OWCH starts on site

After 16 years of set-backs and delays, the OWCH site was declared open by Theresa Villiers, MP for Chipping Barnet.

On the perfect, sunny morning of 27th February 2015, after 16 years of searching, hoping and planning, finally the great day came when the OWCH site in Barnet, North London, (the UK’s first ground-breaking purpose-built, senior cohousing scheme exclusively for older women) was cleared of existing buildings and was declared open for building to start.

Theresa Villiers, MP for Chipping Barnet and Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, signalled the start on site of the “New Ground Cohousing” development in Union Street, Barnet and cheerfully climbed on to a mechanical digger to congratulate “some very determined ladies” from her constituency, who had shown great foresight.

OWCH (Older Women’s CoHousing) is a group of women aged from 50 to 87 who got together in 1998, following a talk by Maria Brenton, to plan this first co-housing community for older women in the UK.  Hanover Housing (which develops housing for older people) purchased the site in 2011, for the building of 25 flats – 17 of which have already been acquired off-plan by members of OWCH.

The other 8 flats, part-funded by the Tudor Trust, have been set aside for OWCH members who are social renters, in partnership with a charitable housing association, Housing for Women, who specialise in providing gender-sensitive support services to women and who have offered strong  support for OWCH throughout.

Christopher Graves, Director of the Tudor Trust, said: ‘This has been an extraordinary journey for the members of OWCH, and the Tudor Trust has been privileged to be part of that journey. Our trustees have supported the project in anticipation that this aptly-named scheme really will break new ground in demonstrating the social value of co-housing, especially for older people.’

Tracy Lavers, Executive Director of Development for Hanover, says: ‘Five years ago the HAPPI Report championed the idea of interdependence rather than independence. It proposed self-supporting communities as an alternative to the more traditional forms of retirement housing and housing that positively reflects the hopes and desires we all have for our later lives.’

The scheme is due to complete in February 2016, when Hanover will hand over management of the scheme to Housing for Women, a charity supporting women by providing secure, affordable housing and related services.

Maria Brenton, consultant for OWCH, adds: ‘It is a fine achievement to have come this far and we are grateful to Hanover, Tudor Trust, Housing for Women and OWCH members past and present. Even more important than construction is the “virtual community” OWCHmembers have already developed as a basis for their life together in the new building.’

Jakki Moxham, Chief Executive of Housing for Women, says: ‘Our pioneering cohousing scheme gives older women the unique opportunity to live in a mutually-supportive community, but also have the privacy of their own front door. With specialist older women services, and 80 years’ expertise in social housing and gender support services, we are proud to be part of this scheme that enables older women to stay independent and active for as long as possible.’

Architects Pollard Thomas Edwards (PTE) designed the scheme, in collaboration with the members of OWCH. Patrick Devlin, Partner atPTE, says: ‘This has been an exceptional opportunity for us build on our work on the HAPPI report by putting together and refining a collaborative design process with an engaged and enthusiastic group of future residents. With the backing of Hanover and the guidance of Housing for Women, the members of OWCH have worked hard and creatively to achieve a design that reflects their values and identity to create a contemporary, well-designed, low-energy building – including common areas and garden space – suitable for living in later years and blending sympathetically with the local conservation area.

‘With custom build and cohousing in the public eye, pathfinder projects such as this show what can be achieved with the right stakeholder commitment. The group’s investment in the design process will contribute significantly to the intentional and mutually supportive character of the finished development. For PTE, lessons learnt from the women of OWCH are already informing the range of our 3rd Age housing work, as well as collaborative design with other cohousing groups.’

The construction of “New Ground Cohousing” is being undertaken by Quinn London.