Living in a Cohousing Development

Community-based developments are cropping up across the UK at a rapid pace. We find out more about one such self build scheme in Cambridge.
Articles by Build It magazine
by Build It
14th August 2019

Jan Chadwick is a resident of Cambridge’s innovative cohousing development on Marmalade Lane.

She explains the sociable ethos behind cohousing communities and tells us a little bit about her life since moving onto this thriving self build scheme.

What is a cohousing development?

It’s an intentional community where people come together with a shared vision of how they want to live in a more neighbourly sense. The house designs are informed by that desire and that goal. So, Marmalade Lane has been developed in a way that fosters community and the ability to meet people. We have a large garden space and a communal house.

A key part of cohousing is having a car free area, so for us, there is a lane which runs between the fronts of one row of properties and the backs of another, where we have football and street parties. It’s a really sociable space; a place for the kids to play and the neighbours to chat.

How does living on Marmalade Lane differ from being in a normal development?

Oh, it’s a major change! We know all our neighbours, we all socialise in the common house which we also use to host weekly community meals, events, yoga and Pilates. Upstairs, there are guest bedrooms for friends and family who are visiting. We all collectively own this space, so it’s very different from your average development.

The community has a car-free zone to allow children and families to congregate in the street

It can be hard work; we are a self-managed association, so we do our own accounts. We have a laundry that we have a charge for, a service fee and other expenditures to track.

We also have 14 working groups that manage and organise the site, from maintenance to fun to the nitty gritty of the business and accounts. For example, we have a garden team that maintains the external areas and a food group that organises the community meals and gets people in and cooking.

How did the design process work?

We first joined this cohousing scheme over six years ago, and we’ve been in our home five months now, so it’s taken some time to get everything sorted. Obviously, being members for so long, we have been involved with the different iterations of the design.

There was a group of about six who worked with Mole Architects and the developers Town to create something that would be suitable in terms of planning, what people wanted and that would function properly for cohousing. Before that, about 20 of us engaged in several months of workshops with Cambridge Architectural Research.

Artist's sketched for the Marmalade Lane cohousing project

Artist’s sketched for the Marmalade Lane cohousing project

We really worked from the ground level up to get it right.  As a result, we got the specific type of property we wanted. For me and my husband, that was an apartment with lift access for future proofing.

We also got a say in the configuration of the interior. We chose the kitchen and bathroom fittings as well as the bathroom’s positioning. It was a really strong collaborative process from start to finish and we’re absolutely thrilled with our new home.

Do the homes have any eco-friendly or energy saving features as part of the design?

The buildings are constructed from a highly insulated closed panel system and fitted with triple glazed fenestration. Each house has a mechanical ventilation and heat recovery system, so the air is refreshed six times an hour. We also have air source heat pumps that bring renewable energy to our central heating system.

All the dwellings and the common house run off a small district heating system, but we hardly ever use it. Even in the height of the winter, we have rarely felt the need to put our radiators on.

Are there any units still for sale?

There are 42 properties on this development. We have six houses left and two remaining one-bed apartments. Anyone can apply to buy them, there’s no vetting process at all. We’re very open and transparent and it’s self-selecting; we don’t choose you, you choose us.

We are honest about what’s involved with cohousing and what it actually means to live in this kind of community. We like interested parties to come along for a social, a meeting or both and to stay in our guest rooms. That way they can find out what living on Marmalade Lane is all about and decide if it’s for them.

Do you think cohousing communities will start to gain more popularity in the UK?

It’s a fantastic model that I really hope will be replicated more around the country.

There are a lot of groups out there that are very keen to progress with their cohousing builds, but sadly, they can’t get the land. I think that’s because of the way developers tend to hang onto sites as the value is always looked at solely in monetary terms and profit, rather than what they can bring to the community.

Guide to Designing a Collective Self-Build

In the UK, a wide variety of groups have successfully united to create new housing – from friends that club together and use their own money to buy land through to larger sites with 50 or 100 plots. Here Julian Owens explains how you can embark on a scheme to build your own community-based development.


I think some people think we want to pull up the drawbridge and be our own little self-contained unit, but we’re not like that at all. We are very engaged with the environment and the local area. I would encourage councils to look at what plots they have and the cohousing groups out there, because they add value to an area by creating a community of engaged and active people. We have a rubbish ramble every month to help clear up litter in the area and we’re engaged in a local wildlife project, too. We’re really keen to be outward looking when it comes to the place we live.

Hopefully more people will begin to understand what cohousing is and think it’s a good idea, so we’ll get more of these built around the country.

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