, sorting the fire out, street outside the Common House, Band at New Year (all Kevin Frea)
Kevin Frea is member of Halton Co-housing Experience and has set up the Lancaster Community Car Club to enable co-housing residents to share rather than own cars. He is a director of Gloucester Community Energy Co-op, on the Steering group of Transition City Lancaster and has just set up the Community Energy Network to help co-ordinate the efforts of small, independent energy companies.