Pioneering strawbale housing project is a lesson in living

It’s two years since the LILAC project in Leeds pioneered a new way of living. Sharon Dale visited the co-housing community. Pictures James Hardisty.

Eden and Lara in the garden at LILAC

Snug in draught-free and affordable straw bale homes with fuel bills of next to nothing, Eden Ballantyne and his neighbour Lara Eggleton are evangelical about the pioneering co-housing complex they call home.

They have to think long and hard about the negatives, which turn out to be pretty positive after all.

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“It is a sociable place, which is great but you often get chatting to someone as you are heading out, so I am often late for things. I have to factor in an extra ten minutes when I leave to catch a train,” says Lara, who adds that her apartment’s eco bath is a bit too shallow for her liking.

It does save water though, which is part of the ecological ethos of LILAC, the Low Impact Living Affordable Community, which opened its energy-efficient doors two years ago.

The venture started with Leeds University Geography lecturer Dr Paul Chatterton and a group fellow idealists who wanted to create eco-friendly, affordable homes and a caring, sharing community. It seems that they have succeeded in creating a property nirvana that combats everything from fuel poverty to loneliness.

The development was hard won and they spent five years trying to source funding and land to build this new way of living. They eventually found a site at a former school in Bramley, Leeds, while funding for the £2.7m project came from members’ investments, a £400,000 government grant and a mortgage from a sympathetic Dutch bank.

The 12 apartments and eight houses are of ModCell construction, which is straw bale covered in lime render and cedar cladding then topped with solar panels. The air-tight homes are designed to face each other and opportunities for social interaction have been designed in. None of the homes have washing machines or dryers. Instead, residents use the on-site laundry, which is a natural meeting point. A separate common house acts as the community hub with a kitchen and dining hall for twice-weekly shared meals, a post room, event space, an office with a communal printer and a workshop with tools and gardening equipment. Outside, there are allotments, a play area, a pocket park, plus a parking area, although only ten people have cars, which they share with other residents.

It is a 21st century commune that allows everyone their own privacy while encouraging them to share resources and socialise. The 36LILAC dwellers now range from babies to octogenarians, from a GP, paramedics and teachers to counsellors and retirees.

Passion drove the project but it is the sophisticated financial model that made it happen. Based on mutual home ownership and a share-based system, it is complex, clever and inclusive.

Residents put down a deposit of ten per cent of the property’s value and then pay 35% of their income each month. This buys them shares, which they can redeem when they leave. They get back what they have paid in, minus ten per cent running costs, which means they have an investment that allows them to move on.

“It’s somewhere between renting and owning and we are immune to the ups and downs of the property market.

“Paying 35 per cent of our income is good because it means that low earners can also afford to live here. Fuel bills are an additional cost but mine are only £10 a month,” says Eden, a professional storyteller, who adds: “I love it here. Before this I lived on the other side of the river and I didn’t know any of my neighbours. Here I know everyone because you naturally bump into them all the time.”

Lara, an art historian and lecturer, agrees: “You see people when you do the laundry and collect the post. I have found that my social life has changed a lot since I came here. It’s like having an extended family and there’s a social life built-in.”

All residents are on various task teams and also take turns cleaning the communal areas and cooking the shared meals

“They aren’t compulsory. You buy tokens for them at £2.50 each and it’s great when you get home from work and you can just go the common house and have a two-course meal and a chat,” says Lara.

The meals have to be vegetarian. Half the residents are non-meat eaters and a residents’ meeting decided it was better for the environment. One of the LILAC rules is that all decisions have to be reached by consensus.

“It teaches you how to compromise and it’s interesting listening to ethical and moral dilemmas. The big decisions are usually sorted quickly but little things like what colour to paint something can take several meetings,” says Lara.

While it all sounds very appealing, getting a place here is difficult, not least because few people want to leave. Those who want the chance to live the LILAC way have to be vetted to see if they will fit in – and they have to be in work. Then they can join the waiting list.

Meanwhile, other groups, including one in Bradford, are trying to replicate the co-housing project against considerable odds. Finding affordable land and getting finance are still major issues.

Until they succeed, LILAC’s social and financial experiment continues to be a one-off and the subject of fascination.

Geography and sociology students are a common sight as they observe and “take random pictures on their mobile phones” while neighbours in the surrounding red-brick terraces and semis speculate about what goes on within the straw bale walls.

“We have a wider community task team to build relationships with them,” says Eden “There’s a mother and baby group here, which is very popular with local people and the common house is going to be used as a polling station, which will help.”

When they discover what it’s all about, they may well want to abandon conventional living for LILAC’s affordable and infinitely more convivial lifestyle. And therein lies another possible negative, according to Lara.

“The real risk in living here is that you may never want to leave. Moving back to regular housing would be a big challenge.”


LILAC co-founder Dr Paul Chatterton has written a book about the LILAC project. Low Impact Living, A Field Guide to Ecological, Affordable Community Building, is published by Routledge, £24.99,

The book explains how a group of like-minded people got together to build one of the most pioneering ecological and affordable co-housing neighbourhoods in the world. It begins with the values that motivated and guided them: sustainability, co-operativism, equality, social justice and self-management.

It also outlines how they were driven by challenges and concerns over the need to respond to climate change and energy scarcity, the limits of the “business as usual” model of pro-growth economics, and the need to develop skills so that communities can determine and manage their own land and resources. The author’s story is interspersed with vignettes on topics such as decision making, landscaping, finance and design.