June 2020

June was busy!

The first draft of a generalised project chart was completed. The overall structure was laid out according to the five streams (Group, Site, Plan, Build, Live) described by Community Led Housing. The Group stream was further informed by Cohousing UK’s snake diagram. The Plan stream was further informed by the Royal Institute of British Architects’ (RIBA’s) Plan of Work. The Build stream was further informed by BuildIt’s Self-build planner. The Group, Site and Plan streams were also further informed by the practical experience we have gained as a project.

This draft needs to be refined, and then the generalised plan tailored to fit our particular needs.

We’ve had a look at a couple of sites, one between Wolverhampton and Dudley (unfortunately directly under a pylon and high voltage lines) and the other between Northfield and the Lickey Hills (unfortunately without planning permission). These two might not pan out, but the experience of looking at the sites will help to get our eye in. ;o)

We’ve had an offer of help from a planning graduate who is interested in Cohousing schemes. They’ll be looking at how well the councils in the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) are living up to their obligations under the Self-build and Custom Housebuilding Act 2015, and also helping us to craft a case to present to the WMCA, urging an initiative similar to that undertaken by Cherwell District Council at Graven Hill. This help is gratefully appreciated, and we wish them all the best in their subsequent career.

We had a social gathering over Zoom. Less than satisfactory, but it was nice to see people again.

One of us attended a seminar hosted by the National Self Build and Renovation Centre (NSBRC), which explored project management in the context of eco-friendly housing projects. The Greencore and Aereco contacts mentioned below came out of this seminar.

We’ve made initial contact with a couple of organisations, to gather ideas for forthcoming streams:

  • BuildStore, who provide mortgages for self-build projects, including larger projects such as ours (and ones that are even larger again).
  • Joint Contracts Tribunal, who provide standardised contracts for building projects of different types and sizes.
  • Greencore Construction, who supply Biond, pre-dried hempcrete Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs), a modern method of construction which allows buildings to be constructed in a lego fashion on site.
  • Aereco, who provide demand-controlled ventilation (DCV), which is another way to approach mechanical ventilation with heat recovery (MVHR). The two approaches do not appear to be mutually exclusive.

One of us attended two webinars hosted by units of the University of Wolverhampton. The first was put on by the Brownfield Research and Innovation Centre (BRIC), about being able to claim taxes back on moneys spent remediating brownfield sites. The second was put on by the Construction Futures Research Centre (CFRC) about the use of Virtual Reality in the construction industry. During this webinar we were pointed in the direction of FreeCAD as an aid to constructing a simplistic outline of possible buildings for the community, which could be used as input for rough estimates from construction technology companies, such as Briond and ModCell SIPs.

Learning from others

Written by Roland

It’s been a while now since this group formed and already the roots feel like there running far and deep into the process. Sometimes it seems overwhelming at how many different things we have to solve but I always feel better when I think about the underlying positive intention that waters those roots.

Recently we have been learning from other projects and finding out more about how they do things. This has been really inspiring and has answered a lot of questions for me that I have been thinking about. There are so many different ways of living out there waiting to be explored and maybe even lived.

Trying to meet everyones needs seems sometimes like an impossible task but I think that as long as it is generally working in the right direction we will learn how to adjust our needs and resources we may find to fit. So many interesting discussions occuring at our meetings and a real chance to explore what makes us tick and what we want in the future from this project.

Making the most of it – Community living in the Coronavirus pandemic

Written by Adam Ryan

As Lockdown measures begin to relax, there is a collective sigh of relief occurring throughout the nation. Many of my friends who live alone, in impersonal shared houses or even with families where there is an intense or uneasy interpersonal dynamic, are relishing the fact that some, albeit very limited, occasions for social contact are once again permitted. The degree to which this is evident is of course varied, in no cases uncomplicated and, of course, entirely dependent on the individual; most noticeably, and predictably, the introverts seem to be fairing much better than extroverts. No matter what your situation though, this time has brought about a set of challenges that are, if not universally unique, quite extraordinary and unheard of in their current intensity and configuration. As one of the members of this project currently living in a communal setting, I’ve found it interesting comparing my own situation and experiences to those reported to me by my friends, family and acquaintances who aren’t. It seems that while many of the same pressures exist within our household, their intensity is simply not as strong.

First then, some context…

Presently our household is made up of three families: one couple and an 18 month year old child and two single parents with one and two children respectively, ranging from ages 6 – 10, living with us part-time. The house itself is a four-and-a-half bedroom property (the extra half thanks to a nifty temporary-wall-based solution constructed in one of the larger rooms) in South Birmingham. Our living spaces, kitchen and bathrooms are entirely communal, as is the right to use the items held therein, along with our food supply and other essential household products. We share almost all our meals together as well as trying, and largely succeeding, to contribute as equally as possible to the labour required to maintain a functioning household.

Sharing so much of the day-to-day activities that make up life in such an intimate setting as a home with people not related by blood or romantic ties is, relatively speaking, unusual. Not many people in our current society choose to do it, particularly not to the extent that we have chosen to, and particularly not with children. And like any relationship, or intersecting web of relationships, it is complex and presents its own set of unique challenges, both practical and relational. There are however a number of key advantages that I have found to living in this way, advantages that are broadly positive in the usual swing of things, but that have become particularly important during these “strange” and “unprecedented” times (as this particular epoch has so often been labelled!).

Most significantly is the abundance of social contact, and more specifically at this moment in time, social contact unmediated by a screen. My personal difficulties in Lockdown have originated in the shifting and uncertain nature of the situation: working patterns changing every few weeks in response to government measures, new and unusual childcare requirements, processes and projects that were running prior to Lockdown interrupted or in some cases stopped altogether, cancelled travel plans, an inability to plan in the medium term and the bigger uncertainties hanging over us all in relation the inevitable economic fallout that will follow this phase of proceedings. The cumulative effect has been keenly felt in my state of mind and moods.

It has therefore been a huge relief to have a group of people around me to bolster me at the times when this has been at its most acute, to give me some perspective outside of myself and allow me to see that life is in fact continuing regardless of the unusual situation in which we find ourselves. The culture we have fostered here is one of openness, mutual support and sensitivity to each others needs and wants. All it can take is a kindly word over the breakfast table, or an offer of a walk or a bike ride and an otherwise bleak state-of-mind can be transformed into one of connectedness and positivity. Equally a gentle reminder, firm request or the infectious enthusiasm of someone else in relation to a hitherto unsavoury domestic task can prompt the desire, previously so hard to grasp, to stop procrastinating and just get on with whatever it is that needs getting on with! As much of a lifeline Zoom, Whatsapp and Facetime have been, such mediums just can’t convey the energy or provide the spontaneity required of such moments.

Even with that in mind, it can be all too easy to avoid contact when we don’t want it or don’t feel like it. With a relatively introverted temperament such as mine, it is tempting to simply retreat to my room and try to weather the storm in that way – often not the best strategy at the best of times, but particularly not when the availability of real human contact is so drastically reduced. But having made the commitment to share so much of our resources, space and time means that this is only possible to a certain degree. At some point during the day social interaction will happen whether I like it or not; regardless of if it is something I ‘want’ at that very moment, there is a bigger commitment that keeps me in connection at it’s most basic. And in these times where many, myself included, are experiencing decreased motivation, loneliness and apathy, that basic connection, fostered here in large part by the entity of the community to which we have all committed, is so precious, and a vital gateway to something even greater.

Despite so far focusing on mitigating the more challenging aspects of the Lockdown, it is in fact the more straightforwardly positive aspects our household connection that will be my enduring memory of it. With the exception of myself, everyone in the household has either been furloughed, is working from home or off school; I enjoyed three weeks off work, with three more of reduced working hours. As a result our physical presence in the house has been much greater and, thus, so have the chances of us spending time together. The instances of us engaging in shared activities has increased dramatically – trips to the allotment, walks in the woods, multiplayer video game sprees, introducing the unsurpassed genius of classic Simpsons episodes to a new generation, collective home-school sessions, trampoline extravaganzas, memorising ‘krimps’ a-la-Mighty Boosh and even hosting a 40th birthday party (along with talent show). That’s not to mention the effect of simply being more in touch with each others patterns, moods and habits and having the time and space to talk more, or, quite simply, just to be quiet and to exist without agenda in the proximity of one another. It isn’t since being a child that I have had such a sense of a ‘normal,’ grounded existence within my home environment, and with that, the conviction that the building I have chosen to reside in is just that: a home.

Our children have of course benefited from this situation just as much as us adults (which clearly, is of great benefit to us too!). For many children at present, socialising is limited to siblings and/or (for only child families) their parents. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – with reduced working and school commitments for many, and for those lucky enough to be blessed with a stable family structure, it offers an especial opportunity for fostering stability and nurturing connection with children that may not come again in our lifetime. It also comes with a high probability of boredom, tension and quarrels (at the very least). We certainly haven’t been immune to this, but having a number of different reference points in the form of other children, and to a lesser extent adults, to play with, combined with the wider net of support for us parents feeling the strain of a solely domestic existence, has really helped to make this a very enjoyable time for them.

Although not quite as warm and fuzzy as all the above advantages, it is also worth mentioning the practical up shots we have enjoyed. With food prices increasing significantly at points during the Lockdown, and financial uncertainty a reality for many, it has been a great privilege to be in a situation where we can find increased financial safety and security by pooling our resources. Equally with supermarkets restricting opening times, along with the number of customers admitted at any one time, and online deliveries hard to come by, having more than just one or two people who can do a run to the shop makes things much more manageable than they would otherwise be, removing the necessity of needing to find childcare (in doing so potentially breaking the terms of the government’s measures) or simply facing the irritation of long queues at inconvenient times of day. The effects of this obviously go beyond utility, reducing much of the potential stress and anxiety that comes with struggling to meet one’s basic needs.

One glaring disadvantage is of course our increased risk of infection. Closer living quarters combined with the ubiquitous risks posed by supermarket shopping (or indeed any time spent in public),children moving between the homes of separated parents and, in my case, exposure to a host of non-household members at work undeniably makes us particularly susceptible to catching the virus. Fortunately we are all of us in the low risk category; were that not so this situation would look somewhat different – the challenge of strictly isolating three families, or indeed individuals within a three family household, wouldn’t be an easy one to meet. But, touch wood, we’re all OK so far! It seems that in many ways co-housing would effectively solve this problem, providing individual dwellings that would allow for isolation where necessary along with a great many of the benefits listed above, if not of the same intensity.

With that being said, it is also, I feel, essential to acknowledge the degree of privilege, financial and otherwise, with which we are blessed; to be able to take this is as an ‘opportunity’ is not something that everyone can do. On the contrary this is a time of extraordinary hardship for many. In part we find ourselves in such favourable circumstances as a result of happen-stance, a series of fortunate life circumstances that have led us to this point where the same luck-of-the-draw has led others to a much more challenging scenario. Part of our vision in setting up this project however, is that we can (as many others have done and are currently doing in the various pre-existing co-housing projects in the UK and beyondoffer opportunities for others to reap some of the benefits that we are reaping, opening doors to a different way of living that is sustainable, affordable and that has community at its heart. And not just in relation to our specific project, but beyond it, by showing that it is within the reach of ordinary people. We have a long way to go before this goal can be realised, with much uncertainty to come, but surveying the landscape at this slightly surreal moment in time, I have a greater appreciation than I have ever had that what we are trying to achieve is of genuine value, with or without coronavirus.

May 2020

Work continues on strengthening the institutional foundations of the community. Documentation of the Chair and Secretary roles has been started. (Treasurer role was covered in documentation of our financial system.)

CoHoWM is currently producing a MS-Project-style project plan to include in our overall Business Plan. We had a chat with a group tasked with producing an updated version of the UK Cohousing Network’s (UKCN’s) famous snake diagram. They plan to fit it into Community Led Homes’ (CLH’s) five stages framework (Group, Site, Plan, Build, Live). (CLH host an absolutely amazing and very rich set of resources. Though I’ve suggested to them that they change the word “stage” to “stream”, because you don’t do all of Group before you start doing any Site, for example. But semantics aside, they are a truly fabulous resource.)

We came across the Thinking Environment framework for communications in general, and for getting the most out of Consensus Decision Making meetings in particular. Will be good to try to bed that into our process when we are able to meet up again.

One member attended a set of webinars on project management for self-builders, run by the good people at the National Self Build and Renovation Centre:

April 2020

In early April there was a meeting with the external project manager about putting together a business case. The advice was much appreciated.

Next, there were another couple of good meetings. One with Birmingham Social Housing Partnership, about finding a Registered Provider (of social housing) to help us fulfill the social rent part of our plan. The other with Birmingham Community Homes, also partly about that, but largely them “getting to know us” exercise, so they can find out how they can give us further help – e.g. directing us on to other useful contacts.

We created a “dating profile” to put before prospective Registered Provider partners, and sent it off to Birmingham Social Housing Partnership for their first perusal.

The financial documentation side of the project was completed, and a (mostly empty!) set of financial accounts for 2019 was created and distributed to the group. In terms of our financial systems, we’re now fully up and running.

Work continues on the business plan. Volunteering work with other projects is helpful in these regards.

One of the members attended a series of taster training sessions, put on by the National Self-Build and Renovation Centre:

March 2020

Well, as you can imagine, March has been somewhat disrupted. We weren’t planning a regular meeting anyway, but even our social afternoon in honour of the equinox was severely curtailed. Nevertheless there’s been lots of activity going on.

At the beginning of March, the Architecture working group had a set of meetings with representatives of the schools of architecture in the West Midlands – Birmingham City University, Coventry University, and the University of Wolverhampton.

We discussed how we might work with groups of students from those organisations: giving students a “real world” set of development parameters from a real set of people; and receiving some great design ideas and latest thinking on how we can achieve our goals. Very positive discussions in each case.

Wolverhampton also spoke about how their business spin-offs could help us, in terms of evaluating and remediating polluted sites, access to modern methods of construction, etc. We asked the Coventry contact to float the idea of a meeting between a group of self-builders and Andy Street, the WMCA (West Midlands Combined Authority) mayor, when he saw him in the succeeding days.

We had a Zoom social drop in on Sunday 22nd, which worked reasonably well. There’ll be more of these.

Work proceeded on strengthening the financial documentation side of the project.

February 2020

During our monthly meeting, we each filled in a questionnaire about our requirements and hopes for the kind of area where we’d like our site to be – e.g. closeness to facilities, etc. It’ll be good to get some detail on the strength of feeling about particular topics.

We decided to make working groups more formal and more visible. There’s probably more, but ones discussed in the meeting were: groups to gather site criteria; to work with architecture students; and to improve the workings of CoHoWM as a whole, in line with the results of the “state of the project” questionnaire.

Outside the meeting:

  • work began on laying down a sound foundation for financial record keeping.
  • we obtained Birmingham and Sandwell Council’s databases of sites available for development.
  • One member had an impromptu, positive exchange with a Sandwell counsellor.
  • Another visited an auction at which some properties owned by Birmingham City Council were sold. After a discussion with builders about the outcome of the lot they had been interested in, they concluded that this was not a cost-effective way of buying property.
  • A meeting to discuss ways of improving CoHoWM was held.
  • And probably a bunch of other stuff! ;o)

January 2020

Someone who works as a project manager has very kindly expressed an interest in helping us out on a voluntary basis.

During our monthly meeting we briefly discussed the results of our annual “state of the project” questionnaire. Further discussion for the future.

We confirmed names for the positions of Chair, Secretary and Treasurer, while re-affirming our committment to consensus decision making (CDM).

We also discussed the practicalities of transitioning from our own properties (where we own them) to our new digs. How, exactly, will this work financially and logistically?

A busy six months

Sorry it’s been so long since the last update. A whole lot has been happening:

  • We’ve had a number of social events – summer and winter solstice, a walk in the woods, and a housewarming party, among others.
  • We’ve attended a couple of industry events – one on modern methods of construction, and the Grand Designs event. It’s good to get our minds pre-loaded for when we come to working with designers, etc.
  • At one of those events, a representative from a local uni architecture department expressed interest in working with us to develop our ideas.
  • We opened a bank account, and received a grant from Homes England, via Community-Led Homes, to help us get incorporated.
  • We provided feedback on existing MHOS Rules (constitution) to the head of the Confederation of Co-operative Housing, who is writing up a standard set, ready to be “pulled off the shelf” and used.
  • We’ve clarified our ideas about membership.
  • We’ve contacted a refugee support group, to clarify how our offer of a free place to refugees might work.

We look forward to a happy and productive new year.