London’s first ‘co-housing’ project is a triumph

Six families took the plunge and built their houses together. The result is Copper Lane...
You have to take your hat off to Copper Lane, London’s first co-housing project. Why London has waited so long to do this is anybody’s guess; but now that a group of six brave Londoners have taken the plunge, perhaps others will follow.
 
Six beautifully thought out, light-filled houses cluster round a shared hall, workshop, laundry and several courtyards. Simultaneously medieval and modern, it is a new hamlet on a small Hackney plot. The houses are all made of pearly bricks and heat-treated cladding that’s already silvering into its setting.

Cressida Hubbard joined the group almost by accident, but her joining made the project happen. In her late forties and the director of Artangel, which commissions modern arts projects, Hubbard had divorced, and had to sell the family home that she shared with her husband and two children, Madeleine, now 22, and Will, 18.

GALLERY: THE 'CO-HOUSING' HOME
 
 
In 2009 she was renting a small, new-build flat in Islington and had been looking for a three-bedroom house in the area for months. But nothing right was affordable. One day she joked to an architect friend, Jack Woolley, that he was just going to have to build her something. “And he said, ‘funnily enough, I know five people doing the same thing, but who can’t afford to do it’.”
 
Woolley’s five people had found a plot of land they wanted to buy, but to afford it they needed another member.
 
The land was an overgrown 1,000sq m backland plot that belonged to an Egyptian church, with a derelict nursery school on it.
 
Of the five, two were trained architects, one an artist. Three of them had built a house together before. Before she knew it she had joined the group, and they bought the land in 2009.
 
The group drew up a long list of architects, and interviewed six. The architects they finally chose, Henley Halebrown Rorrison, really focused on the balance between privacy and communality, and how the whole development would look, and work.

As you’d expect, getting six people to agree on the design of a house was a slow process. The architects were clear that all the houses would share the same palette; they weren’t designing six totally different ones — although each would have its own configuration. It took until 2010 to have a first design to take to the planners, but the planners rejected it. So it was back to the drawing board.
 


The final design gave each house a semi-sunk basement, which lowered the roofline. The homes (some three-storey and some two) were clustered round the communal hall. Each has two doors: one into the hall, one on to the courtyard that is the roof of the hall.

Each, with its brick or timber cladding, has timber-framed windows. One has a balcony, others just give on to one of the several shared courtyards, or grass or brick walkways. Windows look in oblique directions, minimising direct overlooking between the houses.

Even so, surrounded by so many existing neighbours, there were objections, and the group had to win an appeal. Next, details had to be thrashed out; costs had to be reduced and, finally, having gone out to tender, building began at the end of 2012.
 
The site is reached by a path so narrow that only a small crane could get down it. Work took until summer 2014. “There are economies of scale in building six houses instead of one,” explains Hubbard.
 
“We all have the same materials. We all have the same white-washed pine inside, and plastered walls, the same kitchens and bathrooms. The architects would bring things like knobs and handles to meetings. If you opted out you would have to sort it out yourself. One couple did arrange their own kitchen and bathroom.”

Hubbard’s own house has windows on all four sides and is very light and warm. She chose the corner of the plot that she wanted, and insisted the kitchen and living space went at the top, and asked for a window bench on one turn of the stairs.
 
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Aesthetic: all the houses comprise brick or timber cladding
 
Everywhere in these remarkable houses there are surprises and different rhythms, yet it fits together. There isn’t a dud view anywhere you look. And Hubbard loves living like this.
 
“It’s a nice mix,” she says. “You don’t have to be communal if you don’t want to, but by the time you’ve been through a process like this, you get to know people very well. My only regret is that I didn’t do it earlier. It would have been lovely to have come here 10 years ago, when the children were younger.”
 
WHAT IS CO-HOUSING?
A group gets together, buys a plot of land, and builds housing in which some communal parts are shared. It took off in Denmark in the Sixties. It happens across Europe and also in America, where land is cheaper; but there’s little here so far.
 
FINDING THE MONEY
Financing a project of this sort isn’t easy in the UK, even if you manage to find and buy a plot. Though it is possible to get a self-build mortgage, you can’t draw down on it till the build is watertight. That means about a year of self-financing, which effectively excludes many young people.
 
Few lenders are prepared to lend to this type of project. Those who may consider it include Triodos Bank, and the Ecology Building Society. Although she won’t reveal what she spent, Hubbard reckons it cost 80 per cent of the cost of a similar-sized house in the area.
 
The UK Co-housing Network has more info on funding at www.cohousing.org.uk
 
THE FACTS
This small, 1,000 square metre plot once belonged to a church and would have cost about £900,000 in 2008. 
  • Cost of build: £1.8 million excluding architects’ fees, which could add an additional £216,000 (12 per cent)
  • Estimated value of houses now: £1,161,800 each, according to Mouseprice.com
 
GET THE LOOK
  • The architect: Henley Halebrown Rorrison at www.hhbr.co.uk
  • The contractor: Sandwood Construction at www.sandwood.co.uk
  • The timber cladding: Thermo Wood from www.metsawood.com/uk and other suppliers
  • Terca pearl grey bricks from stockists such as www.wienerberger.co.uk
  • Douglas Fir engineered floorboards from Reeve Wood at www.reevewood.com
  • All interior wood treated with Osmo white oil from www.osmouk.com
  • Work surfaces: Richlite black recycled paper from www.richlite.com

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