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How to get cohousing happening: the Newcastle story

Karen Deegan Built For Good
Karen Deegan Built For Good

In recent times Karen Deegan has organised four families to buy a piece of land together to build a co-housing development in Newcastle in NSW, and she notes there are others with similar ideas.


If you and a few friends daydream of living together, but apart, Karen Deegan says she can help. She’ll smooth the way if you want a group of tailor-made, compact, environmentally sound houses in your own small community, perhaps with some shared garden, a vegetable patch or woodwork shed.

If you’ve put it in the too hard basket because of the web of legislation and finances it’ll involve, Deegan, who has worked as a property developer, says she has the expertise to shepherd you through.

You could, of course, end up hating each other. But Deegan – who is an architect by training, has a masters of environment and was involved in the co-housing movement in Melbourne before moving to Newcastle – says she can make these “self-made neighbourhoods” happen, from decreasing the cost of land for each owner to keeping down the cost of design and council processes.

She can also help you figure out other design priorities, or maybe environmental aspects.

At present, she’s consulting to Newcastle City Council on its Affordable Living Policy and her business, Built for Good, has just gained council approval for a project for four families in four townhouses on one suburban block.

They are shared Torrens title houses each with their own private backyard, as well as a small-scale shared backyard, a long linear space of three metres by 26m where children can run, with shared ownership and management in their land title.

The group has to decide on priorities. For one, it might be water savings or using non-toxic materials. In the current project, the clients had wanted sunshine and warmth in all the living areas and private areas, which was possible in Newcastle.  But unobstructed northern light had been tricky to achieve because north is to the street.

Other achievements included a highly space-effective design that uses circulation areas as rooms, with hallways widened to also become studies, and an absolute minimum of “solo” circulation space.

These are savings in not building, painting, heating and carpeting.

“Those are a lot of things that are invisible – sustainable and energy efficient outcomes that don’t cost anything.”

The clients’ goal was to live close to an urban centre and its associated infrastructure. But new medium-to-high density normally means residents have no say in the design of their townhouse or apartment.

So instead, these four families shared in the land purchase for what is essentially an urban infill project in an area zoned medium density, but in a traditionally low density suburb.

Deegan said: “Even though it is zoned to be medium density, if you are the first project in a low density vicinity with all single dwellings, you have to be respectful of what is there now. We created townhouses, but they’re detached so it’s not one big solid mass and there is garden between.

“It’s a 1100-square-metre block and the site has laneway access. There’s minimised driveway surface area, although all four have managed separate driveways.”

One neighbour was on board while the other was not and drastic changes had to be made in line with their feedback.

Deegan says she is trying to bring all her experience to the sustainable property development industry. For her, it is an opportunity for a small business to involve residents from the outset, facilitating a process for them to develop small-to-medium and even large-scale development for themselves.

She works in an interdisciplinary team of energy assessor, architect and builder.

“Normal people, mums and dads, don’t know how to do the property development.

“Architects can normally run a project. I add a little bit at the beginning, steering the legal framework and minimising stamp duty and risk, and making sure we can get finance to build it and in their financial dealings with each other. The project has to look commercially viable to the bank manager. I need to dovetail the architectural process and sustainability too.”

Deegan told readers of The Fifth Estate’s Spinifex column in a comment on a recently published article, Small living and the promise of eco-collaborative housing, by Anitra Nelson from RMIT, that another co-housing project in Newcastle, called NewCoh, was also underway to change the way housing can be delivered.

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