THE BLOG

An Early Experiment of Collaborative Living Draws Similarities With Modern Day Cohousing

03/06/2013 14:44 | Updated 03 August 2013

The UK is often criticised for a lack of variety in house types and the dominant design still caters for the nuclear family. Despite this claim, there have in fact been a number of experiments in 'cooperative' or 'associated' living. One of these, although constructed over one hundred years ago is strikingly similar to our modern day concept of cohousing and despite the significance of the experiment it is often overlooked.

Homesgarth now known as 'Sollershot Hall' in Letchworth Garden City was the brainchild of Ebenezer Howard, widely recognised as the most influential visionary and planner of the Garden City Movement. Constructed in 1910 this experimental development was intended to trial several quite radical and revolutionary concepts in associated housing at the time.

At the end of the nineteenth century, the main driver for cooperative living was a means to liberate women from the role of a housewife. This role often involved an endless drudgery of labour intensive, time consuming tedious tasks even for the middle class housewife and the cost of servants was increasing resulting in less help. Cooperative living was seen as a means to allow a housewife to instead achieve economic independence and self-fulfilment through other opportunities in employment and education.

Homesgarth also provided other benefits: A well equipped central kitchen was used to prepare food for all dwellings and allowed for the investment in state of the art time-saving devices and provided 'affordable nutritious meals'. This reduced cost and a significant amount of time and labour compared with the modern day cooking we experience today. Similarly a shared laundry was intended to provide a more efficient and cost effective means to wash clothes. Other facilities such as a central communal garden, lounge, dining room and library would help facilitate social connections between the residents and provide a stronger sense of community. The experiment was to be a true co-operative and non-profit making enterprise and at the time was unique.

These concepts were encapsulated in the architectural design of Homesgarth. The purpose built development provided twenty-four compact apartments and central facilities around a quadrangle. These apartments contained a small kitchen area as it was intended that most meals would be delivered from the central kitchen or eaten in the dining hall. Unfortunately the experimental nature of the project did not gain enough support in the form of advance sales of the plots, which resulted in only a half completion of the quadrangle.

Howard also developed working residents groups and committees to help manage the property. It was the intention that a cook would be employed by the residents in the central kitchen who would be assisted by groups of housewives on a rota - allowing interaction, but also reducing the need for servants.

So what happened? Sadly Homesgarth worked as intended for only five years before conventional kitchens were installed. It could be argued the primary failing of the scheme was that some residents over time gradually became dissatisfied with the price of eating in the dining room. The concept of a shared central kitchen was reliant on a subscription from every household. Every resident who stopped using the service increased the cost for every other resident and eventually led to its decline and together with it the regular social interaction associated with a common dining room.

The project was also criticised on other levels as it did not allow for children, the reason for which I am not entirely sure and it only provided for the middle classes.

This is not to say the project was a complete failure. In fact, most of the common facilities remained in use until the late eighties before being converted into another flat and the residents groups remained strong.

Visiting the site today and walking around the central courtyard, it is apparent how much the project suffered as a result of the incompletion of the quadrangle and subsequent lack of enclosure to the central space. It is apparent that the design of the dining hall originally opened out onto a patio facing into the large garden courtyard. A covered walkway or 'cloister' as marked on the plans, functions well as a break out space for the ground floor apartments. Whilst I visited, residents were chatting to one another whilst hanging out washing in this covered area. Importance of massing and elevational treatment is placed on the common areas and the width of the central courtyard would allow a suitable distance to be able to see activity of other resident on the opposite side.

This project is a good example of how to some extent history does repeat itself. Although social trends have radically changed over the last century and the main driver for this type of living was different at the time, there are many similarities between Homesgarth and modern day cohousing. Concepts such as saving costs, shared meals, optional common dining, a co-operative neighbourhood, group cooking rotas, shared communal garden spaces, common areas, the formation of residents committees, a non-profit enterprise and resident management are all very similar considerations in the formation of cohousing today. The architect took great care when designing the scheme and attempted to create an architecture which encourages a sense of community and in the process experimented with a mixture of different precedents.

I would like to express my gratitude to the First Garden City Heritage Museum, in Letchworth Garden City for their assistance when researching the history of Homesgarth.

Over the next few weeks I will be visiting some senior and multigenerational cohousing projects in the Netherlands. In my next blog post I hope to report any interesting observations from these visits.