The rise of co-housing in Bristol

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Batten’s Lane development, Bristol (AEOB)

There’s some interesting stuff going on around housing in Bristol. It’s community based and creative, using volunteers as well as paid labour, to make things happen on a small scale, working with communities to provide the housing that is needed. It started from a discussion, where people imagined what could be done rather than worried about what wasn’t happening. It led to a group of people getting together to create change by developing an idea to bring investment of money and skills into the delivery of housing for those who can’t afford to access secure housing any other way. It led to the creation of the Abolish Empty Office Buildings (AEOB) group in Bristol. Their aim is as follows:

“AEOB has a mission ­ to challenge the pattern of office and commercial buildings standing empty while there is a need for housing, and to promote their use as an efficient alternative to building new homes. These new housing projects will provide secure, affordable housing to people who struggle to find adequate housing through the private and commercial property rental market. This is a chance to build a new social housing model in a country that houses its own people.” from the AEOB website.

The group formed in 2012 and issued their community share offer in 2013 to raise money so they could buy their first property. The aim was to find an empty office or commercial building that was no longer used or needed for its original purpose. Once the share offer reached around £230k the search began in earnest and a prospective residents group was formed, with the criteria to join being ‘anyone in housing need’. The point being to include a range of people which would enable the creation of a diverse and supportive community living as a cooperative.

In September 2014 the group began the process of securing their first property, a recently vacated commercial building in Batten’s Lane, St George in Bristol. It took a while, but almost a year later work has started on site and is now well underway. It involves conversion of the existing building and the addition of a 2-storey extension to create 6 flats, a common room and laundry area with communal gardens. A key part of the development process is the re-use and recycling of materials, and ensuring sustainable construction is very much central to the process. The aim is to have high energy efficient appliances and build, cutting energy use and saving tenants money, as well as re-using existing materials on site.

It seems there is an appetite for this type of co-housing in Bristol. It’s undoubtedly a fascinating concept and one that has the potential to be scaled up, to create opportunities for more people to engage and benefit. It’s a model that operates on a not-for-profit basis, where rental income will be used to pay off loans and support the next project. It’s a model that engages and involves potential residents as well as the local community. It’s also a model that seeks to provide truly affordable housing, to meet an ever increasing need.

It’s not a new concept, in fact co-housing is more frequently seen in other areas of Western Europe than it is in the UK. I visited a scheme a few years ago in Vauban, Freiburg, where more than 50 co-housing schemes have been implemented across the development. The scheme I visited was a block of flats, with tenants sharing basement space, laundry space, common room and some shared cooking spaces as well as gardens. I talked to the people living there and was shown round some of the building. It worked well as a community and was affordable to those living there. It brought people together who wanted to live in a supportive community, sharing child-minding, spending time with older residents, and working together on new projects and initiatives. That’s exactly the concept I got from talking to Elinor at AEOB, that idea of a supportive community, separate but also together. Something that perhaps we are less good at in England, but which is clearly attractive to some.

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At the moment we’re talking about one site in Bristol that is in the early stages of development. But it is at least a start and a pretty good one at that. The critical point from here will be to see how sustainable the model is, how it can be rolled out and if further properties can be identified and secured by the group.

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