Design ideas for retrofit cohousing

The ambition of Animate Cohousing is to convert existing adjacent housing into cohousing incrementally: this is sometimes called ‘retrofit’ cohousing. On 22 June 2017 we held a small design workshop to think about how this might look and feel. Our starting point is an existing city block in Oxford that some of us live in but the principles could apply elsewhere.

The participants

The 12 participants ranged in age from 8 months to 70 and brought different skills and experience to the discussion: some with design expertise and architecture degrees; some who already live in the neighbourhood; and some who are interested in the idea and want to live in cohousing. The session was led by a professional facilitator who has lived in the neighbourhood. It was a really good mix of people and resulted in a wide range of ideas in a short time.

The process

The project is at ideas stage and it is not possible to try to define exactly how it will develop so the workshop looked at design ideas from several different perspectives.  After introductions (and soup) we split into three groups to look at different scales of cohousing on this neighbourhood block:

  1. the whole block: what might be possible in 30 years;
  2. starting with adjacent properties along one street.
  3. starting with adjacent properties backing on to each other on two streets.

Design ideas

Here are the drawings that each group produced, nothing final but sketches produced within a half hour session. This provided a fruitful basis for  discussion and insights.

1.Whole block






2. Adjacent properties along a street














3. Adjacent properties backing on to each other












Points made included:

  • increased density (more people, some new dwellings, building in the gaps and/or in the back gardens)
  • possibility of increased height – 3-4 stories?
  • negotiated private garden space (could vary depending on need).
  • negotiated processes could be an intrinsic part of how Animate relates to members and neighbours.
  • retaining the existing building stock and façade which existing residents value by knocking through to reconfigure the internal space of existing buildings and sympathetic new build.
  • building new would allow more radical design to be possible, but gradual evolution of the cohousing as properties come on the market may mean that use of existing stock is likely to be the reality for this project.
  • the importance of connection with the wider neighbourhood
  • ideas for vehicle and pedestrian access
  • types of shared facilities
  • how could the initial (not adjacent) 3 neighbours could collaborate and share more. Future discussion on this?
  • ideas for making connections with more neighbours.
  • phasing, how it might unfold

We did not aim to conclude anything, but these early ideas will be useful in several ways:

  • raising practical questions to check with experts such as City Council planners;
  • providing ideas for what the retrofitted cohousing neighbourhood might potentially be like for communicating to neighbours, potential residents and investors;
  • beginning a shared understanding of what the project is and how it might evolve;
  • informing our thinking on how to proceed.

Introducing Animate Cohousing

What is Animate Cohousing?

Animate Cohousing will create community owned homes in an existing neighbourhood (maybe more than one) in Oxford. We will do this by gradually purchasing adjacent houses and redeveloping them to provide well-designed cohousing units with shared spaces.

  • Animate is a Community Interest Company set up in March 2017 for the benefit of the community with any surplus used for its social mission and an asset lock. It is democratically controlled by members, not-for-profit and not for personal or speculative gain.
  • Animate is a Community Land Trust (CLT): A CLT is a community-led organisation that provides land, homes and other assets to meet the long-term needs of its community.
  • Animate is a cohousing project where each household will have a private home but residents also come together in shared spaces and activities.
  • Animate operates on co-operative principles including voluntary and open membership and democratic member control.

What will it do?

Animate Cohousing hopes to provide homes and build thriving neighbourhoods in Oxford where many more homes of decent quality and reasonable cost are desperately needed. Development at Animate Cohousing will be gradual as homes come up for sale and finance is available for purchase. The property that we buy will remain in community ownership in perpetuity, asset locked so that it will never return to the private market. We will contribute to the diversity of housing that people in Oxford need from single eco-pods to family homes. Member control will ensure that it develops in ways that the residents want. Each project may eventually include up to 30 homes housing around 75 people.

Animate Cohousing will actively encourage shared resources, mutual support, a healthy and safe setting, with community ownership where possible and negotiated shared space such as gardens. Animate will benefit the whole neighbourhood through access to the shared spaces and activities and from creating a thriving, neighbourly community.

Our vision is that over 20 years Animate Cohousing will transform a city block (and maybe more than one), providing beautiful and sustainable spaces to live, work and play. The neighbourhood will have a far greater degree of mutual support, shared space and shared resources than is typical. It will provide a vibrant setting in which people of all ages, stages, interests and backgrounds who live in it can thrive. It will be an environment that is healthy for both people and wildlife.

Some key aims

We would like Animate to be:

  • Pioneering: creating an evolving community-owned and community-led organisation that will shape whole neighbourhoods for decades and even centuries to come.
  • Engaging: communicating and involving people in co-creation of each neighbourhood.
  • Sharing: re-imagining shared use of space and resources, setting up sharing schemes and negotiate use of the shared garden areas
  • Self-Managing: with democratic member control and tenant self-management
  • Experimental: trialling high spec eco-homes, tiny homes and self-build methods plus the planning reforms that enable them, in order to provide good quality and lower cost accommodation.

What difference will it make?

Decent homes. Rent is increasingly unaffordable in Oxford even for those in work. In Animate Cohousing well-designed compact housing and shared amenities will lower living costs and offer enhanced security of tenure.

Happy families. Children will enjoy shared play space and families with young children will have support from neighbours at a different life stage.

Less risk of people feeling isolated. People will be involved, know their neighbours, share their skills and enjoy a high degree of mutual support.

Local jobs. Animate Cohousing will employ local people where possible for administration and maintenance so as to keep money circulating within the local economy.

Thriving neighbourhood/s. Animate will be a community anchor organisation, supporting other activities and projects such as time banking and neighbourhood parties.

To get involved

The next meeting will be a small ‘test space’ workshop (10 people max) on design and how to make it happen. If you are interested please email fiona at  Thursday 22 June 7:00-9pm. Venue will be sent to participants.

Retrofit cohousing set up

It has taken several months to work through the set-up phase with help from experts. The most common and disconcerting comment was that this project is ‘interesting’, ‘totally new’, ‘never been tried before’. The new bit is trying to ‘retrofit’ cohousing into an existing neighbourhood which will be a gradual process of buying, renovating, building and landscaping over many years.  In case anyone else is wanting to set up something similar, here is a summary of the process we followed:

Choosing a name

This part of the setup stage tied in closely with deciding aims and scope (see below). The name needs to be right for the project. The name should relate to what it is you are doing (some legal forms require this). We also wanted the name to come across well to a wide range of stakeholders. We wanted it to be inspiring for those interested in community housing but also appropriate for business correspondence with property owners, contractors and banks.

We wanted to involve stakeholders in the process so we held a dinner in Dec 2016 where 10 people brainstormed name ideas.  Three of us then also worked with a marketing expert Cristina from Walky Talky. She led us in a creative evening to explore our feelings about the project – what colour would it be, what animal is it like, what plant do you associate with it etc. She then used our responses to draw up 3 examples of logos and images for the project for us to choose from.

Most important: we had to check that the name was available. We used a template (see below) to keep track of what we had tried and checked and which ones were ruled out.


The name checking included: a google search (what comes up first, any unhelpful connotations?); url availability for website and emails; Companies House register, Financial Conduct Authority register, Charities Commission charity search, and finally – trademarks. We also removed from our list names that were similar to organisations near us or too closely related to other housing organisations.

And as soon as the regulator accepts our application to incorporate we will let you know our chosen name!

Aims and scope

There were some very basic questions we worked on: who is the project for and how will they benefit? who will control the organisation? what will the organisation do? This also related to the legal form that we were discussing at the same time (see below).

There were 3 components to this: drafting a business plan; refining our thinking on the vision, mission, our aims and principles; and defining membership.

Drafting the business plan enabled us to start compiling information about the need for the project, what it needed to be financially viable. We drafted this quickly to cover all the information needed and inform our discussions but did not refine it for external use at this stage. The contents page of our business plan shows what it includes. Business Plan Contents  There are many examples online.

We then produced a shorter document outlining the scope and setting out our vision, aims, objectives, and principles. This has been useful for sharing with others as we have spoken to various experts who needed a clear idea of what we are aiming to do.

What it does depends on who it is for, and we found it crucial at this stage to set out membership criteria, looking at how other organisations have done this and considering how different membership criteria would impact on who controls the organisation through voting at Annual General Meetings.

A challenge for us was that as we clarified the aims and scope, we felt daunted. The scope of the project was clearly far beyond what the 3 founders personally had the skills, experience, and capacity to set up or manage. Many community groups would be in the same situation. Fortunately, UK Cohousing Network funded expert help from Blase Lambert, chief officer of The Confederation of Co-operative Housing. Without this we might have given up before getting out of the starting blocks. At this early stage, projects like this struggle to obtain funding for advice. Blase worked with us on governance, legal structure and financial feasibility and had the experience to be able to reassure us that community groups can and do manage this scale of housing project.

Legal entity

We started with the online select-a-structure tool provided by Cooperatives UK. This helped us to clarify our thinking but still left us with a long list of possible legal structures. We developed a framework that sets out all of the possible legal structures to make sure we understood the options. We reviewed the key things that might lead us to choose one over another and so narrowed down the list.

Here is one version of the framework that we used. This framework has not been checked by legal experts and should be adapted as needed. There is no substitute for having someone who is closely involved in your project understand the different forms and read the guidance, Acts and regulations that underpin them. Most community groups cannot afford legal advice and most of the work on this can be done by motivated lay people.

We were fortunate to have an hour of informal discussion with Wrigley’s law firm, input from Blase Lambert of Confederation of Co-operative Housing, a friendly local advisor with experience in community housing and advice from a ‘sponsoring body’ Co-operatives UK who we paid £500 incl VAT.  The advice was not straight-forward as our project is unusual and we could not point to what had been done by similar projects.  After considering the advice we decided to register as a Community Interest Company limited by guarantee as the only option open to us with an asset lock and ensuring that use of any surplus is for community benefit. We registered using model articles of association developed by Co-operatives UK which are a very good fit with our intention to run the organisation on co-operative principles. Co-operatives UK and others have developed many different model rules which enable community groups to register legal entities without needing much if any legal advice.

Cohousing feasibility testing

The initiators of the cohousing project are assessing the feasibility of retrofitting cohousing on an ordinary block in Cowley, Oxford. We have now been working for nearly 3 months since the initial presentation of the idea in November 2016. In recent weeks this has involved:

  • choosing a name
  • clarifying the aims and scope
  • drafting a business plan
  • considering the legal entity that will best support our aims

In late Jan and Feb 2017 we will have professional input from experts:

We would like to share our experience to help others who want to try retrofitting cohousing in existing neighbourhoods and we will post the material that we find helpful as our project proceeds.

On Saturday 4 February 11:30-12:30 we will present the progress made so far in an open meeting at the Florence Park Community Centre, Cornwallis Road, OX4 3NH.  All are warmly invited to hear a presentation, provide feedback and ask questions. The community centre cafe will be selling delicious food and hot drinks.

City block cohousing shared meal

10 people interested in city block cohousing brought food to share and gathered around a big table in one of the houses in the neighbourhood where we are starting this project. Most of the evening was spent chatting and the three founding directors updated the group on progress and challenges so far (month 2!).

There are 3 main strands of work underway:

1. Communication
  • A group of neighbours are doing an initial survey of people who live in this neighbourhood to find out what they like about living here, things they would like to change and anything that they would like to share more with neighbours (eg tools, wholefood order etc).
2. Design
  •  On Saturday 14th January 12-4pm we are holding a session to consider how cohousing might look on this city block. Contact us if you are interested in participating. This will be a facilitated session with a small group imagining a future in which all properties on the block are involved in cohousing. In practice the design of the cohousing will evolve gradually, with each property deciding its involvement. But it is inspiring for us to have a vision for how such a space could look and feel when the buildings and landscaping support more shared activities. The design session will include neighbours, an architect and permaculture designers.
3. Organisation
  • We need to give the project a name – one that reflects what we are doing but is not already used by others. We have had discussions on this at each of the first two meetings. The next step is for a group of people who are already involved in the project to work with a marketing expert who sets up new brands for companies. This will be on Sunday 11th Dec 7:30-8:30pm. Based on this input the founding directors will come up with one or more options for the name.
  •  We also need to decide what form of legal entity will be best suited to this project eg a cooperative, community benefit society, company or charity. Several organisations have offered to help including UK Cohousing Network and Oxfordshire Business Support. We have also put in an application to the Bright Ideas Fund, which, if we are successful, will provide professional support for feasibility work. We hope to hear the decision on this in early to mid January. The three founding directors will take advice from various organisations in the next 2 months.


Community housing project – initial meeting

At an initial meeting on Wed 2 Nov, 2016 11 people gathered to discuss the project which is to form a cooperative to own and manage housing on a city block in Cowley.


At this first meeting we shared ideas about what we would like to share with neighbours in a cohousing community, lots!






We also discussed the different areas of expertise and where help will be needed to take the project forward. These are:

  • Design and layout – designing the city block: land use, architecture
  • Building community – shared meals and other shared activities
  • Informing, consulting – communicate with existing residents nearby
  • Organisational Framework – set up housing cooperative society
  • Property management – research and develop service to manage rented properties
  • Investment – define investment options, find investors
  • House buying – buy properties and gradually grow the housing coop
  • Living – coop members live in the rented and co-owned homes

We also considered ways in which we would like to be involved in the project whether as a neighbour (perhaps owning a house adjacent to the coop), coop member and tenant, advisor, investor, or by spreading the word about the project to others. If you would like to get involved in the project please contact us.

The last thing we considered was what to call the project. The initial working name “Hoverfly” is a bit too close to that of a nearby coop in Oxford and could be confusing. There will be another discussion about the name at a shared meal on 2 Dec and then the people involved in taking the organisational framework forward will take these discussions into account in registering the entity. If you would like to join in this discussion or find out more about the project please get in touch.



City block co-housing

City block community housing

This is an idea at getting started stage (as at Dec 2016). The objective is to gradually retrofit co-housing on a city block in Cowley to create an inclusive, cooperatively owned, socially-connected community within an ordinary neighbourhood.

An example is N Street Cohousing in the US: ‘Since 1986, the community has grown to 19 houses by a process of adding one house at a time as they become available, taking down the fences between them and integrating the backyard landscaping.’

Likely features will be:

  • Slow evolution through phased purchase on open market prices
  • A mix of community ownership (housing cooperative), private ownership, rental, and possibly social housing
  • ‘Your house your garden’ philosophy with private space as well as negotiated shared common areas of garden. Do we need all of these fences? How might we use the massive garden areas? What things do we want to share?
  • A common house for community activities which could also involve the wider community.

The starting point is that all of the land on the block is owned and most plots have different owners. Several plots are owned by community minded people who are interested in the idea. Two rental properties are for sale, one owned property is for sale, one rental is advertised for rent currently and the others come on the rental market most years. Why not move in?!

The proposed social mission is to provide good quality housing for its members at a reasonable cost, to provide shared housing-related services to its members and offer low cost services to the wider community, to provide employment for local people who provide the services, to enhance the environment for wildlife and for people, and to enhance social cohesion in the neighbourhood.

The initial working name for the project was Hoverfly Community Housing but we are still working on finding a name. The shape of the project will evolve through discussions with others who are interested in living and/or owning shares in the city block.

If you would like to learn more please contact us.

The first year

What a journey we went through in 2013! Two volunteers ran Cowley Time Bank for people in Cowley and nearby areas. In 2013 we had no organisational structure or bank account and so could not apply for funds on our own behalf. We were formed various partnerships and were adopted by a larger time bank (Fair Shares Gloucester) to provide insurance and management support, computer, printer and petty cash as start up support. The two volunteers each gave 1 day a week to broker exchanges, admin, support for events, fund-raising, and responding to interest from others.

We held a series of 6 community cohesion events at Barracks Lane Community Garden, which were funded by a grant to the garden from the Big Lottery. These events generated a lot of interest in the time bank and led to rapid growth in membership which then exceeded our voluntary capacity to arrange exchanges for everyone.

We had 65 members by the end of 2013 and demand from people to join the time bank remained higher than we could manage. This was both good and bad news for the time bank. Outside of the regular weekly events (coffee morning, music evening) we found that we could not respond to member’s requests as quickly as we would like.

The hours of dirSwapsPicforBlogect swaps between time bank members, excluding support for running the time bank and its events are illustrated in the chart. The swaps range from zero or very few hours some months, to 40 hours per month at the peak, averaging 14 hours per month but with many more hours put in by time bank members at regular weekly activities, six big time bank events, and running the time bank.

Publicising and growing the time bank

The last two months have been hectic and lots of progress has been made. We advertised for the first time in November across Cowley with posters and a leaflet.

Cowley Time Bank now has 20 active members (10 more have made appointments to join), three regular events each week, and has raised funding for 6 events next year. Members go through an easy membership process with Hannah, the time broker, so that she knows everyone and encourages them to think about both what they can offer to others and what they need help with from others. With this many members, we are nearing the limits of our capacity with current volunteer help and will need to find more help and more money to be able to expand any further.

Hannah has been arranging lots of swaps among members, ranging from simple clothes repairs, ironing, DIY and gardening, to a trip to see the starlings flocking at Otmoor. The regular events are coffee morning on Fridays 10:30 to 11:30 at the ArkT café, Parents and Toddlers Mondays 10-12 at the outdoor Play Space and in the café, and a guitar and singing session on Tuesday evenings (venue varies).

Insurance has been an issue, with the Ark T Centre covering insurance for events at their venue, but not able to cover wider swaps in the neighbourhood in people’s houses and gardens. Problems very rarely arise in time bank swaps, but we have to cover memebers and ourselves against the chance that anything could happen on any swap which is a vast range of activities. We are speaking with Fair Shares (originating in Gloucestershire) about becoming part of their growing family of time banks. This will give us access to cheap insurance cover as well as peer support and management from a very experienced and big time bank.

Cowley time bank takes off

Over the summer So Local concentrated on preparing processes and finding extra capacity to be able to run a neighbourhood time bank in Cowley, Oxford. It is important to set this up in a way that can meet expectations and grow to a reasonable size. Now we’re ready, open to new members and letting people know about the time bank.Cowley time bank

The ArkT Centre is hosting the time bank and is a wonderful venue for meeting members and holding events. A time broker with experience of LETS schemes and a London time bank started work recently and is based at ArkT on Fridays and Mondays. She has set up a website where members can look up their own time credits, change their list of offers and wants, and request time bank swaps: She has also signed up new members and arranged the first swaps among the time bank network: a lift to a shop in a car; help with fixing a gate; a guitar lesson …. Another volunteer time broker is joining us soon and both individuals and organisations are joining.

The sorts of things that members are offering and requesting help with on the time bank are summarised on these forms: Skills&Needs   Typical time swaps

A handbook sets out some basic principles and processes which everyone in the time bank network signs up to. Cowley time bank handbook

To get in touch with Cowley Time Bank  call or text 07594 064092, email or contact me via the tab above.