Building a new life surrounded by idealists... and bales of straw

Making bricks with straw in Bramley

Making bricks with straw in Bramley

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SPACED-OUT hippies, society dropouts and religious fanatics spring to mind when you mention communal living but a group of Yorkshire idealists are set to challenge those dated stereotypes.

The 42 men, women and children are putting the finishing touches to a 21st century commune that gives everyone their own front door, while encouraging them to share resources and care for each other.

Built from straw bales, the 12 flats and eight houses in Bramley, Leeds, make up the country’s first affordable and ecological co-housing scheme.

Carefully designed to create social interaction, it is clustered around a shared common house.

The two rows of houses face each other and kitchen sinks are strategically placed under the windows so you can give a cheery wave to passers-by while doing the dishes. There are no washing machines or tumble dryers in the homes, so residents have to use the on-site laundry, giving them a chance to meet and chat with their neighbours.

The common house has a kitchen, dining room, office, workshop and activity area where residents can share everything from meals to tools and toys. They’ll also be swapping gardening tips as every home has it its own allotment.

Members of LILAC, the Low Impact Living Affordable Community, are due to move in next month, five years after the pioneering plan was formed.

One of the founder members, Alan Thornton, said: “We thought there must be a better way of living, where you still have your own separate dwelling, but you know all your neighbours and you share resources. We have designed in conviviality. You’re more likely to walk past each other on this site and there are lots of opportunities for communicating with each other whether it’s at the laundry or in the central post room in the common house.”

Funding for the £2.7m project has come from members’ deposits and investments, a £400,000 Government grant and a mortgage from Dutch bank Triodos.

The homes, which range from one-bedroom flats to four-bedroom houses, were designed by Craig White using ModCell construction, which is straw bales and timber covered with lime render and cedar cladding. The highly insulated walls are so energy efficient that the heating and hot water bill for a one-bed flat is expected to be just £54 a year.

To secure a property you have to become a member of the LILAC co-operative, which means being vetted to ensure you will fit in. Under a new legal structure, known as mutual home ownership, you need a deposit of about 10 per cent of the property value, after which you pay a third of your wage each month.

This buys you shares in the co-op, which you can redeem if you decide to move on. You get back what you put in and are immune to the ups and downs of the property market.

Mr Thornton, who is moving to a three-bedroom house with his partner and two children, sums it up: “It’s not about making money out of property; it’s about making a happier place to live.

“You don’t make a profit if house prices go up but equally you won’t lose anything if they go down. You’ll also save money by having lower energy bills and sharing resources like the laundry and lawnmower. We have also set up a food co-op to buy food in bulk.”

LILAC members are aged from three months to 78 years and come from all walks of life. They include doctors, charity workers, artists and actors.

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