The view from the south looking over the lake towards the terrace.
Not far from the minster town of Southwell, Nottinghamshire, in England’s Midlands (Robin Hood country to you) Hockerton housing cooperative is one of the UK’s best-known example of communal one planet living. Five households have been forging a new way of living there for 15 years that is more sustainable than most, and self-sufficient in energy, water, sewage treatment and much food. They also run courses, both online and offline, and accept site visits.
When I went to see them it was a lovely late summer’s day. All of the trees and bushes were laden with fruit.
Part of the vegetable garden at Hockerton Housing Project.
I was taken on a tour by Bill, a resident who’d been living there for about seven years with his family. We explored the ten acres of orchards and fields where residents grow 40% of their food, keeping bees, sheep and hens. The community is about two-thirds self-sufficient in vegetables but less for fruit and meat. The hives most years generate more honey than can be eaten so surplus is exchanged. Wine-making makes use of some fruit/vegetable excesses.
Hockerton looking east from the roof of the terrace. On the left is the earth covered rear of the homes, which merges into the orchard. To the right is the lake. The chimney is for natural ventilation. At the top of the glazing can be seen the photovoltaic array.
I was taken next to a pond that collects water filtered for use in their washing machines, sinks and toilets. Drinking water is collected from the glass roof of the conservatory in front of the row of houses via copper pipes, which are slightly antiseptic, and stored in a tank with a capacity sufficient to last around 100 days. The water is passed through a five-micrometre string filter, a carbon filter and a UV-light filter. The community is self-sustaining in water and energy.
All of the effluent is purified using an attractive reed bed at the side of the homes, buzzing with dragonflies and other insects, whose outflow enters a long lake situated along the front of the terrace, which is stocked with carp that is harvested for food or sale, and on which the children go boating. The whole is a haven for wildlife.
The houses themselves are partly earth-covered on the north side, for insulation, and constructed of a shell of dense concrete. The idea is to create thermal mass to hold the sun’s heat that is captured by the south-west facing conservatories, which are also used for clothes drying.
Nowadays we know more about the carbon cost of using concrete and there are carbon-saving alternatives that do the same job. Each house is six metres deep, not so deep that it’s dark at the back, and 19 metres wide, fronted by a sunny conservatory accessed by French windows.
The rooms at the back are reserved for functions requiring less use and light, such as bathrooms and utility rooms. The homes are spacious, light, warm and comfortable.
Right: The two wind turbines and willow for coppicing.
Electricity is provided by 7.65 kW peak arrays of PV panels on the roof and new ones on the office to help power that and charge an electric shared car, and by two nearby wind turbines;
- a 6 kW Proven wind turbine installed early 2002 year (upgraded in 2008) and
- a 5 kW Iskra wind turbine installed in 2005 as part of the construction of a community building.
The wind turbines have produced only 40-50% of their projected output (partly due to turbulence and poorly matched inverters), some heat pumps failed, and energy use has been higher than expected (put down to teenagers, more people working from home and food processing).
This is why more PVs were installed in 2012.
The typical energy use for a house is around 10kWhrs/day (all electric).
The community has on balance more electricity than it needs and the surplus is exported to the grid for profit.
Hot water is produced partly via a heat pump and super-insulated thermal stores, but since they mainly failed, mostly by electricity.
Below: the view looking directly down across the solar electric panels, a solar water heating panel, and into the small patch of private front garden each dwelling has, with a raised bed and composting area.
Part of Hockerton’s mission is to spread the word about how it is possible to live more lightly on the earth. Although residents own their own homes they are all members of a cooperative and agree to spend 300 paid hours per year supporting a joint business which runs a programme of tours and educational events, workshops and consulting on both new and retrofit energy efficient building.
Finance for the building and land purchase came from the Co-operative Bank & Ecology Building Society. If you wanted to live there it would not be cheap: despite construction costing just 15% more than an average house of comparable size (£95,000 in 1998), recently one of the four bedroomed homes sold for £500,000. So it’s not for everyone, and rather the opposite of much of what we think of as ‘low impact housing’ in the UK.
“My kids love it here,” says Bill. “And, after the initial suspicion, the local council and residents like us too. In fact, they are very proud of us.”
The planning conditions
Planning permission was initially granted with great difficulty, despite the involvement of senior academics Robert and Brenda Vale, from Nottingham University’s Architecture Department, who had built and lived in the country’s first autonomous, self-sufficient home in a Conservation Area in nearby Southwell. This is because the founders wanted to build on agricultural land, something not permitted in the UK without good reason because of the fear of land speculation and ‘unfettered development’.
Permission eventually came with a condition (a ‘Section 106′ requirement), whereby a fixed number of hours (300 per year per household) must be spent on the land, in addition to the same number of hours spent on the community’s business.
This condition seems to me to be both fairer, more achievable and manageable, than having to provide a percentage of food supply from the land, as with One Planet Developments in Wales. It also helps to secure the planners’ prime directive of preventing such developments becoming owned by people who do not want to use the land, and who will instead commute to jobs elsewhere.
300 hours per year is just about six hours per week, which is quite do-able and leaves time for other work and leisure, plus the other 300 hours of Co-op work.
The project had to be viewed by the planning department as “a move towards Sustainable Development”, which “could be seen as complimenting the council’s (Newark & Sherwood District Council) own energy / environmental activities”. Account was taken of the social provisions of the scheme – “(it) is not just for the houses in an isolated situation but as a whole living project…the occupants of the dwellings will work on the site towards a system of self-sufficiency through sustainable employment with low impact on the environment”.
Besides owning a shared electric car, some families have fossil-fuel powered cars, two share one of these, and there are many bikes for local journeys.
To improve biodiversity over 4,000 trees have been planted around the site, including willow for coppicing, wild cherries for birds, and oak and hazel.
Because of this and the lake/wetland, biodiversity is flourishing, with several pairs of regular breeding waterfowl on the lake, including little grebe.
A number of passing bird migrants have been seen including green sandpiper, hobby and water rail. The ponds are monitored by the local agricultural college (Brackenhurst) who are pleased about a flourishing population of the endangered water vole.
Many people have visited this inspiring place and attended workshops, but so far, despite individual homes being modeled on aspects of the project, no community has yet emulated it in full.
Why is this, I wonder? Perhaps it’s due to the difficulty of finding the right combination of land, motivated, experienced architects, pioneers and finance. It’s notable that three of the community-scale projects I looked at in the course of writing my book The One Planet Life (of which this article is an extract) – BedZED, Hockerton and Lammas – have been led by visionary architects.
We need more of them.
More info at http://www.hockertonhousingproject.org.uk/.
“This year’s must have book.” Jane Davidson, former Environment Minister for Wales and Director of INSPIRE
“Makes the irrefutable case for ‘one planet living’” – Oliver Tickell, editor, The Ecologist