Listening to the people

You don’t have to be a major political party to know that listening to the people is a good thing.

Top down or bottom up? In the wake of an extraordinary election here in the UK, we are still working it out. This is democracy isn’t it?

Whatever the politics of the city of Bristol, they have an active independent self build sector that create places people want to live in. This may come from different motivations which can include:

  • Saving the planet from predicted temperature rises;
  • Saving a neighbourhood from heavy handed housing developers;
  • Providing affordable housing;
  • Rescuing a heritage building or a community asset;
  • Exploring intentional communities.

Whatever the motivation, there is an admirable spirit of can-do that is almost breathtaking.

Swansea Co-Housing Group, has just visited three separate self build initiatives in Bristol. The reason? We wanted to be inspired by the pioneers of these intentional communities. The ones who are now living in the products of their own creation.

Enjoying the quirky design of the Montpelier Co-Housing scheme in Bristol

All the people have shown willingness to be involved, to roll up their sleeves and get stuck in. They have been willing to defy business as usual. They have got on with the job of creating a better version of society as we know it. In some cases, the initiators of such projects have been on the receiving end of one injustice or another. They may have become disillusioned with life in standard residential areas where community barely exists. Places that have become dormitory towns in all but name.

One of the founders of the Montpelier Co-Housing group, Steffie, was concerned about the quality of life of building in the UK. She moved from Germany to study here and lived in St Werburghs Farm community housing project in Bristol. Her eyes were opened to doing things differently while living in the Yard. She embraced this, as the avid environmentalist she is.

She recalls the big risk she took many years ago.

I put down £500 deposit to secure a plot in the scheme which felt like a big risk to me then“.

Together with friends and an investor, they were able to realise the project they now live in. With others, she has become a founder of another much larger scheme, Water Lilly Ltd, through her company Bright Green Futures’. In this way, Eco Self-Build Communities can become a reality for many who would otherwise struggle in knowing where to start. The project illustrated above was borne out of a three fold desire.

  • First to improve the quality of design of the average standard house types on the market.
  • Secondly to develop a buildable low carbon housing scheme.
  • Thirdly to intentionally create community with purpose and shared cooperative values.

This emphasis in responding to climate change is striking a chord with many who share this concern. Keeping the earths predicted rise in temperature below the critical + 2 degrees is to them, fundamental to life on earth.

Montpellier Eco Self Build Co-Housing scheme. Street View.

Because of Greta Thunberg’s story, it is beginning to dawn on us that we are not going to meet our carbon neutral targets any time soon. These concerns are going to be top of the list for future generations, for whom housing is now being planned. When will the housing building industry wake up to this urgency felt by many? Will it only go so far as to reflect government initiatives and taxation policies?

For increasing numbers of people, the time to respond is now.

The motivation to go it alone has got to be pretty high to see you through the hurdles that you will encounter along the way. The reasons for this level of motivation are increasing every day.

Huge amounts of time, energy and cooperation are needed to pull off a project that doesn’t fit standard models.

If you think its easy, just try getting a legal structure together which fairly represents the desires of all members of an emerging cooperative. There’s the shared values, individual objectives, a workable constitution, a bank account and a legal framework, all needed to constitute an entity that does things.

As yet there are no readily transferable templates which can be easily adopted or adapted.

As community groups progress towards the promised land, there are multiple choices to be made. The prime objective – is it a place to live that satisfies my quest for meaning? Is it to get an affordable home? Perhaps it is to create a net carbon zero building to deal with climate change?  Or maybe it is to help solve the housing crisis in more creative ways than is currently on offer.

Then you have to decide if it is a coop, a community land trust, a co-housing project or a mutual benefit society or any combination of the above to deliver your vision. This is enough to challenge the most robust and seasoned activists. It is enough to put new comers off the the idea all together. But from another perspective this is its strength also.

Having to bash away at the detail over time, is one way to get to know the other person and build trust.

St Werburghs community led housing project built on a former scaffolding yard.

The light begins to fade, as we come to the end of our tour of Bristol, kindly hosted by Coop Wales. We head over to the fountainhead of community led housing in the city. This is ‘The Yard’ at St Werburghs.

A founding member of the community housing group gave us a short summary of how the ‘Yard’ came into being. “It all started when twelve of us clubbed together to prevent a planning application on the site.  We thought how can we do this? The answer was to come up with an alternative design.” They thought this might appeal to the City Planners and it had the effect of putting the current application, at the time, on hold.  The planners then offered the community the opportunity to create a community of twenty six dwellings.

The group finally went ahead and bought the land.

To self build, the group had to came together quickly to raise the money, all designed and built their own properties. Had they attempted to buy homes on the open property market in Bristol at the time, they would not now be living in the large properties they occupy. The residents are able to sell energy back to the grid because their homes are so well insulated. To achieve this they met three times a week during the year taken to design the building. Some of them even had to live in caravans for a significant period during the development. The Yard became the winner of the South West Green Energy Award 2009 ‘Best Housing Scheme’.

The Yard, at St Werburghs. Low energy use buildings returning energy to the grid.

So whats the deal?

There’s more than one way of doing things.

For individuals and families wanting to do it differently, they can now become members of a community lead housing group. Many groups are being set up across the UK. There may be one in your area which aligns with your vision of the future.

A number of years ago you would have to become an extreme eco-warrior and live in a caravan and make enormous sacrifices to see your vision through to reality. By becoming a member and showing interest you may find an opportune moment arises for you and your family. You may then have the chance to participate in such a scheme with people you enjoy being around.

The National CLT Network provides resources to help new groups navigate their way.

The Wales Cooperative Centre and other cooperative groups have similar objectives.

The Yard, shared spaces outside and internally for use by the community.

For developers there is the opportunity to engage with such community minded groups. Many groups struggle in the early stages to get the right kind of investment partners who understand their  ideas.

When working on larger schemes, developers can also consider engaging such a group as part of a development by offering self build plots. This can add richness to a project architecturally. It can also deliver the benefit of ready made community cohesion, leading to more sustainable communities.

In our next newsletter, we will refer to projects we are working on in the office with different communities and developers.

Different interpretations of sustainability can be entertained.

Communities come in all shapes and sizes.

The picture below is the local community in action in my neck of the woods. They are celebrating life together at this special season of the year.

May I wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year for 2020 and for whatever projects you may have in mind.

Different interpretations of community can be entertained.


For a preliminary discussion on community led housing or property development contact Noel Isherwood Architects by phone or email:


You can also provide us with information about your co-housing project or development. This you can do by completing part or all of our project form below. We will get back to you promptly to discuss the possibilities to help achieve your goals.