Published 19/11/17   1:19PMby Chris Lee

ChaCo visit Lilac!

Last Saturday a few of us went on a tour of Lilac, the established cohousing community in West Leeds. Consensus from the trip seems to be that seeing an established cohousing is a good way to settle some of the doubts that can arise while being introduced to the concept.

As we were led around the common house, the site, one of the homes, the allotments and the green spaces, I jotted down notes. This post is a collage of things that stood out about cohousing.

Cohousing is compromise, compromise, compromise.

“Everything is idealism at first”, Laura told us at the start of the tour. “But then you have to go to reality”.

Cohousing brings people together from different backgrounds and ways of life, all with their own thoughts on how things should be done. Current ChaCo discussions capture this well: about kitchen fittings, green walls, common house design, energy systems and so on.

Whittling the idealistic visions of different members into realistic workable plans, agreed on by everyone, is no mean feat. But Lilac shows that it can be done, and that the results are beautiful.

Cohousing is cooperation.

It’s in the name so this one is fairly obvious, but the implications may not be.

Residents of Lilac are responsible for accounts, conveyancing, facilitating and many other tasks that could be outsourced externally. Pooling existing members’ skills bolsters the sense of community, and discussion among residents ensures that responsibilities are allocated fairly and that everyone is contributing according to their strengths.

Laura said that if they did decide to pay for external help with anything, she’d vote to get a cleaner.

Cohousing is always a work in progress.

The red fence surrounding Lilac had to stay as part of securing planning permission because it was an iconic part of the school that previously occupied the site.

“The red fence is a nice touch”, I said to Laura. She pointed out the section where the new vibrant red is next to the faded original: “it would be better if we finished painting it! Four years and we’ve only got that far”.

As well as finishing the fence, a gardening rota shows which jobs need doing all year round and a maintenance group meet regularly to ensure things keep working smoothly. Other non-urgent tasks exist too: empty space on the site is there to be filled with projects agreed on by residents, like the hot tub and sauna that were built recently.

In short, work is needed and expected of cohousing residents but the result is a dynamic and organic living space that reflects the combined interests and skills of the people who helped to build it.

Cohousing reminds you that you are always a work in progress, too.

After telling us about the near-constant compromise, Laura told us that as a cohousing resident “you realise the world doesn’t revolve around your views which, as I was getting older, was getting more ingrained”.

It is a lifestyle that leads to lessons about yourself, other residents, and life in general. My favourite lesson mentioned? “Learning that we have to talk to each other a lot more for it to run smoothly”.

Cohousing challenges assumptions.

Everything from the lifestyle itself, to the tendency to adopt building materials or technologies that may be less familiar than those in traditional housing challenges assumptions. It is easy to imagine Lilac’s straw-bale walls as delicate and fragile, for example. But despite what you read in the Three Little Pigs, straw is sturdy and resilient to being huffed and puffed and blown down.

When telling people about potentially moving into ChaCo I often get comments to the effect of “so you’re moving into a commune?”. It’s fun challenging these assumptions and explaining the concept and benefits.

It’s more fun to imagine personal assumptions that will be challenged as residents, prospective or otherwise.

Published 19/10/17   3:58PMby Chris Lee

Happiness and washing up

By Chris Lee – another of our new Prospective Members

In documentaries, lights are shone on lives and lifestyles that are unusual and intriguing – and removed from the norms that define viewers’ lives. ‘Happy’ is a documentary showcasing lives defined by their happiness and the lifestyle decisions that led there. It features cohousing amongst various other positive and inpsiring things, and it was a lifestyle that made sense immediately.

If I’m being candid, the reason it appealed immediately was the prospect of having to do less washing up. In the cohousing project they visited, meals were eaten in a common area with a rota for cooking and cleaning – I think each family had to cook and wash up once a fortnight.

But investigating further revealed many other benefits, and ones not motivated by laziness: a focus on community and socialising leads to a rich social life. A focus on security and shared vigilance protects both the property and other residents’ well-being. A built-in support network means there is always someone to lend an ear or a hand when you need it, or lend a bit of milk when you run out.

On a small scale these things make for an appealing place to live, but on a larger scale they point to the potential of cohousing to work toward alleviating serious social issues like isolation and loneliness, and the numerous problems that arise from such things.

What an exciting thing to be involved with.

Documentaries also give a sense of otherness, and after watching Happy I remember thinking how nice it would be if cohousing could work in the UK, then assuming it probably couldn’t for various reasons and thinking no more about it. But when Bill showed me Lilac and told me about the various other projects happening in Yorkshire, those reasons no longer stood up to scrutiny.

Seeing the ChaCo journey, the amount of work it has involved, and the underlying belief that a positive and inspiring way of life can exist in the UK has been a pleasure. The possibility of living there (assuming I haven’t missed the boat) and to contribute toward its continued existence will be a privilege.

And don’t worry – I no longer have an aversion to washing up 😉

Published 3/10/17   2:13PMby Emlyn Hagan

Becoming Prospective ChaCo Members

by Emlyn Hagan (& Chris Walker)

A couple of weeks ago we became prospective members of Chaco, it’s been a bit of a whirlwind really so we felt now was the time to reflect and write a blog. Chris has lived in Chapeltown for the past 15 years within walking distance of the site, I live in Kirkstall in a flat I’m renovating to sell prior to moving in with Chris.

We’ve both been aware of Chaco for many years, having encountered members running information stalls at various local events but we’d never really seriously considered membership for some reason. We both have friends who live at Lilac and lots of things about the project really appealed when we first visited those freshly installed friends in their new homes in 2013, it felt like a real community. Recently we’ve been planning for the future, talking about what we might do when I sell my flat, etc. Then, out of the blue I noticed a Facebook post from Maeve (now our buddy), a shared friend of mine and Chris’, talking about an upcoming Chaco social the following week at the flat she shares with her partner Nikoli and their baby. We decided to attend and suddenly Chaco was in the forefront of our minds.

We spent the next week checking out the website, looking at plans, discussing finances and coming up with a list of questions. We watched the video on the website and were very taken by Maureen’s enthusiasm, passion and grin. I was pretty nervous about attending the social, Chris tends to be calmer than me but it was great, everyone was lovely, we chatted to folks, Chris caught up with an old work friend (who also lives one street away), I got to wax lyrical about our campervan adventures, I got a cuddle from baby and most of the questions we had were answered. Job done.

On the walk home we decided that we should apply to become prospective members. We let Maeve know straight away and she sent us the forms, she also put me in touch with Bill so we could have a chat about the self build plots. This turned out to be a bit of a blind alley in some ways because we realised that the thing we wanted most was to be active members of the community. Within 24 hours we’d visited the site, spending a good half an hour clambering through undergrowth, peering over walls and through gaps in fences trying to get our bearings, we liked what we saw.

Chris took charge of our application form and did a brilliant job. We’d discussed what we had to offer the community (including a Canadian canoe and a tandem), our skills, experiences and interests. Next we waited……………………. Not too long though as Maeve contacted Chris a few days later to say that we’d been accepted at the previous night’s meeting. Woohoo! At the following social people were really complimentary about our application which was kind of them.

We’re working hard at keeping our feet on the ground, not getting too excited (one of us is doing a better job of this than the other), boringly, I’m acting as the voice of reason. But we are excited, it feels like a potential future is forming before our very eyes, we just need to keep meeting other members and prospective members, attend events and get involved in the community. We continue to meet lovely people at socials, all of whom we clearly have more than a little bit of common ground with, you could describe them as people we’d happy have as neighbours. We even met Maureen a couple of weeks ago, the star of the video and she’s probably even more enthusiastic in person!

We’ll write more as our journey continues

Emlyn & Chris

Published 16/5/16   12:15PMby Bill Phelps

Radical Routes weekend


I’ve just spent the last three days in a field 6 miles south of Shrewsbury. This was my first experience of a Radical Routes Gathering – maybe the first of many, but next time I’m definitely taking a sleeping bag rated higher than “two seasons”. The days were warm and sunny (I’ve got a sunburnt nose), but there was a frost on the tents at night.

Radical Routes is a secondary cooperative – ie: a cooperative whose members are housing co-ops (like ChaCo) or workers’ co-ops (like the Footprint printing co-op based at Cornerstone in Sholebroke Avenue). It’s got a strong commitment to positive social change – and requires a similar commitment from its members. The main reason I went was to investigate the possibility of accessing one of their Rootstock loans that full members can apply for. However, it soon became apparent that they were offering a lot more than mere money. There was a wealth of experience and expertise on tap, and probably the main value for ChaCo would be the mutual support network and number of organisations who could help us avoid reinventing legal, financial and structural wheels, because they’ve already “been there and tried that”.

Although a lot more grass-rootsy feeling than the Confederation of Cooperative Housing (which we’ve also joined, for similar reasons), I was impressed how well the various meetings were run, and their attention to the boring basics like agendas, minutes and agreed procedures seemed to allow genuine (if sometimes slow) progress towards their goals. There were plenty of people with strong (and occasionally conflicting) views, but everyone seemed to trust that consensus decision-making would get there in the end, and all the discussions I witnessed were business-like and good-natured. I also attended a facilitation training session and learnt a lot about how our own Members’ meetings could be run in a more equitable and effective manner.

Altogether, a very positive experience. Whether or not we can get our own act together enough to be able to meet their rather demanding entrance criteria remains to be seen. And we may decide that our limited capacity means that we have to invest our energies on more immediate needs. However, Despina – one of our Would-be Prospective Members and who travelled down with me – is offering to do a lot of the work if we do decide to apply, and she already has a lot of RR experience from when she was a member of the Xanadu housing co-op in Woodhouse.

Published 21/8/15   3:38PMby Bill Phelps

Great expectations?

Guest blog by Bill Phelps

We’ve reached a stage in our journey now where we’re about to embark on a £2-3 million housing development. We’re very aware that we’re just a bunch of (rather determined) amateurs, albeit with an impressive team of professional advisers in the background. It’s daunting to consider the scale of what we’re taking on – and how little relevant experience the ChaCo members have in steering a project like this.

It’s also an interesting point to recall that bit of cohousing lore that says that building the houses is easier than building the community.

One of the topics that crops up time and again in accounts of cohousing failure is that of unrealistic expectations. Life in a cohousing community has a lot to commend it (of course) – but it’s not going to be much fun for people who assume they’re always going to get their own way. One group in the US tells newcomers: “We’ll try to give you 90% of what you want.” – a healthy reminder that consensus decision making involves give and take on all sides, and a lot of searching for solutions that everyone can live with.

Another, rather sad, story tells of a new family moving into a cohousing community. In order to make them feel welcome, their new neighbours cooked a meal and left it on the kitchen table, ready for when they arrived. The effect on the newcomers was to undermine their sense of privacy and security, knowing that others had access to their house and might let themselves in at any time without warning. Often, we assume that others have – or should have – the same set of values that we ourselves hold, and it comes as a shock when we realise that people we’re cohousing with have different views and habits.

What this means, I suppose, is that as well as the laughs and excitement, there are going to be plenty of disagreements and misunderstandings before we eventually move into our new homes, and – crucially – afterwards, too. But most of the people I’ve talked to who are currently living in cohousing would say that any tears and disappointments are more than outweighed by the benefits and fun of living alongside neighbours who are committed to watching out for them and sharing time and resources with them.

Will cohousing make me happier? It’s possible. Will I regret investing the time, energy and pain to make it happen? I don’t think so.

Welcome to the Chaco Blog

Apart from the occasional guest blog, all the thoughts and ideas expressed here are probably things I’ve pinched, learnt or heard from other people but I’ll own them and be responsible for any errors.

It’s hard to know where to start blogging from. We haven’t got to our cohousing dream yet but perhaps the interesting story is how we get there rather than our arrival.

At the moment I live with my family in what was the smallest Housing Cooperative in the country. Until recently we had just one house and the legal minimum of 3 adult members. The Housing Cooperative is not Chaco but provides a useful legal entity as we make progress toward cohousing.

That means I’ll blog about the Housing Coop and Chaco interchangeably and hopefully our journey to a new cohousing development in Chapeltown will involve an equally smooth transition.

Peter Richardson