Henley Halebrown Rorrison Architects (HHbR) has completed “1-6 Copper Lane”, London’s first co-housing development. Located in Stoke Newington, in North London, the project consists of six homes and shows how architecture can respond to a new social need that has arisen through changes in both lifestyles and economics. City dwellers, especially in London, are looking at alternative forms and arrangements of housing to make home ownership more affordable as well as shaping more convivial and sustainable neighbourhoods.
About the 1-6 Copper Lane Project coming together The development group for the Copper Lane project came together by chance in 2008 after two of its members found a rare opportunity to purchase a disused 1,000 square metre backland site within their local residential area. They asked others to join them to co-create their vision of building a new way of living. In September 2009, a limited company was formed to buy the land at 15a Springdale Road. This was purchased outright using existing funds, and the later development was partly funded through a mortgage from the Ecology Building Society. All members of the Copper Lane Group are “directors” of the company, which owns the freehold and the common parts of the development. Individual households will own the leaseholds on each unit within the development.
The site was purchased from the Ethiopian Christian Fellowship Church without planning permission. The next step was to select architects who could realise the group’s vision, and preferably a local practice. The group appointed HHbR through a competitive interview organised by the group with advice from Richard Coleman’s Consultancy CityDesigner. Together with their architects, the Copper Lane Group formed a brief around a sustainable approach to construction and energy use and land management. Key elements of the design were the maximising of shared resources including laundry facilities, a communal hall and gardens. Planning permission for finalised scheme at 1-6 Copper Lane took five months and was granted in March 2012. From the outset, the Copper Lane Group agreed to pursue a consensus-led decision-making procedure in all aspects of the development from design concepts to the completion of the building on-site.
The group describes itself as coming from a variety of cultural and professional backgrounds, from designer to artist to psychotherapist. The members shared a set of design principles for the project above and beyond basic objectives of co-housing, and a wish to work in a democratic and considerate way. There are currently seven adults and six children in the group.
Cressida Hubbard of Copper Lane co-housing sums up the group’s intentions:
“We were looking for a way to retain our own self-contained living spaces, combined with a number of indoor and outdoor spaces which would encourage different forms of interaction – sharing a meal, planting a vegetable patch, a chat over the washing machines, book sharing through a communal library, a shared workspace, a ping-pong table, a community dog, a place to bump into each other and exchange a few words before the end of the day.”
In terms of the impact of the development in Stoke Newington, Simon Bayly of the Copper Lane Group observes, “On a purely pragmatic level, we are returning a derelict site to use in a way that’s hopefully appropriate to the local situation. The project would not have been commercially viable at the scale we are doing it for a developer because he or she would expect to make a sizeable profit on what is a risk-laden and time-consuming activity: buying land without planning permission; taking a minimum of three years from start to finish; many unknowns along the way. That is why a developer would want a significantly denser level of housing, to create more individual units as is clearly evident from most speculative new build projects in cities. It’s viable for us because we aren’t looking for profit and building new in London is cheaper than buying a ‘second hand’ house.”
About the 1-6 Copper Lane Design
The design strategy has been to maximise external space and to develop a building type that manifests the idea of “communality”. The resulting “cluster” model places a court at the heart of the site beneath which the communal facilities are located and, around which the six houses are laid out. However, the main outlook of the houses is outwards into the gardens, rather than facing inwards around the court. The scheme allows for a continuous perimeter of communal gardens which offer varied growing conditions and atmospheres. The gardens should provide an excellent habitat for local flora and fauna. As a result, there is a strong feeling of the project being intrinsically linked to its land. Both the plot that surrounds the perimeter of the project and the inner court emphasise this bond to the site.
The four 3-storey houses are clad in untreated vertical timber boards, the two 2-storey houses in brick. “Landscape” timber framed windows allow oblique views within the site. The timber elevations to the court will use wider boards and planted battens. This, more rudimentary, detail will caste strong shadows and be more tactile than the smoother outward elevations.
The philosophy is to reduce the household’s collective impact on the environment in the construction of their homes as well as in their daily lives. The performance of the building fabric - insulation, air tightness, and heat recovery ventilation - plays a vital role with low-cost and proven technology. The only renewables are solar thermal panels. The embodied energy of construction has been considered in every respect: recycling waste material from the demolition; timber superstructure; timber cladding; timber fenestration and partial green roofs. The houses share a palette of simple, robust, contemporary materials. Each house has been designed to have a generous provision of natural light whilst ensuring as far as possible that homes do not overlook one another. In fact, the subtle integration of design measures to ensure an agreed level of privacy has been essential to HHbR’s approach in interpreting their client’s needs. Yet, compared to typical terraced houses where the public sphere ends at the front door, it is clear on entering 1-6 Copper Lane that, although defined, boundaries between public and private space have been extended beyond the norm.
It is evident that HHbR have sought an architectural manifestation of communality in their design of 1-6 Copper Lane and created an ideal way of shared living. As Ken Rorrison of HHbR observes: “This project is not about creating ideal bespoke houses for six individual clients, but making a collective whole that is bigger than the sum of its parts. Generally, the houses are all made from the same agreed components. Their variation is derived in response to their differing location in relation to their immediate and surrounding neighbours.”
From a housing crisis perspective, Simon Henley describes how the figures are in favour of more co-housing:
“We are interested in how building typologies can evolve to accommodate changing attitudes and behaviour. The need for new housing that is affordable in this country is at a critical stage. We need to rethink how people can make the most of their homes. As designers, architects can have a fundamental role in creating accommodation that responds to new ways of life. In major cities, like London, financial pressures affect how people think about space but recent phenomena like working from home and the need to reconnect communities have created a call for new housing types. We are very pleased that the 1-6 Copper Lane project gave us an opportunity to think about what housing can be whilst reflecting on these and many other issues like the desire for sustainable living.”
On Co-housing London’s population is set to rise by a million in the next decade. The 2011 census recorded 8 million people living in 3.27 million households – an average of 2.5 people per household. Therefore, in the next decade one million people will need 400,000 new homes. A spare room adds 20 per cent more space to a 1 or 2-bed home. But, if we build 1 & 2-bed “co-homes” with spare bedrooms provided within the “common house” instead of conventional 2 & 3-beds there is the potential to build 20-25% more homes on the same amount of land for the same amount of money.
Co-housing is about people coming together to build new homes because they can do things collectively that they couldn’t do individually. This ranges from simply having the chance to have some long-term security in an affordable home, to sharing activities such as childcare, preparing & eating meals, and gardening and therefore sharing things/ spaces, such as laundry facilities, library, office space or gardens, that make much more sense to do jointly, especially in urban settings. Co-housing communities in the UK range from half a dozen to up to 40 households: big enough to make shared space viable, small enough for residents to know and trust each other. Some communities have a shared demographic, e.g. co-housing for the elderly, and others are mixed. Increasingly, communities are working in partnership with other agencies or are using both financial and legal structures to enable them to offer a range of tenure types including rental options.
Interest in co-housing is on the increase as property prices rocket and Londoners, in particular, are looking for ways to own homes at a more reasonable cost. The alienating effects of modern urban life with neighbours not acknowledging or even recognising one another is also encouraging urban dwellers to consider a more communal approach to city living. For families, co-housing can be an attractive option with opportunities for secure play-space and play-mates around the corner. Older people, too, can find companionship and mutual support in such communities.