A new kind of living: NI gets its first co-housing community

17 Jun 2021 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 17 Jun 2021

Eating together. Pic:Unsplash

Northern Ireland’s first co-housing project was launched earlier this month on a 13 acre site on the outskirts of Portaferry, Co Down.

Co-housing communities comprise private homes with extensive shared amenities – this one will include shared greenspace, allotments and a common house which will include a dining room, meeting rooms, play facilities and guest rooms. There’s also scope for workshops and offices.

Its founders are Tyrone Currie, Andrew McMurray and Lynn Finnegan who bought the plot together and are now looking for others to join the community.

The co-housing movement started in Denmark in 1967. Today around 10% of Danes live in such schemes and projects have sprung up across the world as people seek to live more sustainable lives in stronger communities.

This has never been attempted in Northern Ireland before so for three people to buy such a large plot of land seems a very bold step.

Tyrone said: “It is a bit of a risk but not a huge financial risk, I believe the site is worth more than we paid for it. And frankly, I own my own house and have a bit of money lying around so it was a risk I was willing to take.

“The financial risk is manageable – I would say the risk is more emotional because of the huge amount of time and effort, going back 10 years in trying to get a co-housing project to fruition.

“So if this fails I would feel it emotionally but could cope with it financially. But it’s not going to fail!”

Ultimately the plan is for around 30 homes on the site  but these do not need to be built all at once – an initial  10 households would get the project off to a good start, with the rest following over time.

In some respects buying a home in the Portaferry co-housing community is the same as buying any other property: you get the freehold and can sell the property whenever you want.

But there’s much more to it than that. You also get 1/30th of the company that owns the entire site – the common house, the greenspaces, the parking lot, everything.

And on top of that you join a community and have an equal say in decision-making.

Therefore for those interested in getting involved a process of familiarisation, not just with how co-housing works but also your potential neighbours and fellow members of the community is essential.

At Portaferry this will be a three-step process. First people can become “friends” of the scheme. They will be assigned a “buddy” who will answer any questions that they have and they will be able to go to some meetings as an observer and also encouraged to do their own research on how co-housing works and what life is like in other communities.

From there if they are interested in getting involved they can become “associate members” and take part in meetings, joining discussions but not involved in making final decisions. Becoming a full member involves paying a £1000 fee and reserving a plot on the site. From that moment new members have the same rights and responsibilities as the others – the community has no hierarchy.

Tyrone said: “This obviously means that when the plots are filled up those of us who set this up will have no more standing than anyone else. We’ll be totally giving up control over time. There is the risk that those coming in have completely different ideas – but you kind of need that to engage people.”

Decisions will be made co-operatively and those joining the scheme will be expected to abide by them.

Tyrone said: “I’m passionate about this process. The cost is it takes longer to make decisions and you need to put time and effort into meetings but when you do have a decision everyone is on board in a way you don’t get in a hierarchy. If you have a boss people don’t buy in as much to decision making - it’s not the same."

To date the group has held zoom meetings with their immediate neighbours, the wider community in Portaferry and are now starting to hold others with prospective members.

It is a bit early to be definitive about how much the homes will cost, but Portaferry Co-housing’s website states: “We envisage the majority of the houses being in clusters, built to Passive House standards and as sustainable a build as is practicable. A typical new build 3-bed terraced house in Portaferry markets at around 120k; we are aiming for around £130-140k including a share of the communal house and green areas.”

It also hopes to be able to rent some homes to those without the funds for an outright purchase.

Co-housing schemes are not identical but they do have some common principles to their design. Parking areas are away from the homes which are usually designed in clusters so that people naturally meet each other walking to their homes from the car park and around the common house. The common house will have a large dining room so that residents can all eat together once a week if they wish. The point being that the designs of these schemes consciously promote social interaction.

Tyrone explained that the houses would ultimately require around three to four acres, a further three to four acres would be sold off to raise funding, leaving the best part of six acres for green space, gardens, outdoor meeting spaces, an orchard and an area of flood plain which will be rewilded.

There will also be space for small animals, like chickens.

Architects have already been appointed for the project, but plans are in development, meaning that those joining the community will get to input into the process.

There’s obviously a long way to go – recruiting members, completing the design process, getting planning permission, building the homes but Tyrone hopes that this project will inspire others to do the same. Elsewhere in the world co-housing schemes are taking off – demand is high and growing and people rarely leave them.

There is bound to be close scrutiny of this scheme and the take up for it in the weeks and months ahead. At a time when there is more and more focus on strengthening communities to boost our collective wellbeing, the co-housing community adds a potentially exciting option for how we can live our lives within supportive neighbourhoods. 

Further information about the Portaferry Co-housing scheme can be accessed here.



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