Open House Project: A budding community

Space for parties, film shows and meals; a productive garden and orchard; mutual support for childcare and older age; and connection with family and friends. It was a desire to make room for the good things in life that ignited the idea behind the Open House Project – a self-supportive co-housing community based on the outskirts of Sheffield.

Room to grow
Greg Care, one of Open House Project’s founding members, comments, “We realised that ours wasn’t a new idea, just the adaptation of an ancient one, brought up-to-date.” The group began looking for a site in early 2011 and – having discovered that derelict urban sites came with little or no land while greenfield plots were too expensive – they focussed their energy on farms and farm buildings.

Things began to look promising when they landed upon Barnes Hall Farm – a 400-year-old property on the outskirts of Sheffield, which includes four listed structures. The buildings were in relatively good condition and the group’s request for additional land was met with the offer of an adjoining field.

It took over two years of preparation and negotiation before they secured planning permission for seven dwellings, plus a communal living space. The process was helped by one of the members, Leo, being a qualified architect. With input from the other residents, he’s used his expertise to design a development that respects the original character of the buildings, while supporting a sustainable lifestyle for residents.

Greg stresses that, although they were lucky enough to have Leo’s expertise, a lack of previous experience needn’t dissuade others from entering into a co-housing project: “It may seem huge, but when you divide out the responsibility amongst a whole group of people as opposed to  it all falling on one person’s shoulders, then it becomes do-able, even if you’ve got no experience. That’s exactly what co-housing is all about.”

Funding a budding community
Sourcing finance for a project as unique as Open House can be a challenge. Ecology was identified as a good fit due to its ability to tailor a mortgage to the individual characteristics of the project and its strong experience of lending within the community-led housing sector.

Greg comments, “Ecology has not only made finance available to us but has shown interest and support for our co-housing scheme throughout the process. They’ve given us time and understanding and have made us feel very much like partners committed to the same sustainable objectives rather than ordinary folk taking on a huge project with little experience.”

As well as offering residential mortgages on some of the finished Open House properties, Ecology is lending on the current phase to create two more dwellings, releasing payments in stages as the work progresses.

Bearing fruit
The first pair of dwellings are now complete with work underway on the next two. All of the homes are insulated to a high standard and have solar panels to reduce energy consumption. The site has its own plant room which houses the equipment for the ground source district heating system and water supply – a cornerstone to the whole project.

Throughout the works, the project’s mantra has been ‘recycle and reuse’, and in the six years of the redevelopment there’s only been one skip of materials taken of site, mainly comprised of old asbestos roof sheets.

Gradually, the character of the site has begun to establish itself: the orchard has been planted with fruit trees, the polytunnel erected, bat boxes installed, and a ‘David Nash inspired’ plantation of Silver Birch now graces the site entrance. The imaginative and sensitive approach to the renovation was formally recognised when, in 2018, the project won the Conservation category at the Sheffield Design Awards.

Reflecting on the potential of financial organisations to facilitate more community-led housing schemes, Greg says, “Like Ecology, I hope that they’ll have an open mind when it comes to crazy groups of people with wonderful plans! And realise that with a bit of guidance, they will represent not just a good investment for the organisation, but a good investment for the community and for the environment generally.”

Find out more about Ecology’s community-led housing mortgages.