The Bridge, CoHousing Project

At the end of last year, just before Christmas, a proposed new cohousing scheme submitted their planning application, a first for Somerset and a first for Middlemarch too!

Bridge Farm (Drayton) CoHousing Ltd was established three years ago (late 2019) and propose to create twelve homes with shared facilities, known as a ‘Common  House’, for a community of up to 25 people on a redundant farm complex. They intend to peg two thirds of the dwellings at no more than 80% of market value to ensure better affordability for residents/members and a real mix of people from different backgrounds.

In late 2021, grant funding was provided by South Somerset District Council from within its allocation of ‘Community Housing Fund’ (previously awarded to it by central Government) for the feasibility study. The primary purpose of such grants is to ‘de-risk’ the project by undertaking initial feasibility work prior to a planning application and the cohousers used the money to appoint various surveyors and other experts, including (after a competitive process in February 2022) their architects, Barefoot.

In the UK CoHousing communities are still small in number and usually small in scale. Of the three main types of Community Led Housing (the others being Community Land Trust and Co-Operative) they are the least in terms of completed schemes and probably the least understood. 

Cohousing has been defined as “… intentional communities run by their residents. Each household has a self-contained home as well as shared community space and facilities. Cohousing can be a great way to live balancing privacy and highly sociable neighbourhood life. Originating in Denmark in the 1960s the movement has grown across Scandinavia, Germany and the United States. Cohousing is attracting a lot of interest across the country….” (UK Cohousing Network)

Members of the cohousing group at a community consultation event

What distinguishes a CoHousing scheme from other forms of collective or co-operative living is the extent of shared facilities, including a core element that has become known as ‘The Common House’.  Through the sharing of some household tasks (most commonly a regular shared meal) while maintaining private living space; designed-in casual or ‘accidental’ interaction (e.g. by collecting post from a single delivery point); a safe environment in which children can grow; and ‘an extended family’ made up of people of diverse ages, interests and backgrounds, CoHousing provides not just a space to live but a rich living experience and a sense of community with in-built resilience.

Artist’s impression of the proposed built form

Credit: Barefoot Architects

The nearest other cohousing community is in Bridport, Dorset, a much larger scheme which is primarily new build and has been developed using the Community Land Trust /Community Benefit Society legal model in partnership with an established Housing Association (Bournemouth Churches). 

Bridge Farm Cohousing have determined to ensure that construction of the common house is an early phase of the development so they have decided to convert the existing farmhouse, building a modest extension to create a room large enough for the whole community to gather and setting aside some of the upstairs rooms as guest bedrooms to reduce the need for ‘spare rooms’ in their individual homes. Early completion of the Common House, the least amount of repurposing on the whole site, will also make it more possible for some members to move into temporary accommodation, such as caravans or trailers, on site prior to the completion of their own homes, should they need to.

Bridge Farm became redundant as a lived-in farm when the last tenancy expired around four years ago, subsequently the buildings have fallen into a further state of disrepair. The plans, created by Barefoot (who also worked on the Bridport CoHousing scheme), make the most of the existing fabric, creating liveable space in a sensitive way that preserves the character of the historic farm setting. There are also two listed cottages immediately to the north and other listed farm buildings to the south of the site, so the proposed designs treat the overall outward appearance very sensitively in order to enhance the setting for these neighbouring properties. As well as the need to be sensitive to the settings of these listed buildings, Bridge Farm has much historical merit of its own. The architectural proposals encompass a highly sensitive approach to the existing built form, using the existing structures/fabric as much as possible and reclaiming other materials for reuse, hence maximising embodied carbon retention.

The detailed heritage report states “Traditional and historic farmsteads are a valuable aspect of the countryside, not only do they represent character and identity, they provide a valuable sense of space and a reminder of the past. They tell the history of the social and economic life in the countryside, demonstrating the use of local resources and skills, which contribute to differing regional vernacular variations in design, style and purpose.”

The farm is currently owned by four brothers who are sympathetic to the aims and objectives of the cohousing group and want to see stewardship of the land pass on to others with high ecological values. The planning application is a ‘hybrid’ seeking full permission for the repurposing of the main farm building complex into the residential scheme at the same time as outline permission for some other outbuildings to be repurposed for workshops and offices at some point in the future, creating a live/work community.

The site is within the catchment of the Somerset Levels and Moors (SLaM) Special Protection Area (SPA) and Ramsar site (internationally recognised wetland), one of 27 areas in England and Wales where excessive nutrients entering into the environment through water courses have been identified as posing a threat to a highly sensitive ecological landscape. In this case it is the River Parrett which flows right past the site, then into the Somerset Levels on its way to the Bristol Channel.

For Bridge Farm there is a solution that can be achieved on site, meeting both the planning requirements and the high ecology values of the collective itself. It involves replacing the existing septic tank (which services the original farmhouse) with a package treatment plant and planting 170 trees, in a mixed crop orchard on the adjacent field, which shall absorb the residual phosphates.

There are only a few rural cohousing communities in England repurposing old farm buildings, the nearest to Bridge Farm possibly being the Threshold Centre in Dorset and Trelay in North Cornwall. Another example of cohousers repurposing a redundant farm complex is the scheme in Cumbria which Colin heard about in his conversation with Laura Moss in episode seven of our podcast series, which you can find here.