Published 23/12/20   2:16PMby Helen Long

A cohousing taster

ChaCo Prospective Member Helen Long writes…

In preparation for Chaco, my family decided to join an established cohousing community and learn the ropes. Our adventure started three months ago. Here is a day in our life…

Before the school run, the big children gather at the bike shed to collect their scooters. Toddler, age 2, squashes their face and jammy hands onto the window to watch. When the big children acknowledge them, my toddler feels pretty cool. Mixing with children of different ages has been one of the best aspects of co-housing life, and something it’s harder to find elsewhere.

The bike shed is conveniently opposite our house. We are separated by a footpath, which we call The Street. There is no road, and no dangerous traffic. It is safe to let Toddler out to stare some more, with me standing by the door. After a squabble over putting coats on, Toddler rushes out, shouting the big children’s names. They are flattered Toddler learnt to pronounce these. Toddler trots up and down on their balance bike a bit, and comes inside when the others leave. There are other ride-on-toys lying around in the street, which anyone is welcome to share.

Seeing neighbours on a daily basis has given Toddler the opportunity to forge fewer, but stronger relationships than they had before we moved here. They didn’t learn their friend’s names before either. In our previous life, we saw people at the swings or library, but not often the same people. I’d supervise Toddler during weekly playgroups, then leave in a hurry for a wee/ meal/ nap, without the chance to chat.

When we first moved in, Toddler preferred to watch the big one’s rough play, and some of them weren’t so sure about letting little ones join in. In time, and with adult encouragement, Toddler has mostly become part of the gang. It has been great to have the time to see these friendships develop. We’ve learnt the value of being able to knock on parent’s doors, and get to know them, so as to share responsibilities as friends. We should make use of this opportunity which is enabled in cohousing.

Later in the day, we wander along to the sandpit and play house on the terrace which adjoins our shared garden. The community also has a playroom with: keyboards, a doll house, train set and cushions to be made into dens and jumping launch pads. There is a home corner in The Street, and another quiet home, reading, jigsaws and crafts area to the Common house.

We bump into a preschool play mate, and Toddler gets stuck in. In the past, I sometimes found it hard to arrange playdates, as the babies would sleep at unexpected times or get fed up on public transport. This took very little effort.
The other mother and I pull up chairs and hang around chatting while the children are occupied. It’s lovely for me too that we keep meeting the same people, and that they have been pleasant to us at least. I can ask the Mum to wait with the children while I pop to the laundry or shop; since these are both next-door it only takes a minute. I can easily bring Toddler to get a snack or go to the toilet without extensive planning or packing.

Toddler is covered in sand and water, so we make the very short journey home. We change into some of our many handed-down big child pants; another benefit of living here. We will spend a relaxed afternoon in the warmth of the passivhaus. Downstairs is one large room, so we can always see one another. There are windows on both sides, and always something to look at. Toddler enjoys the extra space compared to our old flat, and having toilets on both floors is handy in emergencies.

When darkness falls, the festive lights switch on. Toddler, Daddy and I go to view today’s daily advent calendar window. We bring our cups to sample whatever treats people have put outside their home. It’s exciting for Toddler to be out at night (about 5.30pm), and to see the stars and moon. They have become as comfortable with some of the adults as the children, and quickly put in a drink order. The events haven’t been to everyone’s taste, but it’s exciting for Daddy and me to have a (socially distanced) social life without the stress of getting home for bedtime.

Toddler is playing with a younger friend now, giving them motivation to show off their new walking skills. Then they teach the art of squeezing a grape so the seeds splatter up the wall. It is heartening and amusing to see Toddler being the bigger one, and a great opportunity for them to learn to live gently. We make an informal child care arrangement, before heading home. Toddler (complains until they eventually) falls fast asleep.

Read more about eco parenting and look out for forthcoming courses on Vegan Family Guide.

Children’s books with community living themes

Can you think of more? Suggest them in the comments…

  • I Live in a Hut – a day-in-the-life of a child in Sadhana Forest, Auroville
  • The Tales of Brambly Hedge – a mouse village beside a river with a store stump
  • Katie Morag series – life on an island where everyone knows each other
  • Anna Hibiscus series – child growing up with an extended family
  • King Otter – otter dresses up as a king and bosses hedgehogs and squirrels around, then realises it is better to be friends
  • Everybunny Dance – the unifying force of collective joy
  • Cyril and Pat – squirrel becomes friends with a rat, against the advice of other park animals
  • Errol’s Garden – child initiates a community roof garden

Published 1/2/19   4:38PMby Ali Phelps

A Short Walk and a Long Journey

Ali Phelps ponders on the pace of our progress.

It takes seven minutes to walk from my house to where I hope to live soon. We don’t need a five bedroomed house anymore, but we may need supportive neighbours as we get older.

We always wanted to stay in the same area with the same networks of friends and campaigners, easy access to the city centre and transport links, so creating co-housing with other enthusiasts seemed an obvious idea.

Our (long distance) daughter and son are very keen for this move too, as we will have to trim fifty years worth of stuff ourselves (saving them the trouble later) as well as give them peace of mind about us across the ocean. The guest rooms in the shared common house will be ready for their visits, as well as handy playmates, shared garden, and shared shed for making planes with Grandpa.

But it’s a long journey! We started dreaming this move in 2010 with a few inspired car-share friends. Since then we’ve:

  • looked at three other possible sites
  • floated the idea in the community at every opportunity
  • selected an architect, project manager and contractor
  • partnered with Unity Housing
  • visited lots of other co-housing projects, conferences, training sessions
  • learnt a lot about Leeds City Council and Government policies
  • found grants
  • launched a successful loanstock offer
  • attracted dozens of enquiries
  • grown in committed members
  • argued over designs, values, pets, food, music, cars, gardening, energy
  • worked hard at reaching consensus in meetings
  • been in the paper, on telly, and had a film made
  • discovered fourteen ways of communicating with each other
  • campaigned about road safety
  • admired the promising noticeboard announcing housing on ‘our’ site
  • enjoyed a couple of weekends away together, practising living closely
  • had three new babies, eight kids and one funeral
  • watched the first kids become teenagers
  • tried out so much amazing new food in shared meals together.

If we can move house in 2020, I will have travelled half a mile in ten years. And one mile in forty-eight years. Which is about one centimetre a day from our first basement flat to our dream new co-housing build.

I can’t wait!

Published 24/1/19   3:26PMby Bill Phelps

ChaCo's social impact


From time to time we’re asked what we expect ChaCo’s Social Impact to be. Quite rightly, it’s the sort of question that policy-makers and potential funders ask: they need to be sure they’re supporting projects that will make a positive contribution in the neighbourhood.

Who benefits?

Cohousing groups tend to be seen as people “doing it for themselves”, primarily interested in improving their own lives, rather than being driven by altruism – although motives and outcomes will obviously vary from group to group.

It’s true, of course, that there are many potential benefits for residents of cohousing schemes – otherwise why would we bother putting ourselves through the considerable stress and difficulty of trying to set them up? But when cohousers enjoy happy, mutually supportive, stable living arrangements, then these same conditions tend to leak out into the surrounding streets. When cohousing works well, there can be a steady stream of positive outcomes for the rest of the neighbourhood.

Missing the point?

But to gloss over the benefits for members is to ignore some of the most significant impacts of the project. In an area of high deprivation and where few people feel they have much say over decisions affecting their everyday lives, ChaCo offers Chapeltown residents a way to change things. A group of local people getting together to decide how they want to live, then negotiating with the Council, raising development finance, appointing architects, seeking out others to join them and building 29 new homes and a neighbourhood that they themselves have designed… now that is social impact.

Most cohousing groups in the UK are comparatively wealthy and well resourced, predominantly white and middle class – which goes a long way to explaining the popular perception. When we eventually move in, ChaCo will be the first cohousing scheme in a multicultural, low-income area like Chapeltown. As local residents from a range of backgrounds, incomes and life expectations, we’re empowering ourselves to “take control” of how we live. Extending the boundaries of community-led housing against the backdrop of a broken housing market is something we are understandably proud of. If we succeed – which we will – the impact will be massive, and not just in Chapeltown and Leeds.

Two thirds of ChaCo residents will be from Chapeltown, and our allocations policy ensures we reflect some of the diversity of the area with non-discriminatory minimum targets relating to ethnicity, age, gender, sexual orientation, income and (dis)ability. Some of us are on benefits, some are refugees and some have significant health issues – but between us we have the resources that have brought us to where we are today.

Wider impacts

Cohousing groups generally tend to produce positive outcomes in their neighbourhoods. These are well summarised by Oxford Cohousing:

  • Because cohousing groups put a priority on mutual support and internal management of problems, they greatly reduce the demand on external services, eg: social services, local authority support, and the social landlord.
  • Cohousing residents typically have the skills and motivation to contribute actively to organisations serving the wider locality, eg: local area partnerships, Transition Town groups etc.
  • Many of the services and facilities created by cohousing groups are available for use by the wider community.

ChaCo is no exception. Once we are up and running, specific and easily verifiable outcomes directly affecting the wider community are likely to include:

Regeneration of a difficult site

Working with our partners Unity Housing, we are transforming an awkward plot of derelict land into a new residential area with 63 new low-energy homes, shared gardens and landscaping and a new, safe footpath from Chapeltown through to the bus stop on Roundhay Road.

Leeds Community Energy

We are working with another local co-op to ensure we have a shared, low-carbon energy supply to the community from solar PV installed on all our south-facing roofs. ChaCo is providing LCE with it’s first opportunity for a PV installation, which will ensure they have an income stream with which to develop further projects and increase the take-up of renewable energy in the area.

Community food growing

Many of our members have experience in growing their own food and are inspired by projects such as Back to Front, Feed Leeds and Incredible Edible Todmorden. Although the food-growing area in our shared garden will be quite small, we’re keen to work with others in the area to establish pocket plots of food growing in the public realm around ChaCo. To this end, we’ve had productive discussions with enthusiastic contacts in Permaculture UK, Feel Good Factor, Chapeltown Health Centre, Bankside Primary School and the Leeds Islamic Centre.

Raised growing beds alongside the new public footpath will provide opportunities for informal community get-togethers, and all the health benefits associated with social interaction, gentle exercise and fresh veg. Some of our neighbours in the Unity Housing Association older people’s flats may have horticulture skills first acquired in the Caribbean that they can pass on to others, enriching the whole community.

Car sharing

ChaCo’s carpool will provide the possibility of occasional car use on a pay-per-use basis for any who choose to join – including those unable to afford their own car. We are limiting individual car ownership to just 8 of our 19 parking spaces. A communal car pool is a much more efficient use of resources, and pay-per-use provides a useful disincentive to use a car when cheaper and less carbon-intensive forms of transport are available. European research estimates that car club members typically reduce their total travel CO2 emissions by 40% to 50%.

This is no wishful thinking. Several ChaCo members set up our local car-sharing club 15 years ago and have relied on it ever since. It currently has three cars, sixteen drivers and we are now planning to expand it to accommodate the needs of ChaCo’s 33 households.

Chapeltown Repair Café

One of our members is a regular “fixer” at Leeds Repair Café, part of a global movement of volunteers aiming to reduce the amount of waste going to landfill by fixing broken items for free while passing on their repair skills to others.

We aim to host a Chapeltown Repair Café in our common house from time to time. It’s estimated that one repair can save an average of 24kg of CO2 emissions. Providing regular opportunities for neighbours to get together and have fun learning from each other probably has an even greater impact – albeit harder to measure.

Building our community muscles

Establishing a cohousing community requires a lot of determination and hard work from its members. The joining process tends to filter out those unable to cope with the demands of shared responsibility or the give and take of consensus decision-making. Groups that make it through the development phase strengthen their resilience and build up a wealth of useful practical and social skills along the way. So – by the time we move in, ChaCo is likely to be even better equipped to contribute to the well-being and cohesion of the community that most of us have already been part of for years.

However, predicting – or even measuring – the likely effects of ChaCo in the neighbourhood is problematic. We hope our cumulative social impact will be positive, but Chapeltown residents are understandably wary of new initiatives promising improvements for the area, when so many before have failed to deliver. We do have the advantage of being a home-grown initiative, but we’re more likely to be able to make a positive contribution if we start by getting to know our new neighbours rather than overselling our ability to make a difference.

Published 4/12/17   11:13PMby Emlyn Hagan

Becoming Full Members?

by Emlyn Hagan (& Chris Walker)

So, it’s been two months since the blog we wrote just days after being accepted as Prospective Members of Chaco and here we are just days away from submitting our application for full membership with the follow-up blog that we promised.

What an eventful two months it’s been: we’ve continued to meet new people; attended lots of social events; an aborted trip to a network event in Lancaster/visit to Lancaster co-housing; Chris (along with Christine, Ali and Mary) has visited a kitchen supplier; I attended our first members meeting and we had a wonderful (mostly wet) week touring the Outer Hebrides in our campervan (see picture above).

We’ve been working as a team throughout, Chris is away a lot but we’ve attended lots of socials, etc together and I attended one on my own in her absence which was a real challenge to my confidence/the anxiety I feel when meeting new people. Chris has been more active in task groups and has really enjoyed being part of the kitchen design group. I know that I’ve struggled at times, mainly due to the limitations caused by my mental health difficulties, I find high speed, multiple person email threads hard to follow, I also find it hard to commit to things during the week as my work is very demanding and often means all I’m capable of in the evening is chilling out. I know that effective/inclusive communication between members is one of the challenges faced by any group and for me our adoption of “Slack” as a tool could really help.

If our application is successful our next step will be to pay our deposit to secure our spot. Also on the horizon is Chris’ further involvement in some of the interior design decisions and we’ll hopefully be attending an 8 week course at Oblong with a group of Chaco folks covering: communication skills/active listening; working together as a team; managing conflicts and running successful meetings, starting in January.

All along our determination to apply for full membership, despite both having had little wobbles, has remained intact. My intention has been to try and not invest too much into Chaco emotionally and be the voice of reason when Chris’ excitement is building too much (be the boring one you might say). However, I was caught out last month during a brief conversation with Bill about the shared workshop and what it could contain and be used for. The excitement suddenly surge within me, oops. I travelled home from the Bill and Ali’s house full of ideas and new hobbies I was sure to take up once I had access to this new state of the art workshop. Good grief, where’s the voice of reason now?

Chris and I spent an afternoon a few weeks ago looking at finances again and came to the conclusion that assuming we could get a mortgage we would be in a position to commit to buying 80% of the property we wanted. The rest of the afternoon was spent scrutinising property plans and kitchen designs, cross referencing them to the site plan, to find a layout that worked for us. Now that felt exciting! The conclusion? We knew what we could afford and which units would work for us, we could now apply for full membership.

So here we are, the application is a work in progress and we’re back to selling ourselves.  Once our application is complete it’s in the hands of the full members, all of whose opinions and judgement we respect completely, which I guess is one of the reasons why we want to be part of the community. By the time the meeting that decides our fate takes place we’ll be on holiday in Gran Canaria so at least if things don’t go our way we can ease the pain with a cold beer in the sun.

As before we’ll write more as our journey continues…………

Emlyn & Chris


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.

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