On another super sunny July morning a group of us from various projects in Brighton thanks to Brighton and Hove Community Land Trust travelled up to Bramley, near Leeds to check out the LILAC co-housing project. (Low Impact Living Affordable Community). Interestingly I went to a meeting about LILAC back in 2008 when I was studying at Leeds Uni and have stayed on their mailing list so it was great to finally get a chance to see it!
We arrived in perfect timing for a big communal lunch in a lovely space outside the LILAC common house and chatted to people from across the country interested in co-housing. The common house is shared by all the member residents comprising a kitchen, dining area, bookable guest room and upstairs room for film nights, events and workshops.
The group split in two and we were shown round the site on the LILAC tour.
There are 20 households living at LILAC (37 adults and 14 children) in a mixture of houses (2,3 bed) and flats. The first residents moved in 5 years’ ago and were involved in the design and a little bit of the building work too. There is even space for individual back gardens too!
The site is on a former primary school which was knocked down and the shiny red iron gate still lines the perimeter, a reminder of its former school days that the community were keen to retain. The site was less desirable for developers due to a drain at the bottom end and this influenced the design process. LILAC received funding from the Homes and Communities Agency and a grant for the timber frame from Modcell in Sweden.
Straw is the perfect building material, with a reliable surplus in the UK
- Just under four million tonnes of this leftover straw is produced every year by UK agriculture, according to the Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board (which would otherwise be ploughed back into the fields)
- It takes about seven tonnes of straw to build a three-bedroom house with this pre-fabrication method
- That means there is potential to grow the material for more than half a million new homes every year in British fields.
It is also the perfect insulator and significantly reduces energy bills. At LILAC they reckon by as much as 1/2. It is a natural sound proofer so you can play music and never have to worry about disturbing your neighbours. When we looked round it was indeed remarkably quiet considering how many people actually live there.
Solar energy systems have been set up which are then used to power the common house (valuing £4-5k of solar powered energy and free hot water when the sun shines with their solar thermal water system.
As we walked round the site there was a distinct sense of intentional often subtle steps that have been adopted to create a design that reflects the village feel that LILAC wanted to foster, something they refer to as ‘community glue’. There is no letter box instead residents pick up their post from the post room. Rather than everyone owning a washing machine there is a laundry as well as a shared workshop space with tools and a lawnmower. Bread is delivered from Leeds Bread Co-op twice a week. There are 4 large wooden bike sheds with space for 40 bikes encouraging sustainable transport (pictured below with a climbing wall!)
There are spaces for 10 cars and an informal car sharing scheme, but it is so well designed that the car parks are hidden from view and we never even came into contact with them on the site visit. Children are safe to play as no roads run through LILAC. It is very much a serene oasis on an otherwise regular street of houses.
Food is a big part of LILAC, there is a big shared allotment space and residents can be part of the two (optional) shared dinners each week. There are figs, almonds and quince growing in the grounds. This summer has been so hot for the first time the pond had completely dried up.
Members are expected to contribute 2 – 4 hours a week, but it works very much on the principle the more you put in the more you get out. Task teams meet once a month (finance, membership, learning, food) and there is a General Meeting every two months.
LILAC is the UK’s first Mutual Home Ownership Society which delivers 100% affordable housing. The MHOS owns the homes and land and issues leases to its members. It is a complex model but one that means households take on ‘equity units’ (10% of the build, plus 10% deposit). In a unique truly equitable way members then pay 35% of their net income. At one time only two members worked full time, (the more you work the more you pay) which means people really can achieve an optimum work life balance and a much higher quality of life. Once all equity is acquired members pay just 10% of their net income. In the rare times people leave they can claim some of the money back, but importantly to avoid speculation this has been set to earnings NOT housing market prices.
The values that LILAC have so successfully fostered have emerged from a strong set of values; listening to each other, mutual respect and the community glue (socials, meals, celebration parties, skill shares and events). With almost 50 people living at LILAC an interesting concept has emerged one of ‘Dissensus‘ – learning to live with difference. People can still hold differing beliefs but work together to listen and come up with practical solutions. It felt like a neutral space where everyone has a voice. The group uses consensus decision making to work through problems, rather than avoiding them so while it takes longer, ultimately it results in a more harmonious way of living.
There is a community swap shop, fundraisers, Neighbourhood Watch and LILAC has also been used as a polling station. They feel they could do more to integrate with the community, but there is no denial they have created a strong community here.
I feel we are at a critical junction, we can complain about the housing crisis or we can do something about it. LILAC very much demonstrates how through hard work, dedication and dreaming big a vision of a better world is possible.
Thanks so much to Brighton and Hove Community Land Trust (community led housing programme) for organising this inspiring visit!