LIKE most grand designs it started as a pipe dream by a like-minded group of friends.
Now the new Lancaster Co-housing site at Forge Bank on the river Lune in Halton is nearing completion and residents have started to move in.
Reporter NICK LAKIN talks exclusively to residents about living the green dream.
IMAGINE hugely reduced utility bills, vehicle free streets, superb river views, and the potential to work just a few metres from your front door.
How about the advantages of shared guest houses, shared meals, childcare, municipal activity rooms and a car pool scheme?
For many this is the impossible dream, but for one group of green-minded people in Lancaster it has become reality.
The eco-seed was planted in December 2005 when a group of friends were looking for somewhere to renovate and share living space.
The idea grew and the groupembarked on a project that would result in a six acre, £8.2m, 41 home development that uses a Scandinavian model to create highly efficient, carbon minimal homes.
Lancaster University teacher Mark Westcombe, 42, has been involved in the project since day one together with Chris Coates, Jon Sear, Kathy Bashford and Nat Gill, all members of the Lancaster Green Party.
Mark, originally from Cardiff, moved to Lancaster in 1994.
He said: “It took us four years to find the right site, and this followed trips to Sweden and California to look at co-housing models there.
“For me, the idea is that you have your own private life but with an opportunity to do things and share support with your neighbours.
“I used to live on a street that was friendly but there was no intention to be in a community, but here, everyone wants to live in a community. “We’re constantly bumping into eachother, it reinforces relationships, we’re doing food orders and saving money, we’ve got three lawn mowers and two washing machines between us.
“It’s a bit like an extended family, and you know they’re still going to be here tomorrow.”
Mark is well read on the technology that goes into building the properties.
He said: “The walls are so solid it’s as far away from drafty as you can get.
“They have a large quantity of insulation, and it is designed to make sure there’s no conduction of heat.
“In a mild winter you shouldn’t have to have your heating on at all.
“One of our biggest achievements is we’ve managed to build to this standard but still keep to the market price in Halton.”
Some of the environmentally friendly features include triple argon gas windows, solid timber framing, one radiator for the whole house and a thermo-mass boiler, powered by a large woodchip boiler that services the whole site.
The homes also use a mechanical heat ventilation recovery system to regulate the temperature inside.
Mark said this resulted in £25 per year fuel bills, and water bills dropping by half.
He’s even using a non-electric teracotta cooling device in place of a fridge.
As well as the technology involved, the site also features shared utility and social space.
There is a large shared common house for cooking and sharing communal meals, which opens out on to a patio and garden space at the back.
There is also workshop and office space in the form of The Mill, a shared tool and bike store, food lada, activity room for youngsters, and a further five acres of land, including woodland that adjoins the site that the group bought from a landowner.
“We’ve built more houses than we initially thought,” said Mark.
“We’re pretty close to what the original dream was and we’ve got all the communal facilities we were looking for.
“I’m ecstatic about this, I’m really chuffed.
“When I was a kid we went to Butlins, and this feels a bit like that. It feels like being on holiday.”
Another resident, Lancashire County Coun Chris Coates, has been closely involved in the project management of the site and has seen it slowly develop.
He said: “It’s been a fantastic site to work with and you had to see through the dereliction.
“In some ways it designed itself. We’re going to end up with a long street with river frontages.
“I can’t wait until February, to have been in here for six months, and just see how the whole place settles down.
The question I keep asking is ‘is this what green living looks like?’
“I think the answer would be yes. This is green living, but it’s conventional building to a high standard.
“It’s nothing complicated.
“I would certainly like to see this replicated. It would be a shame if we’re just a one off but we’ve shown it can work.”
Chris said he has been walking around pinching himself now that the major work has been done.
He added: I feel like I’m in the right place at the right time and everything is falling into place.
“I wondered where the catch was.
“A lot of the support we’ve had is because we’ve been so ambitious.”
Garstang based firm Whittles got the building contract for the project, the bricks are from Caton, and the site was designed with the help of architects EcoArc from Staveley.
Residents pay their fuel bills to Lancaster Co-housing, which is partnered with More Renewables and Halton Hydro, a hydro-electric scheme which has planning permission for further down the river.
Kathy Bashford, 40, has moved into the development with her partner and two children Polly, three, and Isla, six months.
Part of Kathy’s role has been to encourage new people to join the scheme and purchase property.
“We kind of based it on instinct,” she said.
“But we’ve not turned anyone away.
“It’s great for the kids to have the other children so close by.
“We just think it’s great to have the children growing up, getting to know other people really well.
“Polly will be able to walk down the street without us worrying.
There will be no cars about, and we can arrange informal shared childcare with the other parents.
“We’ve all got a lot of things in common. Things like the communal meals, it’s great for everyone.
“It feels fantastic to be here, it’s all finally come true. We knew it was what we all wanted.”
Dawn Keyse got the keys to her eco-home on Monday.
Dawn and her partner Pete, both 58, moved specifically to Lancaster to take up residence at Forge Bank in Halton.
Dawn had been living in the Peak District and Pete had found out about the project “around a camp fire”, before coming to set up in Lancaster.
Dawn said: “I knew I wanted to live in this collaborative community way.
“I joined as a friend of the group three and a half years ago.
“Pete joined before me, and at first I thought I would never do it, leaving my friends and the place I knew.
“But he brought me down to the river and said they’ve put in a bid for this land, and I just knew it was right.
“There’s definitely a magnetism to this place.
“When I decided this was what I wanted, I started using the car less, wound down my business, put my house on the market, and looked at where I could practice homeopathy from.
“I’ve given my van away to the travel plan - it’s now our vehicle.
“I haven’t found my niche in the group yet, I think in later years I’ll probably end up becoming the wise old crone.”
The site is expected to be fully completed by Easter 2013.