From eco pods to mega co-ops

So after quite a long wait, I’m finally off on the Eurostar for the first ‘proper’ leg of my Churchill Fellowship: just over two weeks in Switzerland and southern Germany to be inspired by some amazing examples of community-led housing on a large scale.

My first stop will be Zurich, and then I’ll be heading up to Germany to visit Freiburg, Tübingen, Ulm, Stuttgart and Munich. What these places all seem to have in common is that it’s possible – in fact, relatively common – for groups of people to self-organise their own collective living projects. I want to know what has made these schemes successful and, in particular, the role that city councils and different kinds of support organisations have played in this.

In the UK, Government support for self build and community-led housing is at its strongest for at least a generation, and at a training event for community-led housing enablers (the first of its kind) in Trafford Hall last weekend I felt the energy of being part of a national movement that is developing the skills, knowledge and capacity to really push forward and get many more projects happening on the ground. Run by the good folks at the Confederation of Co-operative Housing, the training hosted 31 practitioners but apparently there are already another 70 or so on the waiting list – which illustrates the high level of demand for skilled people who have the breadth of knowledge and the flexibility to support a real diversity of community housing projects.

However the major barrier to successful schemes continues to be the availability of land. I’m intrigued by the model used in many German towns and cities, where the councils sell plots of land to self build groups at fixed price – dramatically reducing the risks and uncertainties and providing an accessible route for ordinary people to house themselves. I’m also intrigued by what has enabled really large housing co-op projects to develop new build housing in places like Zurich (one project that I’m planning to visit has 1,300 residents!) and whether anything on this scale might be possible in the UK.

I’ve already made friends on the train and have been chatting about self builds, war journalism and the creative community spirit of people living in difficult circumstances, as well as hearing about these amazing eco domes in Lebanon – weirdly similar to these ones that my partner and daughter visited recently in Saihate Eco Village in Japan… is there a mystery connection?

I can already see that there’s something really great about travelling with a purpose, which is that it seems to open up opportunities for conversation and friendship, and also in particular that the topics of housing and community are ones that people can really connect with. If anyone reading this is feeling inspired to do something similar, do check out the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust website for information on how to apply for next year’s round of Fellowships.

Well, first stop Zurich in a few hours, and I’ll post more once I’ve settled in and hand a chance to look around. Tschüss!

 

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What does it mean to be a Churchill Fellow?

Yesterday I joined dozens of other new Churchill Fellows at a seminar organised by the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust. It was a great chance to learn more about the overall aim of the Trust, to get some tips on the practicalities of organising research trips as well as meeting the other new fellows and exploring synergies between our different fields and research locations.

Winston Churchill’s passionate belief was that if we can bring people from different countries and cultures together face to face, we can get to know each other properly and learn from each other in ways that will create a better world. The Trust was established on his death and with his full permission. Around 150 fellowships are awarded each year across a wide range of disciplines including mental health, the arts, migration and ‘new approaches to social and affordable housing’ which is the theme I’m travelling under.

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Meeting other housing fellows past and present!

It was great to meet the other people in the housing group, to discover shared interests and to be able to share some of my own tips from my recent trip to Cologne. We also heard from two fellows who had recently completed their research on homelessness – Sarah Walters and Amy Varle – thanks to both for your enthusiasm and willingness to share your experiences.

Germany and the Netherlands both seem like popular locations for housing research across a range of issues, so I guess I’m on the right track!

 

A weekend in Cologne

While making my early investigations into places and people to visit, I was put in touch with Simon Hubacher – a Swiss architect who now lives in Cologne. He was super friendly and I had a good chat with him on the phone. He mentioned that there would be a networking event for group build projects on 10th March in Cologne and that it might be a good opportunity for me to come and meet people and get to know the scene over there.

With the Churchill Fellowships only being announced on 9th March it was a bit close to the mark, but fortunately I did make it to Cologne and had a fantastic weekend.

My main objectives were to attend the networking event, to get some ideas/inspiration for similar events we will be holding in Bristol and to make some contacts for my future visit(s) to Germany.

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Group build information stand at the Wohnprojektetag event

The event was really well attended, with probably several hundred people joining throughout the day. There were at least 20 stands including a mix of build groups/housing co-operatives, banks and support organisations. There are over 30 current or developing group build projects in Cologne and the surrounding area, however I was surprised to learn that there is not much direct support from the city council – e.g. groups still find it hard to access land and say that it is much easier in other cities such as Munich and Freiburg.

Although there is a ‘Netzwerk fur gemeinschaftliches Bauen und Wohnen’ which runs events and socials, and ‘Stadtraum 5und4’ (a campaigning organisation) I was somehow expecting that there might be a more established central body where groups can go to access advice, funding and land – something like the Hub we are developing for the West of England. However this didn’t seem to be the case. I did however meet some great people who had developed and completed their own housing projects, both privately and co-operatively owned.

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Map showing community build projects in the Cologne area

I also saw some interesting presentations showing case studies in Munich, Tubingen and Berlin, all of which I hope to visit. These were just totally on another level to anything I’m aware of in the UK.

In Munich the city council has set aside 30 hectares for a major regeneration project which will build 1800 homes for around 4000 inhabitants. Of these, 50% are affordable and 40% are designated for either housing co-operatives or private build groups. The scheme is being delivered by a consortium including housing corporations, housing co-operatives, builders, property developers and the local religious community, who have collaborated to create a holistic design including a range of community, mobility and eco features. I can’t wait to visit in person and find out more about how it all works in practice and what it takes for a local authority to get behind such a project.

In Tubingen and the surrounding towns, it now seems to be standard practice for the municipalities to sell plots of land to build groups/co-operatives at a fixed price. The typical size for each group ‘block’ is 11 homes and each group usually includes some common space as well. Interestingly, the application process is ‘qualitative’, based on the story behind the project rather than a ‘points’ system of ticking certain boxes. Applications are judged by a jury made up of the mayor and local councillors. The speaker said that this system works well but requires ‘very strong political backing’ as it is highly labour-intensive to assess the applications and potentially vulnerable to legal challenge by groups who don’t get allocated plots. The result is a very creative mix of projects which all fit together in a complementary way.

Another interesting learning from the Tubingen area is that the municipality will typically allocate a few of the plots first to ‘anchor users’ which are the early pioneers and get to make choices about the overall layout of the site, e.g. where will underground parking access and communal/private gardens be located? Groups that are allocated plots later are therefore not involved in these choices. This is a pragmatic choice because it was found from previous experience that if all the groups had to decide these things together it was a very long and difficult process. The people I visited in Cologne backed this up – making these decisions between just four build groups had been extremely fraught. However I don’t think they had an external source of support to help mediate their decision-making process, and perhaps this would have helped.

I was really fortunate to be able to stay two nights at the Wunschnachbarn community in Nippes. This is one of nine build groups/co-operatives that were able to buy plots from the city council during the redevelopment of a massive rubber factory starting in 2013 (the remaining plots went to private developers/social housing).

Unfortunately a weekend wasn’t nearly long enough to get to know the detail behind any of these projects but it’s given me a good taster and I’m now planning a return trip to Germany to investigate in more depth.

Thank you to Dr Iqbal Hamiduddin of Bartlett School of Planning at UCL who put me in touch with Simon Hubacher and made this whole trip possible, to Simon for inviting me to join the SIA exhibition and dinner on Friday night and to Ralf, Julia, Matilda and Bruno for hosting me at Wunschnachbarn!

Welcome to my blog!

After being involved in the self build and community-led housing sector for over 15 years, I’ve recently been incredibly honoured to have been chosen as a 2018 Churchill Fellow by the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust.

The fellowship funds UK citizens to investigate inspiring practice in other countries and return with innovative ideas for the benefit of people across the UK.

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My research topic is Unlocking the potential for affordable Baugruppen projects. ‘Baugruppen’ is a German word meaning ‘build groups’ and is used to describe projects where individuals come together to form groups in order to design and commission their own homes. It’s a very popular model in many parts of Germany as well as in the Netherlands and Switzerland.

The Baugruppen or group-build approach has many benefits over the standard models of developer-led housing that have dominated the UK housing sector for the last 50+ years. More choice, lower costs and a greater sense of community are some of the key ones, while it’s also worth mentioning that virtually all group builds that I’m aware of have a high priority to including environmentally sustainable features.

A critique of many of the group build schemes in Germany is that they are mainly private ownership schemes, initiated by people with access to money and it is harder for people without equity and/or on lower incomes to start or join these kinds of schemes. My interest is therefore to investigate projects that explicitly aim to be financially accessible to a wide range of people and that offer homes that will remain affordable in the long term.

To do this I’ll be travelling not only to Germany but also the Netherlands, Australia and New Zealand. I’ve chosen these destinations so I can compare projects where there is strong public support for group builds (Germany and Netherlands) to projects that have succeeded with little or no public support (Australia and New Zealand). This means that my findings should be relevant to a range of contexts back home, from areas where the local authority is ready and willing to back schemes with offers of [lower-cost] land and/or finance, to locations where land and finance options are much more constrained.

In the UK we have incredible opportunities to boost the number of community-led housing projects over the next few years. Through the work of organisations such as the Community Land Trust Network, Confederation of Co-operative Housing, the UK Cohousing Network and the National Custom and Self Build Association, there is not only growing political support but also more coherent organisation of the sector to help channel support, networking, advice and funding where it is most needed.

In my own local patch, my social enterprise Ecomotive is co-ordinating a project to create a community housing ‘Hub’ for the West of England area (including the local authority areas of Bristol, Bath and North East Somerset, South Gloucestershire and North Somerset).

My ambition is to use my Churchill research to present inspiring case studies and identify models for affordable self build groups that we can pilot within our local area, with the support of the local authorities. At the same time, I’ll be working to promote my findings more widely across the UK, inspiring communities, sharing best practice so we can get councils, policy makers and financial bodies on board and making group build a mainstream option for people to create their own affordable, sustainable and community-minded homes.

I’ll be posting news and updates throughout my fellowship in 2018-19 so please follow this blog to stay up to date with my latest findings as well as hopefully some top tips for travelling in Germany, Netherlands, Australia and New Zealand!

Thanks! Anna