Marmalade Lane Cohousing Cambridge
Last year I wrote about four award-winning housing developments elsewhere in the country which could help to inform Brighton & Hove City Council’s approach to the problem of how best to provide appropriate and affordable housing for existing and future residents of this City. See https://www.brighton-society.org.uk/contemporary-design-examples-could-they-help-solve-brightons-housing-problems/
One of these was the Marmalade Lane Cohousing in Cambridge which I subsequently visited. In this article I look more closely at the history, the concept and design, and comment on how it appears to have performed over the four years since it was completed in 2018.
It is a very different approach from the one which is being taken here in Brighton & Hove. Our Council appears to be concentrating its efforts on promoting massive conglomerations of high-rise blocks of flats, which in the words of Simon Jenkins,
“…are sold not to families – let alone neighbourhoods – but to transient single people and overseas investors seeking anonymous bolt-holes. Such ugly structures do nothing to house people or promote communities. They are social excrescences”.
For examples you need only look at the proposed huge tall blocks of flats proposed at the Brighton Marina (fortunately refused on appeal), and the Brighton Gasworks site to name just two. There are plenty of others – see our article https://www.brighton-society.org.uk/a-boutade-of-tall-buildings/
Simon Jenkins again, “ towers are the enemies of social vitality. They are silent stakes driven through a city’s sense of community”.
We suggest Brighton & Hove City Council should instead devote more effort to help prospective residents with:
– finding suitable sites;
– advice on creating real communities which work for local people;
– helping them to draw up their preferred concepts;
– developing designs;
– getting them built;
– and finally, to refine the initial concepts by the experience of living in them.
That’s basically what Marmalade Lane has done. And Cambridge City Council as landowner played an important role in the early stages of this housing project.
What is co-housing?
It’s actually not entirely a new concept – a similar community started in this country well over a hundred years ago in 1898 when the Whiteways Community was set up in Gloucestershire as a non-conformist Quaker colony.
Gandhi wrote about Whiteway Colony in 1909, impressed by its peaceful ideals and vegetarian diets. It’s been recorded that he visited the community during his extensive travels in Britain.
The current cohousing development model started more recently in Denmark in the 1970s, and is now well established in the USA and Northern Europe. It is gaining traction in the UK, fitting in with central government’s aim to expand the UK’s custom built sectors. This is supported by central government through the Housing and Communities Agency. Custom build has moved closer to becoming part of national policy with the Self-build and Custom House Building Act which was passed in 2015.
Co-housing is a form of ‘Custom Build’ housing. It is self commissioned but not self built and is seen as an opportunity for ‘customers’ to express directly to the market the kind of homes and surroundings they really want to live in, and increase diversity in the housing market. It appeals to those looking for shared resources and strong communities, particularly those with young families and the elderly, for whom more communal living could help with care and companionship needs.
Residents are brought on board early in the design process and help develop schemes where some private facilities and space are ceded in favour of greater shared facilities. These facilities can be communal halls and play areas, child care schemes, shared growing and green space and shared transport such as car clubs. Custom build homes are often innovatively designed and can be cheaper, greener, and more affordable than standard market housing. More information can be found at www.cohousing.org.uk.
Regionally, the Marmalade Lane Cambridge Cohousing Scheme was the first cohousing development of this size. Nationally it was the first enabled cohousing scheme and has delivered an exemplar scheme of community-led planning and design. It sets a model for similar housing projects which would be applicable all over the country.
It has attracted an enormous amount of interest and as an indicator of its success, has won or been short-listed for an impressively long list of awards.
Here they are:
Finalist, The Academy of Urbanism, Great Neighbourhood Awards, 2022
Shortlisted, Mies Van De Rohe Award 2022
Civic Trust Award for Sustainability 2021
RICS Social Impact Awards, Project of the year 2020
RTPI Silver Jubilee Cup, Overall Winner 2020
RIBA National Award 2019
Housing Design Awards Richard Feilden Award 2019
National Urban Design Award (Public Sector) 2019
Structural Timber Award (Social Housing Project) 2019
Cambridge Design & Construction Award Joint Winner 2019
Cambridge Property Awards Environmental Award 2016 & 2018
There is a constant stream of visitors from all over the country and beyond who (like me I have to admit), wander in off the street. So many in fact, that the residents have to wearily ask visitors to respect their privacy and not stray into the relatively private open spaces enclosed by the housing, or to take photographs within private areas.
A few days prior to mine there were separate visits on a single day, firstly by the Greater Cambridgeshire Planning Team, and secondly by a London based film crew. The Planning Team are proud of their involvement in Marmalade Lane and as they and others frequently refer to it in discussions with developers and designers, they wanted to ensure that all the team had seen it.
The film crew came to do some interviews and filming for the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission. The Commission had visited Marmalade Lane earlier as part of its research. The then Secretary of State, Robert Jenrick was planning to announce changes to planning regulations on the back of the Commission’s report and the filming at Marmalade Lane was intended to support that announcement.
To give some flavour, here is an extract from Robert Jenrick’s response to the Commission’s report:
“I was struck by its three principal aims: to ask for beauty, to refuse ugliness and to promote stewardship. We need to collectively demand beauty, so that high quality homes become the norm in this country, not the exception. We must also have the confidence to say no to schemes which we know are bad for the people destined to live in and near them. And we need to do everything we can to encourage everyone to take a longer-term, sustainable view of communities as places that must grow and evolve, in a way that works well for people.”
Are you listening, Brighton & Hove City Council?
History of the project
Marmalade Lane took a long time to realise mostly because it was a pioneering project and encountered a series of new problems as it slowly progressed.
A co-housing group had first formed in Cambridge back in 2000, but faced the usual obstacle of finding a site. But some years later following the financial crash of 2008, the council was unable to attract a developer for their leftover plot within the Orchard Park development in north Cambridge.
The council then took the bold step of allocating the site for co-housing, and secured funding from the former Homes and Communities Agency to develop a lengthy brief with the co-housing group.
Planning and Environmental consultants, Cambridge Architectural Research Ltd (CAR), initially working for the landowners Cambridge City Council, began the process by establishing the feasibility of the proposal and demonstrating that there was an appetite for the cohousing model in Cambridge.
The Council provided funds for the initial project management support which in turn enabled the group to apply for further revenue funding from the Homes & Communities Agency (HCA).
The scheme really got moving in 2013 when an informal cohousing group was first established to develop the site in Orchard Park owned by the City Council into a 42 home cohousing scheme.
Cambridge Cohousing was registered as a Company Limited by Guarantee in 2014. Once established as a company, Cambridge Cohousing Ltd became CAR’s client and they went on to develop an outline planning application for the site to enable the sale of the land.
Part of the process involved contacting interested potential residents, applying for the HCA funding to develop the scheme and developing the design through intense workshops and engagement exercises with the resident/client group.
During this period the prospective residents gave a huge amount of their time, energy and skill to help realise their ambition for a Cambridge Cohousing Scheme.
Following the outline planning approval, Cambridge Cohousing and Cambridge Council selected TOWNhus, a partnership between UK developer TOWN, Swedish housebuilder Trivelhus, and the design team led by Mole Architects of Cambridge working with local contractor Coulson, to deliver the scheme.
Working with the design team, residents were given the chance to have their say on many aspects of the design within a range of potential options.
- Preferred plot with varying orientation options eg. morning light, views of sunset etc.
- Selection of a ‘shell’ giving seven basic options for overall size, number of rooms and price.
- Interior arrangements on each floor – open plan layout or separate rooms, sizes of bedrooms, use of potential loft space, a study room etc.
- External appearance – choice of compatible but differing brick colour palette for individual units.
- Interior finishes – floor and internal wall finishes, bathroom and kitchen layouts and specifications.Prospective owners could also select a DIY option to allow them to do some of the internal work themselves, particularly fitting their own kitchens.
The designs received full planning permission from South Cambridgeshire District Council in early 2016, started on site in 2016 and was completed in 2018. It included a range of homes, from one bedroomed flats to five bedroomed houses together with a large landcaped shared garden and common community space and a central “common house”.
All householders became members of Cambridge Cohousing Ltd who own the freehold of the site and grant a long lease to each household.
Consideration was also given to providing some affordable rented social housing within the development but this was not followed through.
It was conceived and developed in response to the needs of residents rather than the profits of house builders, a place where land was allocated with the best long-term value in mind, rather than flogged off to the highest bidder, and where politicians’ claims of “creating communities” actually rang true.
Some relevant quotes:
City Councillor, Rod Cantrill “It’s probably the only occasion when I’ll say thank goodness for the crisis”. (2008 financial crisis) “The developers walked away from the site, so we had the opportunity to consider an alternative path.We had originally imagined a self-build project, but the economics couldn’t work for the council, because the residents would spend all their savings on buying the land. We needed the equity to come from an established development partner.”
Jan Chadwick – Cambridge Cohousing resident
After years of hard work, our members are looking forward to seeing the scheme built over the next 18 months – and to attracting more members to join us and live here.
Jonny Anstead – director, Townhus
Co-housing has an important role to play in meeting housing needs in a new way – not only by helping people shape the places they live in, but also in reinstating the sense of community and neighbourliness that is often missing in new developments.
City Cllr George Owers
There is a growing expectation on councils to enable and support custom-build and cohousing groups so it’s fantastic that Cambridge City Council is using such innovative methods to deliver housing by facilitating this development.
Where is it and what does it consist of?
Marmalade Lane is on the outskirts of north Cambridge between the Arbury estate whch contains large areas of council housing, and the A14 northern by-pass. It is part of a larger area, Orchard Park, comprising several new housing developments and was formerly known as site K1 within this wider context.
Not far to the west is the Cambridge Science Park and just to the east is Cambridge Regional College. The new guided bus route linking Huntingdon, St Ives and central Cambridge through to Trumpington south of the city runs parallel to King’s Hedges Road immediately to the south of the site.
There are 42 homes within the Marmalade Lane site with a variety of nine different dwelling types ranging from 1 bedroom flats, 1 – 2 bedroom flats, 2 bedroom apartments, and terraced houses of 2 – 3 bedrooms, 3 – 4 bedrooms and 3 – 5 bedrooms. All were for sale on long leases.
The residents range in age from very young children to old age pensioners. They come from a wide range of backgrounds. There are 13 different nationalities represented amongst the residents. The common link is an interest in community housing.
In addition to the housing units there are community facilities including a small shop, and gym, and a ‘Common House’ where community members regularly eat and meet together and host guests. It includes a large kitchen, and a lounge with a wood-burning stove.
There are three guest bedrooms bookable by residents and an extensive range of other facilities – laundry, children’s playroom, a secluded room for adults only and flexible amenity rooms for events such as meetings and wellbeing classes. There is also a small workshop for hobby activities.
The housing itself is laid out in terraces with a street frontage on the public side and at the rear there are garden/courtyard areas and shared enclosed open spaces inside the development.
There are two main shared open spaces. The smaller one is called The Lane which is mostly paved and landscaped and open to the small rear private garden areas of the northern terraced row of housing and the front doors of the southern terrace. It includes children’s play equipment, and outdoor seating and tables.
The other larger open space called The Gardens is a larger, greener semi-wilded area with mature trees, enclosed by the rows of housing units. A part of the area is set aside for residents to grow vegetables. See the images below.
Car parking is kept to the periphery and bins are accommodated in communal stores, in order to conserve the open spaces within the layout for people’s enjoyment.
146 cycle spaces are provided, distributed around the residential areas.
Is it successful?
First impressions were that it was. It was nicely scaled, well detailed and the open spaces were attractive and at the time of my visit, obviously being well used by residents and their children. The buildings, particularly the terraced houses created a nice balance between individual privacy and community access. It was a good example of the sort of low-rise medium density housing envisaged many years ago by Prof. Christopher Alexander in his book Community and Privacy, and achieved a very satisfactory balance between those two often conflicting considerations.
In short it was an extremely attractive solution which provided both good quality housing enclosing attractive external public spaces. In today’s situation where so much new housing in cities is provided in tall blocks of tiny flats with minimal access to attractive outside spaces, Marmalade Lane is an example of a far better solution.
How has it performed in the four years since it was completed?
I talked to one of the residents who was involved in the scheme from the beginning. She said that although a few compromises had had to be made along the way, the majority of the original objectives had been achieved. She said it was a real community – most residents, young and old knew each other and the various communal spaces – inside and outside – encouraged social interaction. The shared open spaces were car free and safe for children to play in and for residents to relax in.
Another who was involved in the original discussions has said the process was not entirely straightforward. “I do hope we can stress the group’s involvement in the design process. It’s not all about architects and planners. Planners were a block rather than a facilitator at the time. We had to fight tooth and nail not to have buildings on the southern boundary and a car park in the middle!”
And it also seems clear that the scheme does make demands on the residents – it takes a lot of voluntary time helping to run the community, so residents really need to be committed to the concept, and be in a position to give some of their spare time to contribute to the community for such things as organising meetings, events and community activities, as well as the maintenance of the shared spaces.
A few units are rented out by their owners. There was concern during the concept development stage that residents who were renting their homes might not be particularly interested in the concept of co-housing. The counter-argument for allowing tenants was that they would get a taste of co-housing and hopefully spread the word. It appears as though most have been persuaded by it, but it is an issue which is to some extent unresolved.
And here too there is the debate about affordable housing – should some social housing have been included as part of Marmalade Lane? The response to that criticism is that over the whole area of the new Orchard Lane housing developments – of which Marmalade Lane is only a small part – affordable housing is provided. But the question of how social housing might fit comfortably within the cohousing concept remains unanswered.
It’s very clear that Marmalade Lane has attracted an enormous amount of interest nationally, to such an extent that as a possible model for future housing, it has to be seriously considered by local authorities all over the country as a far better alternative to the tall blocks of flats which increasingly comprise the majority of new homes being built within our cities.