Green shoots: LILAC co-housing

Green shoots is our regular series on businesses and projects that point us towards a fairer and more sustainable future. This time we look at the LILAC co-housing project in Leeds.

Standing for ‘Low Impact Living Affordable Community’, LILAC is a co-housing development in the city of Leeds. It consists of 20 low impact homes and shared neighbourhood facilities, all built on the site of an old school.

The homes themselves are made from timber and straw cartridges, manufactured by Modcell and assembled onsite. If you haven’t come across it before, Modcell’s approach is a neat combination of traditional and natural straw building techniques, and modern off-site prefabrication. The result is a quick and highly efficient build that sequesters enough carbon to make it carbon-negative.

Each home has solar PV and solar hot water, and high insulation levels and triple glazing keep heating needs low. Mechanical ventilation controls air and moisture without losing heat.

However, the buildings are just the start. The real innovations are in the idea of co-housing, and shared ownership.

First, the development was intended as a community from the outset, and they share facilities in common. That includes car sharing and shared tools, communal gardens, a playground, ponds and allotments for growing food.

More radically, the development has a central building with a kitchen for regular shared meals, office and play space. There’s a laundry, which means that homes don’t all need their own washing machines. Guest rooms can be booked in the common house, which saves heating a dozen spare rooms across the site all year even when they’re not in use.

The common house serves as a hub for the community, hosting deliveries from other local cooperatives and a buy in bulk scheme that keeps food costs down for residents. The space also hosts local events for the wider community, such as film nights, or workshops on low impact living.

The shared ownership model is particularly innovative too. LILAC is the first development set up using a Mutual Home Ownership model, originally proposed by the New Economics Foundation. Essentially, residents are all members of a cooperative, which owns the land and houses, making them their own landlords. People pay into a collective mortgage based on a proportion of their income. It is structured in a way that allows residents to build up equity, and then use it if they need to sell up and move elsewhere.

This isn’t unique. LILAC is based on a model that is more common in Denmark. In Britain however, private housing is an aspiration that is deeply embedded – despite the fact that it drives inequality and locks out younger generations and those on lower incomes. Co-housing projects like LILAC show that there are alternatives, and that a more cooperative, community based approach to housing can be affordable, fair, and deeply rewarding.

LILAC may be the first mutual ownership co-housing project, but it won’t be the last. Others are in development, and as they become better known and proven to work, the take-up could accelerate. They could be part of the answer to the housing crisis, to high ecological footprints, and also to social isolation and fragmented communities.


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