Cambridge K1 Consensus Decision Making

Cohousing and consensus – developing a new cohousing community

Currently, a core of 23 families are in the process of planning and designing a brand new neighbourhood for around 40 households, where community spirit will be intrinsic. They are all members of Cambridge Cohousing Ltd (CCL), the company they have formed to help them realise their ambition of a cohousing community at a site called K1 in Orchard Park Cambridge.

From formulating the vision to developing the design brief, every decision has been taken together. Community decisions will continue to be the guiding principle once construction is finished and people can move into K1, which is due to happen by the end of 2016.

By then, the members hope that what they are learning now about group collaboration will help create a cohesive community and ease the path towards co-operative decision-making day to day.

What’s clear so far is that consensus is a sweet spot that can be hard to reach, being neither about unanimity nor about compromise. Instead, it’s a creative process, defined by respect for others and openness to ideas. Sometimes the most effective and even unexpected results can emerge, whether from the heat of group discussion or from someone who has been quietly listening on the sidelines.

For the core group of early members involved in hundreds of hours of meetings over more than five years, there are memories of poring over drawings trying to decide the optimum number of parking spaces or where to site the entrance to the scheme – not decisions that most buyers of new homes would even get a chance to influence.

Longstanding member Miranda Garfoot was involved from the start and recalls the effort to reach decisions in those early meetings, even when only a small group was involved: “The mood in the room depended a lot on what we were discussing. Not everyone was fired up by drainage systems or thermal bridging but when it came to talking about cohousing principles and things like the Common House design, there were often very clear opinions expressed.”

“Sometimes there was tension but most often it was interesting and invigorating, with the odd eureka moment giving everyone a lift. We knew we were there to get something good for everyone – so no points-scoring, taking sides or talking over others. We also made it a priority to minute meetings accurately and circulate the notes, as well as creating a lot of other key documents for people to contribute to and comment on.”

Years later, outline planning stage has been reached, with a shiny new masterplan and imaginative designs almost ready to go forward to a full planning application.

Almost. The initial small group of cohousers is growing fast, making decision-making more complex and involved but also more dynamic. They are now at the stage of working with the developers on the nitty-gritty. It’s intensive, and a lot of collective agreements need to be reached efficiently.

Timescale pressures, a high volume of fairly complex information and encouraging everyone to stay engaged and motivated are all coming into play.

“In cohousing, it’s extremely important for everyone to have a say in the planning and design as well as in the running of the community. We’re constantly striving for the right balance between ensuring that we debate fully and keeping the project on track”, explains Jan Chadwick, a member and director of CCL.

“We firmly believe that the more we’re all involved, the better the decision-making and the more we bind together in preparation for living in K1. It can be a slow process though. Even if members have given something the green light, if the engagement and turnout was lower than ideal, the directors take a call on whether to park the issue until it’s had more discussion, which can defer final decisions even more.”

“The reality is that for most members, the intricacies of creating a cohousing community aren’t part of the day job so keeping up the momentum is hard. It’s not easy to give up leisure time to form an opinion on a lease document or the implications of a communal heating system – just a couple of the things we’re all grappling with at the moment.”

Although most of the members live in Cambridge or within striking distance, so can meet fortnightly in the evenings, the foundations of a lot of the decisions have had to be laid online.

This is where Loomio, the group’s chosen tool for collaborative decisions comes in. Built by a worker-owned team of New Zealand technologists, activists and social entrepreneurs, Loomio is proving to be essential but isn’t without its limitations, especially with all the human factors involved in online communication.

When they join CCL, every member is allocated one vote per household, with the right to put their own proposals up for vote, and also to agree, disagree or abstain from other members’ proposals.

The group has found that a certain amount of discussion needs to happen first at meetings or over email before a proposal can be accurately worded and voted on. Members haven’t found the Loomio interface conducive to detailed debate. Especially in complex areas where there’s a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, it’s easy to lose the thread of a proposal, making it tempting to shrug the shoulders and leave a decision to others – hence the recent move to discuss topics through the group email list instead, inevitably increasing the volume of messages and potentially adding to email overload.

Among the 60 or so proposals currently on Loomio, some are hot off the presses while others date back to two years ago when the group first started using the system. Collective agreements made or pending cover everything from the election of directors right through to whether to invest in an electromagnetic assessment or how to apportion costs of the Common House.

Despite the challenges, the group is committed to their search for consensus as they continue to turn their cohousing plans into reality.

Update January 2017

We are building 42 off plan purchased properties. Two one bedroom affordable flats will not be available to purchase until the build is completed with an application process through the South Cambridge District Councils Home Choice. Currently we have ten three and four bedroom family homes and three two bedroom apartments available for reservation with an estimated on site start date in Spring 2017. The design created in a collaborative process promotes sustainable living and community cohesion.

Twenty-seven of the properties have already been reserved by members, who will have architect designed homes with individual outdoor space, a shared communal garden and a stunning common house where we will share meals and have social gatherings. The Common house will also feature a large community kitchen, a laundry, children’s play space and three spare bedrooms for members to access for guests. The communal garden will be a space for residents to relax, children to run around, food to be grown, games to be played, and gardeners to get creative.

The estimated completion date is late 2017/early 2018. (Information update January 2017).