I grew up in the suburbs of London. We lived in a traditional semi-detached english home and most activities involved the car. We would drive or take the bus to school. We would drive to shop. We would drive to do sports. We would even drive to the park. We barely knew our neighbours and there was almost no sense of community.
The logic behind this suburban lifestyle was built around the assumption that every family needs space for two cars, a private garden with a shed, 4-5 bedrooms, a kitchen conservatory, a living with the option of an additional dining room. The nuclear family unit was the basis for how we design most of the suburban town houses that exist across the UK.
Families would invest their entire life savings to lock themselves into a lifestyle that involves endless driving and commuting, with oversized homes designed to maximise privacy and minimise any points of community interaction. Everyone lives alone in their rooms. The housework escalates so you hire a cleaner and then a gardener when you get tired of mowing the lawn. The cost of living grows and making money to support this consumption-based lifestyle becomes the priority.
Personally, this model of living in a suburban car-centric nuclear family home feels more like a nightmare than a vision of success that we should be aspiring to. Owning more stuff and space doesn’t give us wealth. True wealth is having the time to do the things we enjoy with the people we love. The lifestyle that society has build for us doesn’t make sense anymore. Surely, there has to be a better way?
During these past lockdown months I have been ‘Zooming’ with a lot of people and communities across the world who are looking to buy land and start their own ‘village building’ project. Some of us are focussing on rural co-housing and eco-tourism. Some of us are working on coliving, placemaking and urban developments. Some of us are doing both. The golden thread is that we all share this desire to live with more sustainability, community, affordability, health / wellness and connection to nature. We are asking similar questions and working on similar projects.
This realisation has inspired two projects.
We are collaborating with Waking Life to host a Village Builders Gathering next year in Portugal. This will be a week-long event that combines festival magic with a common purpose: to build a network of doers who share our passion for building and sustainability. We envision this as a blended unconference event, combining pre-event online connection & conversation, 1 week together and post-event follow-up.
This event will be an opportunity for us to get our hands dirty (build, dig, plant etc) as well as dive into the specific challenges and opportunities that come with starting, sustaining and scale a village building project. The purpose behind our event is to bring the builders together in a unique and inspiring place; to create important bonds and relationships so this movement is truly cooperative rather than competitive.
The other project that I have been working on during lockdown is launching a new social enterprise called Circular UK in partnership with Stephen Burtt, who is both a farmer in Peterborough and a serial entrepreneur and investor. Circular UK is the parent company behind House of Transformation and we are also planning to set up two new ventures called Wild Hotel & Circular Homes with Toby Diggens, a marine biologist and landscape architect who runs Digg&Co.
Wild Hotel is a response to the growing demand for ‘glamping’ that COVID has accelerated as urban dwellers decide to escape to the countryside rather than booking a holiday abroad. We envisage more and more people investing in building their own cabins and tiny homes on farmland that is being ‘rewilded’ as farmers transition from unsustainable farming practices towards more regenerative mixed use business models that include environmental stewardship, permaculture and ecotourism.
We have been binge watching a youtube channel called ‘Living Big in a Tiny House’. In particular we love these three examples ‘Modern Luxury Tiny House’, ‘Off-The-Grid Tiny House’ and ‘Dream Tiny House’. We also discovered this Tiny Home Camping Park called Tiny Tranquility. You can build a stunning modular cabin or tiny house for between £40-80k. When you consider that a 50sqm new-build London apartment in Zones 2-3 can cost up to £500k, you begin to realise the potential of a Tiny House Village model. Can we combine this Tiny House construction concept with the age old co-housing principles that are so well described in the book Creating Cohousing. Check out their website too.
This transition from farming to eco-village will also be accelerated by Brexit and the phasing out of the EU’s Basic Payment Scheme. Industrial farming will no longer be commercially viable and many British landowners have already started to look for new business models. We should also consider Boris’s ‘Build. Build. Build’ agenda to provide ‘planning in principle’ and the permitted development rights that already exist for land that has agricultural and commercial use. Here is a brilliant article written by Studio Bark (co-founders of U-Build) about Paragraph 79 (formerly 55) in planning law. The policy allows the possibility to build an unprecedented home on a piece of land that would otherwise be unsuitable for development, and in so doing, to commission and own a bespoke piece of architecture.
I strongly believe that COVID has presented us with a unique opportunity to fundamentally rethink and redesign the suburban and rural housing model. Chris Dorsey writes of how the Pandemic Leads To Urban Exodus As Families Turn To Self-Reliance And Off-The-Grid Living in Forbes. A few years ago I wrote an article called ‘Building Village 3.0’ with a friend Victor Vorski. He strongly believe that people don't yet fully appreciate how massive change that remote working is going to bring about:
Old patterns of hierarchical fear/presence based management are no longer possible leading to more humane purpose & leadership based organisations
Working remotely eliminates the need to live in large cities, this will lead to a new kind of urban flight re-vitalising the countryside and smaller towns
Parents will spend more time throughout the day with their children, we can't even imagine how this will transform humanity, not the least removing the need for industrial-era, whole-day incarceration-like education system.
Working remotely it is easier to work on multiple projects part-time, balancing work-for-money, work-for-passion and enabling more people to start their own start-ups, side-businesses or contribute to other's dreams.
As we spend more time in our homes and they become more than just bedrooms we start to desire to have more space, more nature, more of a social experience in our neighbourhood - paradoxically I see remote work strengthening local communities just as commuting gutted them.
There will still be a need for cities and the concentrations of culture, talent and capital that they provide. However, a movement is definitely growing where people choose to leave the city and skip the suburbs to build or buy homes in ‘wild’ locations that would have previously been considered too remote.
This is where Circular Homes comes in. Our vision is to build the next generation of rural co-housing across the UK by combining high-tech modular construction methods with regenerative landscape design and permaculture practices.
Let’s consider the market context.
The UK population is projected to grow by 15-20 million people over the next 20 years. The UK government’s nationwide target of building 300,000 new homes per year is not being met. In 2019, only 170,000 homes were built. As a result house prices are rising, especially in our cities.
As working from home becomes the norm, the value of a slightly shorter commute reduces. Increasingly, London commuters will consider buying or renting properties further out from the city centre.
The values, priorities and lifestyle aspirations of the next generation of home owners are changing. Increasingly, people are looking for a more sustainable, community-centric and modern urban living experience within a biodiverse and rural setting. The nostalgia for a traditional British cottage nuclear family home is dying out.
This creates an opportunity to strategically acquire and develop agricultural land that traditionally would not be considered as viable for housing by the larger mainstream house builders. We can step in with a bold and innovative vision for a village scale mixed use co-housing development that will not only provide affordable housing to families but will also deliver net biodiversity gains.
We are exploring a model where the landowner retains long-term ownership of the land but provides us with a long term lease. We then apply for Environmental Stewardship and glamping permits in order to transform their low-productivity agricultural land into stunning woodlands and bio-diverse landscapes perfect for a Tiny House Village and eco-tourism destination.
We can also pursue the long term goal of getting local support and planning permission to build a permanent co-housing village of modular eco-homes that touch the earth gently. The land will be held in common ownership, with residents owning the buildings but not the land.
The core design features of these co-housing rural villages would be;
Centralised car parking with common house and pedestrian street
Car sharing scheme & EV charge points
Onsite renewable power generation
Onsite waste & water treatment
Eco-showers & compost toilets
Experiential community-led permaculture greenhouses & farms
Construct / covert large assembly barn for indoor onsite modular construction
Homes sit gently on earth with structural piles rather than concrete slab foundation
Urban apartment style living experience with open plan kitchen / living room wow entrance
Assembly barn disassembled or converted into amenity space / club house
Rent before you buy
Multi-use co-working, event space, prep kitchen, fitness studio & resident’s lounge / dinning room.
Rural & urban network of hubs (e.g. house of transformation)
Eco-tourism / retreats / glamping / wedding venue
Addition of integrated retirement homes
Addition of forest school / play space / art forest
Perhaps we could even build an open-source platform like Atmos to support communities across the world in co-creating their own co-housing and village building projects
I believe that there is also a wider socio-economic benefit to building eco-villages that could be used as seasonal retreat centers. As Tomas Bjorkman outlines in his Berlin TEDx talk and his book called the Nordic Secret; during the industrial revolution the Nordic countries invested in creating state-funded retreat centers that provided a common space for Bildung which is defined as the practice of inner development where you know your roots and begin to imagine the future. The wider impact of creating affordable and accessible spaces in nature where a new kind of education can take place could be profound, not just for our personal wellbeing but also for the UK economy and society.
During lockdown I started a WhatsApp group called Real Estate Rebels for architects, property developers, designers, impact investors, social entrepreneurs, farmers, ecologists, artists, planners & policy makers who share a passion for sustainability and community-led design. We had dozens of weekly calls to discuss these ideas. The plan is to use our first HoT space in Kingsland Road to start translating these discussions into action.
In conclusion, I hope that this article begins to give you a flavour of the type of projects that we are passionate about and working on. Ultimately, we believe that House of Transformation, Circular Homes and Wild Hotel can merge and contribute to a larger circular economy ecosystem that we have begun to map out in this diagram;
We created this diagram many months ago. It is far from perfect and our thinking has developed quite a bit since then. However, it speaks to our commitment to and passion for the circular economy approach to business. There is no doubt that the circular economy mindset will be a critical piece of the new economy and regenerative future that so many of us are working towards.
If you are curious to learn more or want to explore a partnership or collaboration please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.