Green Building Blog

low cost eco-building

Mutual gain? Housing associations working with community-led housing groups July 18, 2016

Filed under: Britain,Building and environmental campaigns,Cost of housing — naturalbuild @ 10:49 am

Ruth Hayward and Jenny Pickerill

Community-led housing groups can be brilliant partners for housing associations in developing new homes. They bring with them a ready group of tenants, a variety of skills and a keenness to develop new forms of housing, but they tend to lack the expertise of finding sites and the investment capital that housing associations often have. The number of community-led house building projects in Britain is slowly increasing with the most recent completion of LILAC (in Leeds) and Lancaster Co-Housing (in Lancaster).


Our research, conducted over the last two years with community-led housing groups some of whom were working with Housing Associations and many who were keen to do so in the future, has identified a number of opportunities for such collaborations. As a result we wanted to pose ten friendly questions to Housing Associations about how they understand and approach working with community-led housing groups.

  1. Why work with co-housing groups and housing co-ops?

Co-housing groups and housing co-ops bring a great deal to housing projects – an established group of tenants, new models of housing, huge volunteer capacity, access to grants, mixed ownership models and boundless enthusiasm. Housing associations offer these groups’ site finding, investment capital, experience in navigating planning and, often, contracted builders. For these community-led groups, working with a housing association can enable their housing project to include affordable housing through, for example, accessing Homes and Communities Agency funding to build a mixed tenancy community. For housing associations such an alliance enables involvement in new housing types, such as senior co-housing, which are potentially far more appropriate and sought after than current sheltered housing models.

  1. What do you think co-housing groups and housing co-ops are like?

While some of these housing groups might at first glance appear to be stereotypical environmental activists, they are rarely so easy to pigeonhole. Community-led housing groups often include numerous professionals or retired professionals with broad skill sets and community activists with relevant experience in making change happen. Although at first they will not know housing policy language it won’t take them long to learn it. In the best practice examples housing associations had used this activist ability to lobby for planning permission, generate PR and gain neighbourhood support.

  1. What criteria do you have for which groups and tenants you work with?

The criteria of who can live in the final housing development needs to be explicitly stated for all concerned. There appeared at times to be a miscommunication between housing associations and community-led groups about what these criteria really meant for, for example, family members of elderly relatives who wanted to live together.

  1. At what stage do you start working with community-led groups?

Housing associations are exceptionally skilled at finding suitable building sites. Many groups we spoke with talked of wasting significant time searching for sites and being impressed and grateful at the speed and ease at which a housing association located and purchased a site. Once community groups have established membership, determined their vision and decided on their site criteria they are in a good position to work with housing associations. At this stage their expectations are still being developed, so they are able to modify and evolve their plans with the housing association

  1. What structures of liaison and communicating are used to work with co-housing groups and housing co-ops?

Communication worked well with community-led housing groups when the housing association staff member tasked with liaison worked with the project through the whole process, was relatively senior, and was able to identify what decisions the community groups could influence and which it could not. Poor communication appeared to happen when housing associations allocated increasingly junior staff to be the point of contact as the project progressed.


  1. How does the project management approach take account of timeframes and workloads?

Community-led housing groups are willing to invest significant time and energy into their housing project, but this time and energy is not limitless. Goodwill was undermined in some collaborations we researched by assumptions that community groups would do much of the work but then not be consulted about timeframes. The pace of the development needs to be mutually agreed and housing associations need to be very clear about their expectations.

  1. How are key principles agreed?

All housing projects have some key principles whether that be affordability, reducing ecological impact, or ensuring local participation. These fundamental principles are best agreed very early on between housing associations and community groups, along with early discussion about how these principles will be achieved. It is especially important to mutually agree the detail of these principles because often concepts such as ecological housing can have multiple meanings.

  1. Are you prepared to let groups take responsibility for the majority of decisions?

In the most successful collaborations community-led groups retained some autonomy to create their housing project in a way that fulfilled their values and aspirations. Those who worked with housing associations often felt that they lost control of the project, as they were not consulted about numerous decisions.

  1. How do you keep to budget?

For community-led housing groups one of the biggest risks in working with housing associations is the lack of control over budgets. Community groups experienced costs going up without prior agreement or explanation and it was unclear who had overall financial responsibility. There is a need to clarify early on who is responsible for what costs such as site purchase, planning fee, site security, legal fees etc. and to stay within agreed budgets. Staying within agreed budgets is important as it is often the community groups’ money that is being spent, as once they have moved in they will pay off the money paid up front by the housing association, and unexpected significant costs can cause problems for the group.

  1. How does co-housing and co-operative housing fit the values of your organisation?

There are significant overlaps in the aims of many housing associations and community-led housing groups in seeking to build affordable ecological housing for local residents, particularly through a process of inclusion and participation. Housing associations can significantly benefit from working with already formed community groups who bring enthusiasm, skills, and finance to a project. With honest dialogue about shared values, aims and responsibilities, such a collaboration can reduce the workload of housing associations, produce innovative appropriate housing and secure neighbourhood support.

Ruth Hayward is a housing activist based in Newcastle Upon Tyne and Jenny Pickerill is a Professor of Environmental Geography at the University of Sheffield.


Building a Green Economy – Experiences from Germany Sought. Nachhaltinger Bauens in Deutschland – ein Übergang zu einer nachhaltigen Lebensweise? December 17, 2012

Filed under: Building and environmental campaigns,Germany,Politics of building — naturalbuild @ 2:14 pm

[This is a short request for contacts in Germany from a fellow researcher, please contact Kirstie directly …]

Germany is frequently cited as being a world leader in green building (along with parts of Scandinavia), often inspiring action in other parts of the world.  To understand why Germany has developed green or more sustainable building practices in advance of other countries, I will visit Germany in February 2013 to investigate this issue through research interviews with green building businesses and policy makers involved in encouraging green building.  I am particularly interested in whether green building practices are being incorporated by the mainstream construction industry.  This research follows on from an extensive study that I have been involved with in the UK, examining green building businesses, many of whom referred to German products or practices which had inspired them.

Green building is an important component of a low carbon economy, and a critical element in helping to meet climate change targets in the UK. By using Germany as a case study I intend to explore how and why Germany’s green building sector is more advanced than in the UK, and to identify how the UK could benefit from Germany’s experience.

If you have suggestions of businesses which it would be useful to contact as part of my research, then I would really like to hear from you.

Kirstie O’Neill

Research Associate

Department of geography, Environment and Earth Sciences

University of Hull

01482 465922


Lectures on eco-housing March 14, 2012

I have recently been teaching the environmental geography of eco-housing to final year undergraduate geography students here at the University of Leicester (Britain). It has been a fun process of trying to organise my thoughts and recent research into a coherent story. I am not sure if they are of interest or use to anyone beyond the classroom, but in case they are I have attached them here. They are designed as two-hour long lectures and there are no additional notes – I tend to talk around each slide. So they are quite long.


The topics are:

1. Ecohousing and architectural geographies

2. Politics of building

3. Low Impact Development

4. Transition, scale and replication

Please note: I do not have copyright permission for some of the images included in these slides. The majority of them are mine, but some have been borrowed from online so please do not use them without returning to the original source.

I am publishing the slides online under creative commons, so please feel free to use and evolve the ideas and material included here.

As always any feedback and comments would be most welcome.

[14th March, Leicester]


New self build sustainable housing scheme in Devon, UK December 21, 2011

The Land Society is setting up a new scheme in Devon (south west UK) to support local rural communities to develop energy efficient, affordable, sustainable homes. In their own words, “as part of The Land Society’s purpose of rebuilding rural economies we have identified that one major problem is the high cost of housing compared to rural wages. We are therefore working with the Community Land Trust (CLT) organisation, a regional Further Education college and Transition Town Totnes to develop Community Land Trust (CLT) developments of village self-build sustainable homes”.

This is a really interesting approach in that they are combining affordability with ecological design and training and skills required to build. It is focused not just on providing quality eco-housing, but in doing so as part of reviving rural economies. This social enterprise approach wants to avoid affordable housing being imposed on rural villages by external developers and instead wants local residents themselves to collaborate and build the houses that they need. They define ‘local residents’ as those who meet local-needs housing criteria (agreed with the local community) basically;
– children of local, long-time residents,
– have pre-school children, or children in local schools,
– work locally, especially in core/low paid services, e.g; education, healthcare, agriculture

In terms of cost they calculate that “ The cost of land, materials, training course and legal/planning will typically be about £85k, with a deposit of £5 -10k in stages, then balance payable quarterly in stages from an arranged mortgage. In addition the self-building work is valued at between £40-50,000, which becomes part of their equity in the property (or provides funds to complete the home if required). Members will typically own 60% equity in a home valued at about £225,000, and the balance will remain in the CLT for further social investment”. Although not necessarily ‘cheap’ the securing of the properties into a CLT means that they will remain available as affordable housing in the area permanently. They are not designed to be houses through which people make a profit and move on. The investment of considerable ‘sweat equity’ (working yourself to build your house) will also hopefully reduce the numbers of people who want simply to make money rather than invest time and energy in building rural communities.

In terms of design they have come up with a simple design intended specifically for self-build, which incorporates the following features:

  • Advanced passive solar design incorporating very high insulation (straw bale walls and sheep’s wool roof insulation) and thermal mass (rammed earth) for very low additional heating need
  • Straw bales rendered with clay have much higher fire resistance than timber framed houses, and provide excellent sound insulation.
  • Locally sourced, natural materials and simple, mainly hand tools build (including gabion rather than concrete foundations)
  • Adaptable with optional extras to suit individual families and site conditions
  • Flexible exterior proportions and finishes to blend with local vernacular
  • Designed to lifetime standards
  • Heating provided by wood burning stoves and solar hot water
  • Solar PV
  • Either dry compost loos or reed bed system for reduced use of water and sewerage
  • Rainwater harvesting
  • Simple site layout with minimal hard landscaping, keeping cars to one edge

If you live in south Devon and would like to be part of this pilot project, or if you’d like to be kept informed of progress, email them at


New Earth Pioneers website October 8, 2010

Filed under: Building and environmental campaigns — naturalbuild @ 3:28 pm

 There is a new website that has been set up to promote the activities of eco-villages, self sustainable communities, green initiatives, green blogs and eco-friendly products. It is called New Earth Pioneers. Any eco-village can add their details and there is already a really interesting mix of international projects listed. It’s aim is to become a focal point for those interested in eco-villages, green issues, self-sustainable communities, permaculture and green products.


Priced Out – affordable housing campaign May 10, 2010

Filed under: Building and environmental campaigns,Cost of housing — naturalbuild @ 9:36 am

PricedOut is a campaign group which acts on behalf of first time buyers and owner occupiers who cannot afford to buy a house in Britain. They argue that the government is largely to blame for this because of the tax advantages of buying a house simply to let it and the encouragement it gives to property speculators. Their tagline that they are part of a ‘priced out generation’ . Their website has a great deal of useful information about the tension between rising house prices and the lack of available mortgages.

The campaign has a slightly confused or mixed agenda. If you use their ‘How much richer has my home made me’ calculator then you will likely get an answer that basically argues that houses are not meant as investment vehicles, but as homes and that the only ‘profit’ you make is from inflation.  But the campaign argues that it is important that we each own a home, and as such seems more concerned with being excluded from being part of this investment opportunity than it does about how we own our homes, or why we must own our own home. Nor do they comment on the variety of government schemes which are designed to make buying a home more affordable (such as HomeBuy or part-buying via a Housing Association) perhaps because these tend to be restricted to ‘key workers’ or others eligible for council housing.

The campaign make some good demands – such as making use of the thousands of homes which lie empty in Britain (estimated at 762,000 homes), improved tenants rights, and increased taxation on buy-to-let properties and second homes. But they also argue for the building of 5 million new ‘affordable’ homes. They define affordability as ‘when the average price of a home equals no more than 5 times the average salary’. This is actually still very expensive and whether the campaign are simply trying to be pragmatic and not ask for too much, or whether they really believe that to be affordable is unclear. Most ecological mortgage lenders in Britain will not lend more than 3 times your salary, an indication I would argue of what they perceive to be a sustainable price for the occupier. There is no mention about these new builds being in any way environmentally sustainable either, which is a missed opportunity.

PricedOut also suggest that there should be ‘incentives to encourage older people living in larger houses to ‘trade down’ to smaller properties and make these properties cheaper for younger people with families’ – quite a controversal and radical aim. They are effectively arguing that you should only live in a house which is an ‘appropriate’ size for your needs. This is a good idea, and one that I have come across several times in the eco-communities I have been visiting, but it sits awkwardly with the rest of the campaign aims which are basically about enabling freedom to buy and build, rather than a more radical aim of determining how we live in our own homes. It is also unclear why it is only ‘older’ people who should downsize, there are plenty of people of all ages living in large houses they do not necessarily need.

PricedOut can be understood in different ways – as a group simply annoyed at being excluded from the property market, or as a more radical initiative which argues we should reconsider how we own and live in our homes. It has some socialist underpinnings in its assumptions, but at first glance it does little to challenge the capitalist approach to building, buying, and making profit from our homes.