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Transforming NHS offices into £3 million communal home in Sheffield

Paul Skelton and Kate Housden outside Brincliffe House. Picture by Marie Caley
Paul Skelton and Kate Housden outside Brincliffe House. Picture by Marie Caley

A £3 million project to create a 'different way of living' in a Sheffield suburb is taking shape in earnest.

Brincliffe House, a large empty building last used as NHS offices on Osborne Road, Brincliffe, is being converted into 15 apartments after it was bought by a group of residents who are setting up a 'co-housing' community called On The Brink.

Brincliffe House in Nether Edge, where a co-housing community is being created. Picture by Marie Caley

Brincliffe House in Nether Edge, where a co-housing community is being created. Picture by Marie Caley

Members purchased the Victorian property at the end of 2015, but real progress has been made with building work only in recent months. Old fittings are being stripped out, communal areas will be formed and at the back a new block is being built, contributing to the total number of flats.

Fourteen adults, plus one child, are set to move in at the start of next year. The age range - nine to 71 - spans many generations, and there are still two units left to be occupied, with prices starting from £185,000.

"It's beginning to feel like a long haul, but the house is changing," says Paul Skelton, who will be living at Brincliffe House after downsizing from elsewhere in Nether Edge with his partner, Kate Housden. Paul is a former council planning officer, while Kate spent many years working in the voluntary sector.

"I think we will see the benefit of it over time," Kate says. "We're the first wave in a new community. People will come after we've gone."

Residents are from all walks of life. A young mother and her child are coming from Morpeth, Northumberland, while a retired professor of music from London is taking an apartment, too.

They each have one thing in common though, Paul says.

"They've all lived in Sheffield before in the past. What we know about Sheffield is that people do return quite often, even though they seek pastures new."

Members will have their own individual living space, but there will also be places for the sharing of cooking, eating, gardening, relaxing and holding meetings. One of the key aims of the project is to be as environmentally-friendly as possible - the group will share cars and other resources, residents will grow food in the garden and the house is to be made more energy-efficient.

But, importantly, it's not a commune.

"That's why we use the word 'shared'," says Paul. "It's not a 1960s commune that some of us knew and loved years ago."

There have been many hurdles to overcome. Planning permission was needed, and although the building is not listed it lies within the Nether Edge Conservation Area, limiting the changes that can be made to its historic features. The site is also covered by 32 tree preservation orders - the grounds, home to foxes and badgers, contain huge cypress trees thought to be hundreds of years old.

"It's a major construction project," says Paul, pointing to the back of the property where the structure has been stripped back to a shell as contemporary-looking terraces and balconies are created.

Kate agrees: "You don't really think about it until all the roof is being chopped through. Some of the members don't want to see it in this state because they find it quite disturbing."

A community interest company has been set up to oversee the venture - the body owns the freehold, while members are leaseholders on a 999-year term. Money has been lent to the scheme by the Charity Bank.

Residents have dropped out since the original core group of nine came together, as people's circumstances in health, work and family have changed.

"We have had some churn, with some people coming and going. That's life, and people's lives are complicated," says Kate.

One person, a designer, quit as he wanted his apartment laid out in a specific way.

"He found the meetings difficult to achieve some kind of consensus," admits Paul.

Presently a big debate is under way about what the building's door handles should look like, which Kate says 'might seem trivial', before reasoning: "It's about aesthetics."

The idea of co-housing started in the late 1960s in Denmark, when a group of 50 families was inspired to build a different type of neighbourhood from the mainstream. 
There are now hundreds of communities across Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany and the US. There are about 20 established co-housing arrangements in the UK, and more than 60 in development; Shirle Hill, another old NHS property in Nether Edge, is also being revamped for another community.

Supporters view the concept as a way of combating loneliness and isolation, recreating the neighbourly support of the past. Societies are often formed on the basis of principles and priorities.

In 2013 Kate and Paul were part of a smaller group trying to buy Brincliffe Towers next to Chelsea Park, but the plan fell through. Brincliffe House then came on the market. Before being used by the health service, the property - built in 1852 as a private family residence - was the headquarters of Laycocks Engineering. Over the years it has been extended and added to.

Discussions have already been held about what should happen when residents leave. Flats will be sold at market value, but buyers have to become community members and abide by its conventions.

"The technical term is that we're at the point of maximum exposure - because if it all goes belly up our money will disappear," says Paul.

"But I think more and more individuals will start downsizing into something like this. We've had tough decisions to make but they bind us together once we've made them. The big test socially is yet to come when we're all living in there. It's not for everybody, you have to know what you're getting into."

But Jeannie Wright, one of the new residents who is moving from Malta, where she has a university job, seems relaxed about the project and co-housing generally.

"There's a solidity to it. There are national networks, it's popular in other parts of the world and as an idea it is not new."

Visit www.onthebrink.community for details.