Cohousing combines common sense with green design.
In Melbourne’s north, construction has begun on an urban infill development with a big twist. Ecohousing Heidelberg includes not only 18 eco-designed homes, ranging from one to four bedrooms, but also an extra building with facilities for everyone to share.
Known as cohousing, it’s a type of a residential development where your home is one of about 15 to 30 clustered around a common house and open space. “It’s like returning to the positive aspects of a village or extended family neighbourhood,” says Iain Walker, from Cohousing Australia. “It can be done in urban high-rise, as well as suburban or rural locations.”
The individual dwellings are private and self-contained, not communal, but the residents pool some resources. The common house might include a shared guest room, kitchen, laundry and shed. Outside, there can be shared garden space or play areas.
“It considerably reduces your eco-footprint and the area of land you need, but you can still have quality design and amenity,” Mr Walker says. “And because you’re sharing more community spaces, you often build more affordably.”
The concept originated in Denmark in the 1970s and has become popular in Europe and North America. Mr Walker says that because of the environmental and resource limits facing our cities, it’s crucial we think about different kinds of housing.
There are also important social benefits. “It’s great for young families. You can know your neighbours and support each other with childcare. It’s also great for people to age-in-place for longer. Most cohousing neighbours eat together two or more times per week. Right now the fastest growing household size is single-person, and that isolation and alienation is bad for our health and wellbeing,” he says.
Ecohousing Heidelberg isn’t open to private buyers – it was established by Common Equity Housing Limited, a community housing association. It will offer rental housing for members of a cooperative (applicants must fall under certain income and asset levels).
Andrew Partos is a member of another Melbourne cohousing organisation, Urban Coup. The group, comprised of 30 individuals and families, is looking for land in the city’s inner-north. “We’ve got a diverse mix of people with a breadth of skills and experiences, and a range of ages from newborns to retirees,” he says.
The group has spent over a year gathering members and sorting through issues such as design, legal and financial models, incorporation, articles of association, decision-making and conflict resolution.
The Urban Coup has now reached the toughest stage: buying the property. Spiralling prices and financing delays have stymied other cohousing collectives at this point. But according to Mr Partos, his group has received strong encouragement from within councils and the housing profession. He’s optimistic that Urban Coup can blaze the way for other groups now springing up in the northern and eastern suburbs. “We’re a bit of a prototype,” he says.
Mr Partos works at the state property developer, VicUrban, and travelled to Europe and North America in 2007 to study cohousing projects. He says they typically have eco-footprints about 40 per cent lower than traditional developments.
“You can do things on a larger scale, such as combined blackwater and greywater treatment plants and shared hot water services. And there’s a whole flow on for sustainability, with the opportunity to share vehicles and use bicycles or other types of alternative transport.”