Transition Homes - a permaculture designed housing project in Totnes
I'm standing at the top of a gently sloping 7 acre field with wonderful views across the lush green countryside outside Totnes and over the Dartington Hall Estate - okay, actually I'm sat in front of a laptop in my kitchen but in my head I'm in that field!. The field is surrounded by massive oak trees and hedgerows where badgers, deer, rabbits, foxes and a host of other wildlife make an honest living. We aim to keep it that way.
A few months ago we purchased this land to create what I think is the most exciting housing development in the UK. Transition Homes at Clay Park is a development of 25 low carbon homes with integrated food growing, water ecological treatment (WET) systems, coppice for biomass fuels, forest garden, renewable energy systems, wildlife areas and a community hub that will also serve as an education and training centre. Sounds great but what really makes this project different is that these homes are for local people in housing need who can't afford to rent or buy on the open market. This is social housing.
The three basic tenets of permaculture are Earth Care, People Care and Fair Share. This project, which we are trying to design along permaculture principles, aims to follow these three tenets. What does that mean?
Low energy buildings constructed with local, natural materials and a target to generate more energy from renewable sources than is used by residents, compost toilets, grey water treatment on site, green travel options, sustainable horticulture, orchards, forest gardens and a site layout that enhances biodiversity all help to look after the Earth. Affordable homes, low energy costs, access to growing space and a supportive community in a beautiful environment are all pretty good for people care. Add the community hub that aims to become an important centre of training and education in all the areas showcased in this development and earth care / people care extends way beyond the boundaries of Totnes and Devon – Zone 6?
So what about Fair Shares? Anybody can live in a beautiful eco-home if they have the money but if we really want to take sustainable living into the mainstream it has to be an option for everybody, rich and poor. We are still sorting out the details of an allocation policy we have to agree with the local authority to get planning consent but the aim is to make these homes available to local people in housing need who make a commitment to live sustainably. Transition Homes is a Community Land Trust so the affordability is kept in perpetuity for future generations of tenants and shared equity owners. If the finances don’t stack up and we have to sell a house or two at market price to subsidise the others then those homes will look the same (tenure blind is the jargon) and the owners will be part of the same community with the same rights and obligations.
Transition Homes CLT has 10 directors, none of whom are likely to qualify as residents, so it’s really important to allocate homes as early as possible and harness the energy of future residents in the design, site layout, construction and community building phases of this project. If people are changing to a more sustainable lifestyle then involving them in the decision making process as early as possible will help to build ownership and - well, it's the fair thing to do.
So how did we get this far? The project grew out of the Building & Housing Group in Transition Town Totnes about 5 years ago. In 2011, with support from the National CLT Network, we established our CLT as a legal entity but the real breakthrough came early this year when local supporters loaned us £250,000 to buy a site. Venturesome agreed to lend us £60,000 to help prepare a planning application and we are currently talking to Locality and the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA) about Community Led Project Support grants. Further HCA grants are available to help with building the homes, the Lottery Fund could help wth the Community Hub and the Rural Community Energy Fund is there to support community renewable energy schemes.
But that's enough about money. This project started with no money at all and I like to quote whoever it was that said 'people lead and money follows'. The real reason this project exists is because around a dozen people have worked together to make it happen. It hasn't always been easy but when difficulties have surfaced the right support has always been available. TTT's Inner Transition Group provided an independent facilitator when we needed to resolve disagreements, trainings around effective groups and the general culture within Transition help keep us from blows and the excitement of being part of this great big transition experiment keeps us going when obstacles arise, and it's good to remember that the problems we are now facing are the problems of success!
On the wall of the room where we meet we have a list of principles from Transition and Permaculture that look down on us and keep us in line, remind us to build partnerships, create no waste, build resilience and produce a yield. We've run short permaculture design courses, got permaculture designers Patrick Whitefield and Jay Abrahams involved (they were arguing about swales in the middle of our field just a few days ago) and excited the interest of Bea Rowan and Jim Carfrae, two of the UK's top straw bale builders.
So how much difference will this project really make? The honest answer is that it's just a drop in the river Dart - unless it becomes an inspiring example that others can copy, learn from and improve upon. We want this development to be replicable and reproducible and that means involving volunteers wherever possible and welcoming every educational opportunity that arises.
What else? Far too much to cover in this blog but watch this space - and another one that sits beside the A385 between Totnes and Dartington.