Cohousing the future for former Fife primary school?, Tom Morton

THE months and years have not been kind to the former Inverkeithing primary school in Fife, since it was ravaged in an arson attack five years ago.

Anyone visiting the site – which is barely a hundred yards from the town centre – will be struck by the deterioration in the building’s fabric and how nature is re-wilding its playground.

The building’s recent history lends itself to the name of a project to turn it into an inter-generational mix of community-led housing, nursery and food growing space.

But in truth, the Phoenix Project had begun long before the fire, as a local cohousing group had spied it as possible development for, mainly, older people’s housing.

That cohousing group, Vivarium Trust, has since morphed into a nationwide charity, Cohousing Scotland, advocating for the particular form of community-led and co-operative housing that is cohousing: housing designed and managed by the residents themselves.

It was back in 2017, when Vivarium Trust was re-imagining what was then a straightforward former school – not a burned-out wreck, as it is now – as both a restoration of an once grand and much-loved building and also a response to needs of the town with, it was understood, the longest waiting list for housing suitable for older people in Fife.

If you know Inverkeithing, you’ll know it is a hilly town, making it potentially difficult for people with mobility challenges to access the town centre.

A feasibility study – funded by the local authority, Fife Council, the Architectural Heritage Fund and Scottish Land Fund – helped flesh out several ideas, and Vivarium Trust even found itself contributing towards Scottish Government discussions about older people’s housing.

And then came the fire. And then came Covid.

That the project is now rising from the ashes is mainly because the owner of the building has indicated a willingness to sell. No price has been discussed, no agreement has been struck.

But interest is being gauged and registered, following a couple of public events, the first an in-person roadshow organised by Cohousing Scotland, held last summer.

And another feasibility study is now ongoing, again thanks to funding from Fife Council, which has included indicative drawings envisaging a broadly car-free development, community food-growing, urban rewilding, a possible outdoor education resource for nursery-aged children and a pubic footpath connecting the town centre with housing to the west of the site.

The aim is renewal – local people have already made their views clear against knocking everything down and starting from new, and the climate emergency places a responsibility on all of us to re-use and recycle, where possible. So the site will be adapted to new uses without the waste and carbon emissions that normally come with redevelopment.

Cohousing is about people choosing to come together – to share resources and to be good neighbours. It is as much a health and well-being concept as it is a housing one; there is plenty of at least anecdotal evidence that a community of supportive and concerned neighbours is good for the soul, and certainly an antidote to the scourge of loneliness.

As we stand now, an updated business case is being prepared, echoing the similar exercise of all those years ago. Cohousing is much better understood – and supported – within the corridors of power.

The prize is that – by becoming one of the first cohousing schemes in Scotland – the Phoenix Project will lay down a route map for others to quickly follow in its wake, one that can be adapted to local needs.

Cohousing really ought to be the future of Scottish housing. We may currently obsess about numbers, but that’s only half the story. There’s a whole health and wellbeing dividend to be won if we have the courage to organise our housing delivery correctly.

Tom Morton is convener of Cohousing Scotland and a director of Arc Architects and also the Scottish Ecological Design Association.

Picture credit: Arc Architects

A recording of a recent online discussion about the plans for the former primary school can be viewed, here. You can find out about other cohousing projects here.

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