Lilac co-housing: How they did it
Co-housing developments are built around community and sustainability but can they also be affordable? Susan Downer visits Lilac in Leeds to find out.
The housing sector has a reputation for many things, but rarely is it lauded for its principles. Lilac, in Leeds, is an exception.
To describe the 20 properties comprising Lilac as a housing initiative is to do it a disservice. Home to 35 adults and 10 children it is equally rooted in three core values: affordability, sustainability and community.
Lilac stands for Low Impact Living Affordable Community and the values implicit in its name permeate everything from the straw bale walls of its houses to its solar and photovoltaic panels, communal house, public park, children’s play area and allotment gardens. Everything that can be shared is shared, including tools, cars, washing machines and twice weekly communal meals.
The land and flat-roofed buildings are owned by the company itself which is a type of co-operative known as a mutual home ownership society (MHOS). The company sells shares to members when they move in (the number of shares equates to the size of their property and a proportion of the common house) and buys them back when they move out. This means no one can sell their house on the open market for a big profit and the homes will remain affordable for future generations.
Home to 35 adults and 10 children Lilac is equally rooted
in three core values: affordability, sustainability and community.
Standing at the edge of a small pond surrounded by flowers, with volunteers putting the finishing touches onto a dipping platform for children, it is incredible to think that all this is the work of a handful of people who came together in 2007 to create something beyond traditional home ownership or renting.
Fran Lee, a resident and founder member, says the group had no special skills, friends in high places or deep pockets. ‘You just keep going and learn from who you can.’
Fran, then a semi-retired teacher living on a narrowboat, was charged with finding out how to acquire land on a shoestring. Initially, they asked Leeds Council to gift them some land. The council refused.
Sitting in her bright, spacious first floor flat Fran recalls going to auctions to see how people went about buying land. ‘Even the thought of putting my hand up and saying I’ll pay a million, even a few hundred thousand for a piece of land was ahhh!’ But after going to the meetings for a few months she learnt that plots of land belonging to Leeds Council were always included in the auction.
In 2008, as the nation’s economy began to collapse, the group again approached the council and asked to be given the heads-up on land before it went to auction; this time they said yes.
‘We set the criteria we wanted: to be near houses, schools, transport, in a nice position if possible. We wanted to build beautiful properties in the city that everybody could afford.’
Getting the planners on board
The council introduced them to a plot of land on the site of an old school in Kirkstall. In many ways it was perfect: it was part of an existing community, had good public transport links, the major infrastructure was in place and it wasn’t far from the city centre. The downside was that they’d have to pay the full market value and build 30 homes and a public park. The park was no problem but 30 homes was far more than the group had planned. ‘Twenty was quite enough excitement or nightmare,’ adds Fran.
Fate came to their rescue when the council realised there was a main sewer beneath the site. The law stipulates that such infrastructure requires a 10 metre easement on either side. That meant fewer houses and more green space. As a result there are 25 allotment gardens for Lilac residents and another 5 for other local people. In addition to the communal green space, every house has either a small back garden or a balcony. The council agreed to let them pay in instalments.
‘We knew we wanted to build with straw and wood but we weren’t quite sure what form that would take. We did quite a lot of work with a company based in Todmorden called Amazon Nails and then in January/February 2010 we found out that the Homes and Communities Agency had grants available for sustainable building development. They were especially interested in us because of the affordability aspect.’
‘Lilac has proved that living according to your principles
is possible, even without specialist skills and a shed load of cash’
The HCA gave Lilac a grant of £420k (£20k for each home and £20k for the communal house) and told them about Modcell, an eco-housing company based in Bristol which built with straw bales enclosed within prefabricated panels. They offered advice and accompanied Lilac to an early meeting with the council’s planning department. ‘It took a bit for the planners to get the idea, but once they got it they were fabulous,’ adds Fran.
Lilac then embarked on a huge publicity drive. Posters went up in libraries, shops, community centres; members of the group went to conferences and spoke about the idea in an effort to get every unit sold before the planning permission came through.
Everyone worked alongside the Modcell architect on the design. Lilac secured a huge mortgage from Triodos bank and, finally, the plan started to come together, with a few compromises.
There is no geothermal heating (as straw is so insulating), no wind turbines (too noisy), no roof gardens (too expensive), no compost toilets, and no benefit claimants.
‘We had big ideas for wanting it to be affordable. We hoped that we could accommodate a greater range of incomes than we have, maybe people on benefits and low incomes. That wasn’t possible,’ says Fran, ‘but when we have paid off the mortgage there might be more options.’
As it is, Lilac is inhabited by teachers and former teachers, medical professionals, people involved in permaculture and self employed professionals. Residents range in age from 80 to 4 months.
The Lilac model was always intended to be replicable. There is a good exchange of knowledge and Lilac has strong links with the co-operative movement. Countries such as Germany and Denmark do it on a much bigger scale as a matter of course. There has been serious interest from groups in Leeds, Sheffield and Bradford, though none, at this stage, appear especially committed to the idea of affordability.
Lilac has proved that living according to your principles is possible, even without specialist skills and a shed load of cash; even amidst the wreckage of financial collapse and people who don’t quite get what you are trying to achieve. There is no question in Fran’s mind that it is replicable with the one skill the group had in abundance. The ability to dodge the proverbial slings and arrows, and just keep going.
- This article was first published on New Start in October 2014