Real Estate

Could co-living ease the UK countryside’s housing crisis?

illustration of a community in the countryside. Adults and children working and playing
© Clare Melinsky

The proportion of the United Kingdom classified as “continuous urban fabric” — ie cities — is 0.1 per cent. Another 5.3 per cent is considered “discontinuous urban fabric” (in which 50-80 per cent of the land is built on). The rest is mostly countryside. The UK might often be thought of as one of the more densely populated places to live. It is not. The densest? That would be Macau. Then Monaco, Singapore, Hong Kong, Gibraltar . . . The UK comes in at number 50, eight places below Japan and just above Pakistan.

Yet that huge expanse of land is protected vociferously, as if it were a tiny sliver under constant pressure from expanding cities. In many ways, the countryside is suffering a far more acute housing shortage than the metropolis, which can at least grow — upwards, outwards (sometimes) and in density.

The winner of this year’s Davidson Prize, a £10,000 annual award for design ideas attempting to address issues in housing, focused precisely on this question. A team led by Charles Holland Architects developed a model for co-living in the countryside, which, though it looks quite a modest proposal, in terms of the actual architecture of contemporary UK housing, is actually remarkably radical.

The plan is to create a rented accommodation model able to address the needs of a disempowered demographic, the (mostly) young who would like to continue living in the countryside, or to move there and to stay there. It is a design that attempts to ask the questions that the mass housebuilders are resolutely not asking. How are households changing? How has WFH affected the need for domestic space? How can accommodation be adapted to changing needs throughout life to enable a community to put down roots? Can we envisage a more communal, more co-operative lifestyle? What might it look like? And what might the neighbours think?

“There seems to be a real dearth of ideas about how rural housing can be done,” Charles Holland tells me. “There’s only one model: the mass housebuilders’ — mostly detached, executive houses based around a cul de sac. There are all kinds of other issues we wanted to look at: loneliness, childcare, car dependency, diversity and the lack of affordable housing in the country.”

Period buildings along a high street
The proposed development could be built on the edge of the village of Alfriston in East Sussex © Greg Balfour Evans/Alamy

The drawings the group presented are undoubtedly eye-catching. An eccentric, irregular range of housing around a central communal space, the houses sprout quirky, colourful, toylike pavilions on their roofs, while the yard is a patchwork of green, allotments, trees and play spaces.

“We were interested in making the architecture a framework which allows different types of living to go on — in contrast to most rural housing, which is hard to adapt and aimed squarely at a nuclear family,” says Holland. The designs are simple, timber-framed continuous units with flexible interiors. The interest comes on top. If they need to grow, the intention is that they should grow upwards with a great degree of design freedom so that the profile of the housing would change over time.

“We wanted to build in adaptability,” says Verity-Jane Keefe, an artist who was part of the winning proposal and who has worked extensively with communities to understand the way people adapt and customise their homes. “What is it to have estates that you could grow with? If you suddenly find yourself single, you’d be able to stay [ . . .] We all have an interest in change and adaptation in housing and we wanted to move beyond style and the horrendous debate about traditional architecture.”

Line chart of Average property price (£) showing Rural home prices are increasing faster than those in towns and cities

That debate is indeed very live. The curious thing about the aesthetic architectural discourse in the British countryside is an assumption that the housebuilders are delivering what people want, as proven, they may suggest, by their sales. But what if that is all that is available? The default brick houses with pitched roofs set in acres of tarmac have created estates that purport to be “in keeping” with their surroundings (perhaps using some local brick, slate or stone) but actually produce bleak, isolated, car-reliant landscapes of painful banality.

This is an attempt to do something different. And to do it on a real site on the edge of a beautiful village of the South Downs, Alfriston in East Sussex.

Matthew Morgan, another member of the team and director of the Quality of Life Foundation, says: “We wanted to ask, ‘What do people value and what do they need? Alfriston is on the edge of the Downs, this huge natural and social resource which is unavailable to most people. There is a very high percentage of people around here who own their property outright, it’s an older population and there are very few opportunities for people who grow up here to become homeowners.”

An image of the Alfriston project
An image of the Alfriston project by Charles Holland Architects © Co-Living In The Countryside

The Davidson Prize, it should be noted, awards ideas. This proposal does not have planning permission, although its designers are hopeful that winning will have boosted its chances.

One of its real innovations is its rental-only model. In a landscape affected by rampant house-price inflation and second homes (outsiders outpricing the locals), the idea here is that there would be no chance for residents to buy these homes. Instead, the intention is something like the Community Land Trusts envisaged by the founders of the garden city movement in the 19th century.

This model involved benefits accruing from improvements to be used for community benefit rather than individual profit. Successful in places such as Letchworth Garden City in the UK and later in India and the US, interest has recently been revived in the model as an antidote to private capture of communal gains and the benefits of government spending and community work.

“This scheme tries to find a different model for rented co-living,” says Holland. “It is concerned with looking at diversity of occupation, a place which might attract people who otherwise wouldn’t think of, or be able to live in the country.”

An image of the Alfriston project
The adaptable houses of the Alfriston project can accommodate multigenerational living, extended families and other types of non-nuclear households © Co-Living In The Countryside

The concentration of dwellings and their flexible layouts are intended to address a whole barrage of contemporary issues. Proximity and shared play space creates possibilities for childcare, so often a problem in rural locations. As well as the potential for shared kitchen and dining areas, flexible layouts promise an easier accommodation of working from home and domesticity in one location and workshops make less domesticated labour accessible on site.

Co-living is, of course, nothing new. It is arguably the oldest form of housing, in which residents share spaces and amenities. But in its modern incarnation (and as an aspiration rather than a slum) there are fine examples, from early Soviet architecture (such as Moscow’s Narkomfin Building, built 1928-30) through hippy communes and desert cults (famously, Paolo Soleri’s Arcosanti in Arizona) to Danish experiments in the 1970s. More recently, it was revived for use in increasingly unaffordable cities, in New York and London, to address acute housing shortages.

Bar chart of Annualized rental growth (%) showing Rural rental prices are growing faster than in towns and cities

But its adoption in the British countryside, outside the occasional cult, is unusual. It envisages a flexibility in the lifestyles it supports, designed to encourage a greater diversity of dwellers than might be expected. Houses can accommodate multigenerational living, extended families, non-nuclear families and either more or less communal lifestyles.

The proximity of dwellings and the range of domestic arrangements they could support are intended to address the problems of loneliness and isolation often associated with rural life.

Diversity, however, is not what you’d associate with Alfriston. Or indeed much of the English countryside. It is true that since Brexit much agricultural labour has come from as far afield as Bangladesh and Nepal but those tend to be temporary workers, living in isolated accommodation, remaining unintegrated in the communities. In 2020, the “white ethnic” group accounted for 98.6 per cent of the population of rural areas.

A row of rural-style houses with garden frontyards along a road
The garden city movement gave rise to Letchworth Garden City, Hertfordshire, among others in England © Getty Images/iStockphoto

Joseph Henry, the final member of the winning team, is the capital development manager of the culture and creative industries unit of the Greater London Authority. He is optimistic about increasing rural diversity. “A lot of people come to the UK from rural situations,” he says, “but they tend to end up in cities where there might be established communities. There are assumptions around where people want to live.”

Change is happening, though. “There are quite a lot of rural ethnic Tory MPs coming through,” he laughs — Tory leadership candidate Rishi Sunak, for instance, is MP for Richmond, an affluent rural North Yorkshire seat. “The countryside will become more diverse.”

One of the barriers to building new houses in the countryside is the neighbours. Everyone is in favour of more housing. Just not here. (The acronym BANANA as the hypertrophied nimby, “build absolutely nothing anywhere near anyone”, seems to capture it).

“The question,” says Henry, “is how you make people feel more invested.” A lot of it is about governance, he adds, in reference to their co-living project. “The board members [for the housing committee] could be anyone, including people from the local community. And the site should become an amenity for the community, with childcare, workshops, facilities, allotments.” Bring the wider public on board, he reasons, and you can pre-empt some of the antagonism.

Protesters along a street holding a banner
Protesters opposed to a new housing estate outside Dorchester © Finnbarr Webster/Getty

Even though the team has attempted to avoid too prescriptive an architecture, the drawings look pretty wacky — a kind of self-build utopia of half-timbered, mock-Tudor roof extensions, green greenhouses, inflatables. “Well, people do do absolutely crazy things to their houses,” says Holland.

It is part of an effort to give renters, who usually have so little control over their surroundings, a degree of agency, to allow them to mould their dwellings to their needs to encourage them to stay and build community. Holland refers to anarchist architect Colin Ward, “who developed an idea of ‘dweller control’ and who was critical of the disempowerment created by bureaucratic management”.

It is an intriguing proposal. The site, an abandoned farm on what Holland refers to as “the less pretty side of the village”, is currently scrappy but also exactly the kind of place for an experiment like this. Keefe says that when she visited the site “curtains were a-twitching and the immediate neighbours were initially combative”.

But you need commitment, she says, meaningfully embedding yourself in the community and identifying people for the project who already have connections to the village. As yet, it’s unclear whether that support has been forthcoming, but at least they are thinking about it.

They all tell me about the importance of identifying what the community needs. “Not 3D printers and creative hubs,” says Keefe, identifying one of the purest tropes of contemporary developer-speak. “We found there were a lot of builders around here — working on the big, expensive houses — and they needed space. You could build workshops for them to use, integrating the place into the community.”

Commercial housing developments can be bleak and isolating
Commercial housing developments can be bleak and isolating © Getty Images/iStockphoto

“The site is a kind of edge condition, where housing begins to merge with the rural,” Holland says. “We were very inspired by the plotlands, that rich landscape between suburban and countryside,” he says, referring to the post-first world war projects that allocated returning servicemen small rural plots and allowed them to build their own dwellings.

That moment produced a surprisingly enduring alternative to the mainstream of developers’ housing. The Dunton Plotlands and Jaywick Sands, both in Essex, survive as testament, though the latter is often held up as one of the most deprived places in the UK. The countryside is not always a bucolic idyll.

The Alfriston site has already been designated for housing, so this proposal has a chance of being realised. But it is a radical departure from the norm, a bottom-up, non-profit approach to a field that has been delegated almost entirely to commercial developers. Its real interest, however, will emerge only with time, as residents remodel and reimagine their houses and their community.

This is, of course, how the chocolate box village itself grew, with its layers accreting over centuries, adapting to changing demands. Then, somehow, it got stuck in one moment, its beauty both blessing and curse. It would be thrilling to see this proposal realised. But even better to see it a century on, evolved rather than designed.

Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s design and architecture critic

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