Anne Thorne talks through the architectural design process of Cannock Mill Cohousing community.
Interview with Anne Thorne
We first featured Cannock Mill Cohousing in a podcast with Phil McGeevor, the Chair of the group, who explained how the group formed and the process they followed. Another key member of that group, Anne Thorne, is not only the architect who designed the scheme but also a resident of their cohousing community. Anne became an architect at a time when only 5% in that profession were female, and felt that as well as a lack of representation in the studio, there was generally a lack of consultation with women in the design process. She emphasises the importance of consultation, really listening to and understanding people's ideas and designing in an environmentally conscious way.
Cohousing is an intentional community
It is a community where people come to live together, but in their own independent homes. There is a common house where residents can meet, cook, watch TV together, party etc. It also has bedrooms where guests can stay. By sharing lots of facilities, the intention is that residents can have a smaller home of their own.
Beyond the common house, they also grow produce together and have a travel club for car and lift-sharing.
Discreet spaces are as important as shared ones
Each house or flat owner has their own outdoor space, whether that's a balcony or a small terraced garden. Discreet spaces have also been designed into the community areas, with seating in parts of the garden if people are looking for privacy.
10 years of looking for a site will see people pull out!
Searching for a suitable and mutually agreeable site can be a lengthy process, but the point at which they selected the site (10 years on) was actually the point at which several people decided to pull out. Reasons included location, risk and budget.
“And in fact, eight of us bought the site, eight households that is, which cost 1.2 million. That was a really big step for everybody to put up that money. People got mortgages on their houses, did all sorts of things in order to make that happen, which was a fantastic leap of faith really, and one that lots of people couldn't make.”
A particular risk at that time was that only eight households paid for the site: a site which had planning for 23 homes, and would need to be developed with 23 homes.
A series of sub-groups report to the main board
These sub-groups included legal, finance and building. They would all report to the main board which was responsible for decision-making.
Once Anne Thorne Architects had been appointed as designers, Anne distanced herself entirely from the committees and groups that dealt with finance or decision-making around anything that might affect her tenure as the architect. Luckily for her, many people on the building sub-group, which acted as the client, had experience of being clients in big organisations and understood what her role was and the complexities of keeping that separate from her involvement as a member of the community. Both she and the building group for example, were very clear that she wouldn't be involved in any of the voting around building matters.
The building group were also insistent that if anyone wanted changes making to their houses, that they raise it with the group and Anne directly, rather than the builders on site. It would have been easy for a member to tell a builder that they didn't like the flooring, and the builder then to assume that meant the flooring was changing for everyone!
Developers will be competing to buy the same site
One of the reasons that the search was protracted, was that as soon as they found a suitably flat and workable site, it would be snapped up by a developer. What held them back as a group was they couldn't move fast enough with their finances. They also lost out on sites because developers and housing associations already had links with the local authorities.
They didn't want an isolated site
The group's main criteria for a site was that it should:
- have planning for between 15 and 30 dwellings
- be located within an hour and a half from London
- be well located for local facilities without needing a car
After 10 years of searching, they found the Cannock Mill site on Right Move. They knew it would have it's challenges (it was steep and fairly waterlogged), but it also housed a lovely mill, was a 20 minute walk into Colchester, with countryside walks, village shops and a bus stop at the doorstep.
The houses were designed to Lifetime Home Standards
With the original eight households needing to decide what size and layout future members might want, they decided to design the houses to Lifetime Home Standards, and the minimum housing sizes of the Greater London Authority standards.
This meant that they were more generously sized than developer homes, but perhaps not as generous as if a private client might build for themselves.
Accessibility was a key consideration and all the three-storey houses have space for a lift to be installed. Bathrooms are large enough to be accessible, with the adaptability of being able to install a hoist if necessary in the future.
Standardised finishes were used across all the houses
This meant they all had bamboo flooring, were painted white, and had the same baths/showers, taps and basins. By all agreeing to have the same finishes, they understood it would be a lot cheaper and more sustainable. Members would be free to redecorate if they wanted to afterwards.
Prices exceeded the contingency sum by 1%
With such a long time between concept and delivery of the scheme, budgets inevitably changed considerably. Prices on site also went up, not least because building work overran by a year.
There was also a very steep learning curve with builders and sub-contractors having never worked on a Passivhaus scheme before. In hindsight for example, Anne says that they should have insisted on the suppliers of the triple-glazed windows and doors doing the installation.
The scheme is on piled foundations
With spring water and a pond on the site, a lot of work has been undertaken to direct the water. Being so wet and with variable ground conditions, the scheme uses piled foundations over 25 metres deep in places. A concrete slab, insulation and screed sit on top of the foundations.
The timber frame is faced on both sides with either wood fibre board or plywood. The inner face has an airtight layer of smart ply with newspaper insulation blown through. It is finished with a wood fibre panel and coloured render. With a colour palette to choose from, residents had to negotiate with their neighbour to make sure they didn't have the same colour!
The roof construction is designed to absorb almost as much water as the site did before the houses were built. This also means that they have a reduction in their water bills because no water goes into the surface drains from the houses.
Upside-down living takes advantage of the daylight
With a steep north-facing slope, everyone had concerns that the living rooms wouldn't have enough daylight. So, the houses were designed with open plan kitchen / living rooms on the top floor. They all face the communal house too.
Listed status on the mill prevented it from being a Passivhaus retrofit
The conservation officer wouldn't allow any changes of the windows. Instead, they've used secondary glazing. The larch timber boarding was removed and insulation fitted between the studs. An airtightness layer was added to allow the structure to breathe, before insulated board was put on top and the cladding returned. The wood burning stove they fitted has been largely redundant, because it's so well insulated.
People have invested in the community, not just the scheme
Because people have been involved from the beginning, they have also been invested in their faith and understanding of each other. They have got to know and trust one another. They have had to develop ways of working together. Although Anne acknowledges, being such a consolidated community can make it slightly harder for newcomers.
Find out more
Visit the website of Anne Thorne Architects
Get information about cohousing from the UK Cohousing Network
One to check out from our archives: Can a straw bale house reach Passivhaus standard? – with Fran Bradshaw from Anne Thorne Architects
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