All across the world new approaches to home-building are emerging in response to the multiple crises of climate breakdown, unaffordable housing, deprivation and exclusion. Globally and historically models for the provision of housing vary enormously, from self-build, to socially provided housing and speculative, private markets. But the failure of  rent-based models to provide homes that people can afford, especially in big cities and large towns, plus the urgent need for buildings to go zero-carbon, or carbon negative, is pushing innovation.

Recent examples of eco-housing projects led by City Councils in the UK include Exeter social housing project which created 200 council homes built to meet the German “Passivhaus” energy efficiency standard and Norwich Council’s social housing scheme, which was awarded an architectural prize (the prestigious RIBA Stirling Prize) and similarly features buildings based on “passivhaus” norms.

All these schemes feature high-standards of energy efficiency in buildings and the use of recycled and sustainable building materials, as well as the provision of car-sharing facilities and small plots of land to grow food. What is largely missing from these projects however, is the co-housing and communal living element that was a major feature of  the early developments of the eco-village movement, back in the 1960-70s. 

Lilac co-housing scheme in Leeds, which stands for Low Impact Living Affordable Community, is a unique example of an eco-housing project with high ecological standards and elements of cooperative living. It comprises  20 homes, a central allotment and shared garden, two small car parks, three bike sheds and a large common house. The homes are the first residential buildings to use Modcell – prefabricated “cells” built of timber, straw bales and lime. The properties are all super-insulated and airtight, have huge double-glazed panels facing south to maximise solar gain and they come with solar water heaters and  MVHR (mechanical ventilation heat recovery) units installed. 

To ensure Lilac was as affordable as possible, the founders adopted a mutual home ownership scheme where residents formed a society that owns the houses and the land to which each member of the society contributes – around 35% of their net income – rather than taking on individual mortgages. Such forms of living can also lead to a range of positive behavioural outcomes and result in the type of value shifts required to live more sustainably.  A recent study assessed the environmental and financial impacts of the project and found that on all indicators it was faring better than average homes in Leeds: with a 65% lower carbon footprint, 66% less electricity and gas use, and around 49% less waste and water use compared to an average household. 

But what are the key ingredients of success behind an eco-housing project like this and to what extent are these types of housing structures replicable?

Wider relevance

In most cities globally, the cost of housing is becoming increasingly hard for people to bear. Except for dramatic levels of wealth accumulation among the richest, asset-holding members of society, wages more generally have stagnated for the past three to four decades while the cost of housing has skyrocketed. People are forced to live in cramped and poorly maintained housing conditions while paying high and rising rents to landlords. At the same time, the housing stock in the UK is often very poorly insulated and not energy efficient and typically also vulnerable to the increasing weather extremes that global heating will bring. In other words, it is worsening a problem that we are not prepared for. Many buildings are damp and leaky. Residents are often driven into ‘fuel poverty’, unable to afford sufficient heating. One in ten households were reported to be fuel poor in England in 2018. In this context, sustainable co-housing projects are a pragmatic solution to the dual crises of housing and the climate emergency.

One way to provide affordable housing is through publicly-funded social housing schemes. In living memory in the UK, practical, large-scale programmes of social housing were delivered at great speed. In the 1950s, local authorities in heavily-indebted Britain collectively were building at the rate of 250,000 per year. Today they struggle to build a tiny fraction of that number. But estimates point to the need to rapidly provide 6,500 social homes in the UK, just in order to avoid a rise in homelessness following the Covid-19 crisis. The union, Unison, estimates that 100,000 new social homes per year are needed.

The examples of Exeter and Norwich social housing projects show that it is possible to deliver affordable housing with the minimum possible environmental impact. But most Government-funded social housing projects fail to tackle the issue of relatively few landowners controlling the market and inflating housing prices and rental rates. Housing cooperatives are a way for people to access property more easily while retaining the benefits of living in a community of like-minded individuals. These can take many different forms such as community land trusts, mutual home ownership, community gateway or co-operative stock transfers.

To reduce their environmental impact, the majority of eco-housing projects adopt “passive house” standards of energy efficiency. By 2008, there were between 15,000 and 20,000 so-called “passive houses” across the world, primarily located in Germany and Nordic countries. The concept refers to a voluntary energy efficiency standard for buildings consuming very little energy and with an overall low ecological footprint. These passive housing models are often based on a combination of highly insulating materials, and a passive solar/ventilation system – so-called ‘mechanical ventilation heat recovery system’ (MVHR) – which filter the air without opening windows, and also heat homes in winter via heat from the sun. These are particularly helpful in reducing energy consumption. In the Exeter social housing scheme, up to 60% of residents did not need to heat their homes for a whole year, given how efficient the buildings were at retaining thermal energy. Residents in Lilac and other eco-housing schemes are provided with solar panels to light their homes and have solar hot water heating systems.

Another important ecological aspect concerns the materials used to build and insulate the homes. Rather than using traditional carbon-intensive cement, which is also very porous and short-lived, eco-housing schemes opt for more traditional building materials such as hemp or straw. Lilac co-housing scheme used a technology developed by a manufacturing company in Bristol based on a mix of straw and timber to build prefabricated panels.

The environmental aspects of living in a co-housing project go far beyond the emission reductions from the buildings themselves given that resources and equipment, such as cars or electric appliances (washing machines) are pooled for common, shared use. Food can also be grown locally in the area as access to a plot of land is provided and meals are shared together on a regular basis. The communal aspect of living that is encouraged, though often optional and balanced with clear boundaries for private space, also has the benefit of promoting the social values of cooperation, while enabling deliberation, which in turn encourages democratic values and practices vital to the rapid transition to a fair and low-carbon society.

There’s so many different benefits from living here – cheaper fuel bills from the great insulation, inter-generational care between residents, a sharing economy (especially cars) to make life cheaper, and beautiful green spaces and access to nature and food growing to increase well-being. In sum, Lilac is a happier and more affordable place to live than almost all the alternatives!

– Paul Chatterton, Lilac co-founder

Context and background

The rise of alternative modes of living or eco-villages can be traced down to the ‘back to the land’ movement of the 1960s and 1970s, which was motivated by a desire for living in community in contrast to the increasing urban sprawl, materialism and individual home ownership that were increasingly dominant.

According to the Global Ecovillage network, these projects can be defined as, ‘an intentional, traditional or urban community that:

  • Uses local participatory processes
  • Has a holistic perspective – designing and integrating the ecological, economic, social, and cultural Area of Regeneration
  • Aims to actively regenerate social and natural environments.

In the mid-1980s the movement turned more specifically to the co-housing living arrangement aspect of intentional communities. Eco-villages or eco-communities can be found in both rural and urban areas. Examples in the UK include Findhorn ecovillage established in 1980 in Moray, Scotland, is a prime model of eco-community living. The late 1990s saw the arrival of Local Agenda 21 programme following the Rio Earth Summit, centred around the concept of sustainable development, which contributed to the growth of eco-housing projects at the neighbourhood level in cities. Well known projects include the Vauban eco-housing in Germany built in 1998 as part of a rehabilitation project of an old French military base with high standards of energy and material efficiency and transport infrastructure designed to promote cycling and walking across the area. Its success led to tourists coming from across the world to visit the project. Bedzed, one of the oldest eco-housing projects in the UK, can be considered the British equivalent of Vauban. This eco-housing neighbourhood, built in 2002 in South London, created 100 homes including a mix of private and social housing.

The idea behind Lilac co-housing project started back in 2006 among a group of five residents in Leeds who wanted to bring up their children in an environment motivated by values of sustainability, cooperativism, equality, social justice and self-management. It took the group three years of intense research and planning before setting up Lilac Mutual Home Ownership Society Ltd (MHOS) and registering it as a co-operative society. By 2012, the original group had expanded and building work began after sufficient development capital was raised. A year later the build was completed and residents moved in.

Enabling factors

Sustainable co-housing projects are part  of the ‘politics of post-carbon cities’ by standing both within and against the current growth-based, competitive, individualistic economic system. While their aim is to build radical alternative models of living, they are simultaneously tied to the planning, financial and regulatory constraints of the time and place. Lilac co-housing in Leeds is no exception and its founders had to navigate the complexities of the system in order to deliver the project.

A major challenge is to make low-carbon homes affordable. The cost premium of building under these standards is significantly higher than for average housing structures and its higher value costs cannot be absorbed through higher-mortgage valuations. The reality of eco-housing projects is one of very uneven access and costs which contributes to the rise of privately-owned gated eco-urban communities only the wealthy minority can afford. Finding appropriate funding models is therefore a necessity if those projects are to be accessible to the general public and replicated at a larger scale. For Lilac co-founders, affordability was a central aspect of their project. This is why they decided to go for an equity based leaseholder approach to co-housing – first proposed by the New Economics Foundation and CDS Co-operatives. The idea of mutual ownership allows for the  separation of the cost of the land from the purchase price of the housing. It does so by removing the land out of the marketplace by setting up a Community Land Trust. Originating from America, this new model of home ownership keeps the price of home ownership close to that of average earnings and keeping the land in trust benefits the whole community and future generations to come.

More specifically, under the Mutual Home Ownership Society (MHOS) residents spend no more than 35% of their net household income – regardless of how much they earn – and each member pays 10% of the equity shares they can afford to finance on a monthly basis.

The cost of buying the land and building the homes is financed by a long-term mortgage – in the case of Lilac it was funded by the ethical bank Triodos – which is divided into equity shares with an initial value of £1.

There are limits however to the affordability of this model as a minimum net income is required from the members of a household to fund the shares – at Lilac in 2013 this was set at £15,000 for a one-bed flat and up to £49,000 for a four-bed flat. This housing model is therefore not suited to wageless and some low-income groups, although it does provide a guarantee for those who happen to lose their jobs. They can be placed on a contractual tenancy and have their equity frozen. But in the long-run, living at Lilac was found to be much cheaper than average home costs – £21,500 in 2019 – due to being bound to wage increases rather than house prices increases as is the case with standard homes.

One way of making low-carbon homes affordable is to get appropriate government support. In England, the green homes grant, promoted as part of the UK Government’s 10 points green recovery plan, intended to support around 600,000 households in reducing their energy bills and lower carbon emissions – via home insulation and installing efficient heating systems – by handing out vouchers between £5,000 and £10,000. However, the initial £2 billion grant promised by the Government was withdrawn at the end of March 2021 and replaced with £320 million funding for the green homes programme. At this rate, only 20% of the expected 600,000 households will be low carbon by March 2022.

Both the public and the building industry are in need of stable and effective policy in order to finance low-carbon housing and meet the government zero carbon targets. According to Derek Hormans, chairman of the National Insulation Association “[I]nquiries for insulation and low-carbon heating have been extremely high, in spite of the current circumstances, and companies across the sector have responded and geared up the supply chain to meet demand. That’s why we would urge the chancellor not to curtail the green homes grant to ensure that our sector can lead the UK’s economic recovery and meet the government’s net zero ambitions.”

New models of home ownership are essential to regain access to a massively inflated housing market that does not work either for people or the planet. Projects such as Lilac in Leeds are important examples of how we might  create the low-carbon housing transition needed to meet global climate targets, while also providing decent and secure housing, and  strengthening values of cooperation and solidarity among local communities.

Scope and evidence

  • In the UK, the cooperative housing movement dates back to the year 1861 when the first housing co-op was founded in Rochdale.
  • Eco-villages and communities can be traced back to the communal “back to the land” movement of the 1960s and 1970s and pioneered by the first community set up in 1973 in Florida – the Miccosukee Land Co-op.
  • In the 1960s , the UK embarked on its greatest wave of cooperative housing – with more than 40,000 co-ownership homes being built. In the 1980s the movement was put on a hold by the Conservatives private home ownership agenda.
  • The Sustainable Development agenda of the late 1990s contributed to the development of eco-housing projects in cities across the world. Famous projects include the Vauban eco-housing project in Germany and Bedzed project in London. Some of these eco-housing schemes were however criticised for their lack of affordability and their contribution to a new phenomenon of ‘gated eco-communities’.
  • In 2013, a Low Impact Living Affordability Community (Lilac) was set up in Leeds using a mutual co-ownership model which was first proposed by the New Economics Foundation and CDS Co-operative.