Sunflower Cohousing community looking for members

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Posted Mar 6 2018 by Martin Prosser of Sunflower Cohousing

Our journey into community living started one evening in the Summer of 2009 when we were grouped around a campfire with friends discussing possible future lifestyle alternatives. We (Barbara, Martin, Alan and Maria) jokingly agreed to buy a residential home between us, so that we could dictate to staff, and not the other way around, as to us how we would spend our days in later life. Then we stumbled across ‘cohousing’ which completely changed our thinking, and decided that was the route that we wanted to take – a group of like-minded people sharing and assisting one another in day-to-day events. Welcome to ‘Sunflower Cohousing Community’ in France!

We had initially looked at joining a forming or established community in the UK, but were not happy with all of the ideals of those communities that we looked at. In one forming community we were being asked to invest a large sum of money, but the existing group members were unable to tell us who would be responsible for saying how that money would be spent – neither could they give us any ideas of the accommodation that would become ours. At another flagship established community, the organisers admitted that one of the houses had just been sold, and new people were moving in, but nobody in the community had met with those people. Whilst this latter community was held up in the press as being very forward thinking in respect of the building and site design, there was no evidence of any community spirit.

We believe that there are problems with forming a new community in the UK associated with the high cost of land, and planning controls which essentially revolve around an initial ‘knee-jerk’ reaction of planning. It can literally take years for a group to find a suitable and affordable site, and as a consequence, the make-up of the group, and the ideas as to how the community should evolve, have, in the meantime, changed out of all recognition as members drop out and new members join, the focus of the group keeps changing and becomes aimless. Another option is to go with developers, but this leads to high cost and high end housing. Another option is to borrow, which none of us wanted to do.

We therefore decided to try to start a community in France, where the cost of land is much cheaper, and where planning controls are much more relaxed – when we found our site, we had an approval in principle within weeks, and whilst we did later have more protracted negotiations with planners over the external appearance, we knew that the initial approval of the concept could not be overturned. The cost of the site was also such that we could afford to purchase this, and develop the first of the proposed new houses, without resorting to borrowing. Our initial experiences in the UK also led us to purchase the site as an SCI (Société Civile Immobilière) – essentially a non-profit making limited company with shareholders. We have all invested equal amounts into the community, we all have an equal shareholding, and we all have an equal say.

One of the potential problems with cohousing is trying to determine what happens when people, for whatever reason, decide that they want to leave. It is all very well saying that disposal of shares, or a leasehold or freehold interest, has to be approved by the remaining members, but how do you enforce that stipulation, and, perhaps even more importantly, what are the consequences if the remaining members do not approve of the proposed new members? Will financially responsible people looking to join a community commit to joining you if there are potential problems of realising their investment in the future?

We have decided that, in addition to any initial financial investment, community members would also have a rental agreement in respect of the property which they occupy as their own. The rent would need to be a market rent, and one idea which we propose to adopt from our UK research into cohousing is to make an annual dividend payment to an investing member which would be equal to 50% of the cost of renting the smallest house on the site – as such, there would be no nett additional cost to investing couples unless they chose to live in one of the larger houses which will become available, and where we propose to adjust the rent pro rata to suit the increased floor area.

In the event that people do wish to leave the community, we have proposals for a contingency fund which could be used to buy back the shareholding of an individual member. Whilst we believe this to be a laudable step, this could in itself create financial problems for the rest of the community if more than one member (or couple) wished to leave in the same time frame, and we may need to temper this proposal with the community instead having the first option to buy back shares of members which come up for disposal – to date, we have not found an easy ‘catch all’ solution.

This, in turn, has highlighted a problem that we had not envisaged. The majority of interest shown in our community to date has been from single people, not couples. Our houses are intended to be occupied by two people, but you cannot force two people to live together, and what happens when a couple split up, and only one of them wishes to leave, or if they both wish to stay, but in separate accommodation? At present, we have no plans for dedicated accommodation for single people who wish to invest in the community – it is something that we will need to address, but it is another thorny problem.

One of the principles of cohousing is that you should downsize, and, owing to the footprint of the existing stone barns within which we are building the new houses, we cannot realistically make the new properties any smaller without possibly constructing apartments – but would people want to live in an apartment on an upper floor which has no direct access to external private space? As our ideas stand at present, a single person living in a two-person dwelling would effectively need to pay rent on one half of the property, but that proposal will need to be revisited when new members join, as they would then also have an equal say as to how the community should evolve.

Geese at the Sunflower Cohousing community

Our proposals will mean that the original investing members will give up some ‘control’ of the community when new members join – we welcome that situation, but have built in ‘rules’ to protect the community which we hope will be acceptable to incoming investing members as these will also serve to protect future investors.

I am disappointed in the attitude of cohousing.org.uk – they profess to be interested in cohousing in Europe as well as the UK, but, unlike the FIC, they refuse to allow us to register our community on their website. Coupled with the fact that the French, unlike the rest of Europe, also refuse to assimilate the word ‘cohousing’ into their language (we have to refer to ourselves as ‘habitat groupé’ or ‘habitat participatif’), means that it is difficult to advertise our presence to try and attract new members. The interest that has been shown to date has been solely generated by our presence on the FIC or GEN websites.

We hope to complete the first of our new houses this year (timber framed, terraced style dwellings, built within the footprint of existing stone barns), and further development of the community site will then need to be put on hold until we can attract new members and additional investment. We do not intend to try and profit from our physical or monetary investment to date, and are only asking that new members match our financial investment in return for an equal shareholding, and an equal say, in the community project as a whole.

Additional investment will allow us to build a further house for the new members, and will also allow us to commence works on converting another barn into workshops with offices and additional visitor bedroom accommodation over – we also have plans to convert a further barn into a community building, thus freeing up the original house on the site for alternative uses (possibly ambulant disabled accommodation). On the positive side, we will now have more time to spend on developing our potager (vegetable garden), where our ecological approach to the growing of vegetables requires increased hours on weeding and tending plants, although we are also introducing ‘permaculture’ principles. We will also be implementing waste water recycling, solar electric, and solar hot water systems as part of our ecological approach to the community.

Following two working party weeks (thanks to all involved) we now have two high quality composting toilet cabins, and we also compost kitchen waste by way of worm bins. The new houses will also be fitted with ‘Aquatrons’ (a Swedish design which uses a conventional flushing WC, but which then separates solids from liquids, allowing the solids to be composted, and the liquids to be recycled). We have also developed an aquaponics system (a permaculture arrangement whereby fish poo is used to feed vegetables) which we intend to put into full production in the coming year in order to provide us with fresh fish at the dinner table.

Sunflower Cohousing community

One of our working party volunteers is a horticultural student, and for her final year dissertation she is developing proposals for landscaping of the communal courtyard around which our buildings are constructed, and again, we hope to start work on this aspect of the community project over the coming year.

We have tried to keep our French neighbours abreast of our proposals, and we have had an ‘Open Day’ (to be repeated this year), when a French architect, Mathilde Berthe, who has previously worked with the American architectural practice of McCamant & Durrett, gave a talk on the future of cohousing in France. Our neighbours remain firmly entrenched, but we hope to attract interest from French (and other European nations) as well as the UK – over the years I have come firmly to the conclusion that you can give your child no better start in life than encouraging them to become bilingual, and we also have plans for larger houses for family accommodation.

Over time we have given a lot of thought to our proposals, and to date, the only real setback that we have had is with the French Notary whom we had employed to oversee the purchase of the site, and who completely failed to understand what it was that we were trying to achieve – we had to completely re-write the articles of our SCI.

We are now looking forward to the next stage in the community development, in particular to receiving further expressions of interest from potential investing members, when we will have the first of our new houses to demonstrate. We will also need to give serious thought as to how we might want to approach single person and/or accommodation for members who might wish to rent as opposed to investing in the SCI.

Vive la France!!


Author Bio: Martin is a founder member of the forming intentional community Sunflower Cohousing in France (https://www.sunflowercohousing.org.uk / https://www.facebook.com/groups/505483079482490/) He is a retired consulting structural engineer who has always been interested in developing practical solutions which are ‘out of the box’. He has extensive DIY skills, and is largely responsible for the design and construction of new timber framed houses being built within the footprint of existing stone barns at Sunflower Cohousing.