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Co-housing concept comes of age

By Lynne Blundell

urban-coup-2

Urban Coup is now 30-strong - the figure of 30 was reached by talking to other co-housing organisations – the consensus was that any fewer makes it difficult to benefit from economies of scale and any more becomes unmanageable

29 July 2010 – The Melbourne co-housing group, Urban Coup, is getting closer to making its dream a reality – that is, creating a community where resources, ideas and skills are shared on a daily basis. There is a strong sense in the group that the concept has finally come of age.

Last year The Fifth Estate reported on the then group of 11 that was going beyond green building and design to embrace true community living with other similar-minded people. Many worked in the built industry as environmental planners, designers and architects.

Now the group is 30-strong and diverse – families with young children, families with teenagers, singles, retirees, lawyers, architects, planners, designers, doctors, artists, social workers, photographers and IT experts.

One of Urban Coup’s founding members, Carrie White, told TFE this week that the figure of 30 for the group was reached by talking to other co-housing organisations – the consensus was that any fewer makes it difficult to benefit from economies of scale and any more becomes unmanageable. There is no vetoing of members, it is simply first in and there was no difficulty finding 30 interested households – in fact there is a live waiting list.

“We recently had three members fall away from the group for various reasons – for some it was because they decided to buy a house. We will add the top three from the waiting list,” says White.

In the year or so since Urban Coup was first formed it has become much more sophisticated, learning from other co-housing groups and gaining support from other organisations. It recently became an incorporated body – “something that sounds so simple when you say it but it took so long”, says White. And it has gathered an enormous amount of information about legal issues, community housing models, council regulations and how to work effectively with committees.

The criteria for the preferred housing site is clear – within 5-10 km of the city centre and close to transport, schools and other infrastructure. The housing is likely to be multi storey and it will be adaptable to cater to households’ needs as they grow or shrink. There will be a common building with kitchen and dining area where members will get together once a week for communal meals; there will also be shared tool shed, bike storage, vegie garden and chooks.

“It is likely that the kitchen in the shared building will be large while those in the individual households will be smaller. Some members who are self-employed have also said they would love to have a studio space included. Our IT person will make sure we have fast broadband,” says White.

Along with shared resources there will be a strong emphasis on sustainable living and design with passive solar design, water conservation and renewable energy featured in the housing. The houses will be efficiently manufactured and the group has been researching companies such as the Melbourne-based manufacturer of sustainable modular housing, Modscape.

“We will be using modular construction to ensure efficiency of cost and resources. We’re itching to get into the design. A couple of our members went on a field trip recently to see the Modscape method – Vic Urban is using the same construction technique on a redevelopment at Nicholson Street in Coburg on an old tram depot site. They are looking to do eight storeys. We are likely to have three or four storeys,” says White.

The VicUrban development is a mixed retail and residential project which VicUrban is promoting as a sustainable urban village and includes studio, one and two bedroom apartments.

While Urban Coup will buy land as a collective, ownership will be strata title and each household will have its own mortgage. When searching for land one issue that has come up on a number of sites is contamination from previous industrial use. It is a long and sometimes frustrating process finding the right site but Carrie White is confident it will eventually fall into place.

“It could be tomorrow or it could be a year before we find the right land. We’ve gone down the path with a couple of owners and during the due diligence process uncovered problems. In one case there had been a dry cleaning factory next door and we weren’t interested. In Brunswick there were a couple of sites where the land was contaminated and we pulled out.”

Urban Coup is open to sharing its site with other groups – possibilities include a community meeting hall, refugee welcome centre, childcare centre or food co-op.

But is there a chance that the process could take so long that the group, and the concept with it, could fall apart?

Carrie White

Carrie White

“We’ve set a time limit of two years – and that is to be moved in. We are setting this deadline to keep the heat on ourselves. We meet weekly and we have several different sub-committees within the larger group who research different aspects of the project and then report back to the group.

“We are all still very excited about the project despite things taking longer than we imagined. That is the hard part – we all work, so these things have to be researched and dealt with at the end of the work day. But there is no chance it won’t happen. We have regular social get togethers as well as meetings to stay resilient and to capitalise on the momentum,” says White.

The group also acknowledges “sweat equity” so that a few people do not do all the work. Information is shared at meetings as well as through its wiki, which is regularly updated. While the full website is currently only available to members, eventually it will be opened to the public so that information about the group’s experience is freely accessible.

There has also been strong support from other groups, such as Intentional Communities Australia, a branch of the Sustainable Living Foundation, which has built 18 public housing homes through a partnership with a housing association. Some councils, such as Moreland City Council, have been helpful in terms of looking for possible sites, says White, as they have “very good strategic land use policies in place” and are encouraging urban density, something that aligned with the group’s thinking.

Private businesses such as urban design and planning consultancy David Lock Associates have also been very supportive, running whole day workshops to help Urban Coup extract its vision.

“David Lock Associates has been very keen to be involved – they see the future of a socially and environmentally sustainable way to live and are keen for their staff to have the skill set,” says White.

While there are several other co-housing groups in Australia, such as Common Ground, which is 95kms from Melbourne, Cascade Co-housing in Hobart and Christie Walk in Adelaide (done by Urban Ecology as a demonstration project), Urban Coup believes it is the first Australian truly urban co-housing project.

Carrie White also believes the group’s vision has come of age:

“A lot of people have said the timing is right for this concept from a social and environmental and policy platform perspective. There is a growing emphasis on housing affordability and availability of land. And there is a common language emerging to do with urban growth boundaries.”

lblundell@thefifthestate.com.au

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