Commissioning within a community – Lee Simmons

DATE: 2010

INTRODUCTION: In this essay artist Lee Simmons discusses a South London Cooperative, in relation to public art and the commissioning of schemes during a recession and beyond.

Sanford Cooperative overview
The role of artists at Sanford

How it operates: democracy, hierarchies and conflict
Commissioning within the community
Collective autonomy



Within this writing I aim to convey my interest in a residential street in relation to [public] art. This is intended as a case study for creative thinking about private and public ownership of land, creative urban schemes and commissioning.

The street is Sanford Walk in New Cross/Deptford, collectively owned by the residents to form Sanford Cooperative. It is often described as South East London’s Garden of Eden: ironically sandwiched between the East London rail line, Sanford Street and the infamous Cold Blow Lane (of the earliest recognized football riots), on polluted land historically deemed good for nothing. Sanford Cooperative hosts a theatre group, community arts network, gardens and ponds teams (that include maintaining Coy Carp fish and raised beds for growing vegetables) and a cycling scheme to name a few of the fluid, ongoing projects.

It is the oldest purpose built cooperative in London and the first street in the United Kingdom to convert to biomass technology. In close proximity to Sanford, are Goldsmiths University, City (Canary Wharf), Trinity Buoy Wharf and the Laban Centre as well as Deptford High Street (Deptford X annual arts festival).

Built in 1971 and run in co-ownership by the 130 residents, Sanford Coop can provide an unusual example of bottom up public art commissioning, with a sustainable community legacy. Residents cultivate their homes in constant collaboration, whilst continuing to go about their lives locally and globally.

The process of writing this text has been an experiential work in itself: questions and information surfaced and were worked through in dialogue with residents, resulting in a loosely organized, theoretical and practical critique of methods for development employed throughout this process and in the resulting work. From the point of departure in September 2009 to the present September 2010, the text has been completed several times and then updated with new discoveries and rapid change in the cooperative processes and the context it resides in.

The role of artists at Sanford

As a resident and artist at the cooperative for three years, I developed my artwork by living concepts and ideas rather than thinking about them purely academically or creatively. To gain a wider perspective than my own on points discussed here, I put questions to Sanford members. Samples from some of the replies follow and are included throughout the text forming a discursive document or record, rather than a personal report. Where from emails to a shared forum the replies appear as below, otherwise they are from conversation.

Art in all its forms (fine, performance, music, new media) has a very important role within the cooperative, creating shared projects and allowing much learning from member-to-member. Creative ventures of many kinds, when initiated by members, are usually well patronized by other cooperative members, so it’s a very supportive atmosphere to experiment in.

Jason Brooks

There are many artists at Sanford therefore many diversities of art.
However, as Sanford generally is conscious of the world and issues going on around it. I feel that art at Sanford is about the world and political/social issues.

Cat Westwood

The answer to that seems to lie between individually styled goals and social art in general. There’s a very broad and difficult to define arena for all manner of artists to contribute to all manner of schemes, from the temporary to the enduring. So I’d say their role was to define their own roles and contributions within a greater collective.

Gavin White

Clearly there are technicians, co-coordinators, researchers, journalists, council workers, teachers, and builders. Many able hands are available yet still individuals need to stand up and take control. Is this what they want however? If artists talk to designers and technicians and builders and the community then we could truly create something of real value for us.

Nic Hodgkinson

From my experience art provides people in Sanford with
passive/involved enjoyment, a means of conflict and empathy, an income
or an excuse for inertia.

Conor O’Meara

Sanford is a helpful creative reference that I often think of as a sculpture. Someone else might see it as a political statement and positioning, another an ecological and sociological experiment…

I guess my take is that a sculpture can be the physical manifestation of a group balancing creative desire and practical limitations, and Sanford can be seen as that too. In terms of motive and function though, I don’t think Sanford is sculpture.

Jason Brooks

Sanford could be named as art or a social sculpture; for example the bike shed can be called a sculpture of art yet it also has the practical side of it being a bike shed.

Cat Westwood

From a limited perspective you could view it as either and a whole lot else. It does however make me think of this place in a different light as the accumulated product of a disparate but connected group of people building/updating/destroying what previous participants have achieved/dreamed of/abandoned.

Gavin White

Sanford is a dynamic, experimental, housing concept and solution. It can clearly be framed as art or social sculpture if one wishes to do so. I would say from an academic, social or artist perspective this experiment is continually growing, probably organically and molded from (and for) our own community by our own heads and hands.

Nic Hodgkinson

How it operates: democracy, hierarchies and conflict

This street was originally built as a solution to student housing problems, by a core group of people who then lived there. They took out a loan and built fourteen houses with ten rooms in each and six flats on wasteland creating a dynamic community. The street has since hosted a biker community and now accommodates a variety of people with prominently (though not limited to) environmental, socialist and artistic interests.

The security of regular communication, cheap rent (around £50 a week) and active social life within the community creates an incision to the general functioning of London – the private and public housing schemes and the squatting movement.

It is encouraged and expected that residents work for the coop to contribute more than just financially, which sometimes happens through taking officer positions. The decision making process for electing officers and voting on wider coop decisions can be problematic in terms of diplomacy and inclusion.

The actual representative-ness of the choices made obviously depends on the contribution of the members, so in this sense apathy is the biggest enemy of democracy in a domestic context.

Jason Brooks

It is democratic in the sense that the people involved can all be replaced by the people on who’s behalf they act but in a busy world where people may lack the time to attend meetings (let alone take on the responsibilities themselves) it is difficult to get true democracy which requires a fuller understanding than is easy to obtain.

Jim Noble

If a House Representative is not at a CoM meeting and does not forward a vote by proxy then your house does not have a vote. (1)

Nic Hodgkinson

I think the decision making process is transparent (for those who have
experienced CoM/member) meetings. I agree with what Nic says regarding the decisions passed by house reps being either absent or insane, but I guess houses need to hold their reps to account and make sure they turn up/and actively seek out their housemates opinions on agenda issues.

Conor O’Meara

Difference of opinion within the decision making process is vital you cannot really have co-operation without also having its corollary – conflict.

Jim Noble

There are layers that are navigated regarding personal conflict – unspoken laws of human behaviour. If the conflict is unresolved and reaches a point that it is affecting an individual’s safety in their home then the next stage is often to formalise it by taking the difficulty to a general meeting. This can be a helpful way to diffuse conflict and air issues, as well as a helpful warning to a tenant who might change behaviour in response. Ultimately there will be a voting process as to whether a tenant should be asked to leave, which can be legally enforced through the Cooperative Development Society – CDS. (2)

“In the 80’s it was almost a squat, there was no managing agent and people weren’t paying their rent. Hyde Housing (housing management) were then brought in and after a few years CDS were employed by the coop to manage their finances.“ Gavin White (initial Gardens Officer)

“Ten to fifteen years ago Sanford was run by three people whom lived in the flats, the shift to democracy was a long process. The community now runs the cooperative after collectively deciding this is what they wanted as elements were clearly not working.” Gavin White

Within projects roles are assumed to deal with difference in opinion often in an unspoken and invisible capacity – down to personality and in response to events. Opinions of certain residents will have influence whether they have an officer position or not while less known or bold members opinions might be brushed aside despite being valid simply because the voice lacks weight. A lot of this is word of mouth “talk to so in so in house x about that”. The way people respond is probably often on a subconscious level to support or change unspoken rules, hierarchy and familiarity.

The hierarchies that occasionally spring up are quite visible and democratic, projects often require delineated roles and while that isn’t necessarily hierarchical people will usually subordinate themselves to an accepted authority rather than go to the effort of taking on that responsibility themselves.

Jim Noble

The hierarchy is visible yet amorphous. It is currently as transparent and democratic as possible. This is not flawless though and there is much room for improvement.

Nic Hodgkinson

Democratic or not – commissioning and change does take place, hierarchies do exist and shift and all voices are not heard. This is perhaps necessary, it seems that to get something finished to a desirable level of quality and coherence there needs to be some kind of understanding of who it is helpful to listen to.

Within any group there will always be people of greater or lesser knowledge/influence/communicative ability etc, etc. Our democracy is voluntary and to a large extent predicated on personal motivation.

Gavin White

Commissioning within the community

Commissioning of outsiders as well as residents of Sanford Cooperative takes place in varied forms. With a kitchen refurbishment project (described in more detail below) there was a formal process of selecting from submitted proposals for the main work. There was also word of mouth commissioning of people known to members, for creative stone floors.

Sanford Cooperative does not (as a rule) pay members for their onsite work, but outsiders are commissioned/employed at standard rates and paid from the financial reserves. This sometimes results in small raises to the monthly rental contributions of all residents. Members can work for themselves and any other legal employer on and offsite, unless in obstruction of the practical or ethical functioning of the Cooperative.

Below are some examples of projects that have developed within Sanford: how they were instigated, implemented and continued, with consideration to the working methods and approaches of individuals.

Carbon Reduction Project/kitchens

“We wanted to become more eco at Sanford so a core team of four formed to look into this. It started with the boilers, which were old, about fifteen years. Possibilities were taken to meetings and blossomed out to green roofs, etc.” Alistair Cormick (most recent Gardens Officer)

“Wind and ground sources were rejected and an initial district heating with gas back up design was rejected by members. Boilers have now been split between two houses, creating shared responsibility, solar hot water and heat recovery systems have been installed, lighting and insulation improved.” Jim Noble (Chairman)

“This was top down, so I didn’t like it – the work would be project managing rather than creative. I prefer to find practical solutions as opposed to paper planning.” Gavin White

“Sanford projects are mostly a bottom up process. As opposed to the top down commissioning nature of the council and most corporate organisations” Alistair Cormick

The Carbon Reduction (C60) Project fit the Government initiative to reduce Carbon emissions by 60%. Solar panels and wood pellet boilers were installed. The Energy Saving Trust (EST) provided a survey, grant and feasibility study. A financial study looked into how much needed to be borrowed. Funds were also received from Lewisham Council, £600,000.00 came from Sanford’s savings and Triodos bank provided a loan of over £100,000.00. There was some concern within this project from residents over the independence of the cooperative from the council in relation to a grant, which there continues to be project-to-project regarding the sourcing of grants.

Through an in house questionnaire kitchens came up as needing improvement. The coop employed an interior designer from the Centre of Alternative Technology. Three kitchen proposals were put forward and residents made various style decisions. J3*Building Futures consultancy project managed C60 (selected by the Coop from invited submissions) and were kept on to oversee the kitchens. They provided an unrivalled low budget and an apparently environmentally sustainable design, which is why they were further employed. Groundwork’s Creative (two London based craftsmen), were invited to design and build stone floors for houses that desired them. These were hand crafted often with residents and though time consuming, unquestionably successful.

There has been deterioration of the kitchens; one of the problems of working without a formally assumed role and shared responsibility is that it is easy for issues with contractors to slip through the net. Following a long building process and kitchen sharing during the refurbishments, they are the heart of the homes, where people relax and spend time together. Sanford won the Inside Housing Refurbishment award of the year 2008 for the carbon reduction project.

‘Time goes over – we’re learning while doing, in our spare time, so people need to be patient.’ Alistair Cormick

Ponds and gardens

The gardens are also crucial to the sense of community at Sanford Coop, providing valued social space used for varied activities including work, study, social gatherings, exercise and performance.

Gavin White spent his initial three months as Sanford’s first Gardens Officer clearing and binning junk and getting to know the site. Regular meetings took place with residents turning up, asking questions and becoming interested. Questions were asked about what people wanted with the gardens and there was a consistent request to complete the ponds system. White asked for an £8000.00 budget to complete the ponds, which was agreed. It took about three months to run ideas through the resident builders – deciding on methods.  White admits he became quite dictatorial once the team (of three) had started working.

“There was little design – drawings right at the beginning were made about the site, but the project was largely made up as it developed, bearing in mind options that surfaced along the way.” Gavin White

It took over a year to get the ponds, or large water feature, that you can walk around and sit in/on, functioning. During building weekends other residents (than the core group) could get involved. Leadership skills played a big part in the success of the project.

Filling the ponds with water was the only identifiable conclusion to the building process for what resulted in a much utilised and loved feature. There was no evaluation, feedback process, or opening party.


Sanford’s bike shed is a building made of railway sleepers; it is used for bicycle storage, art exhibitions, band practice, gigs and meetings. People use the walls to sit on and there is a garden with fruit trees on the roof. This is the work of a resident architect, commissioned and built by the cooperative/residents.

“Bikes had always been a problem, it was an ongoing issue at meetings. It went quiet for a year then Christo’s idea popped up in 2005, already designed. People asked questions so he created a model, which answered them, along with detailed, cool drawings. The design and the budget were approved, it was to be paid by Sanford.” Simone Koch (resident photographer).

A further two years passed at which point there was a renewed interest and belief in projects from new tenants. The foundations were marked out in real space, passed by the majority of residents, materials ordered and an in house team identified who could help build the structure.

There was no deadline other than the architect’s plans to go traveling for a year, in approximately one year’s time. There were two opening parties to celebrate and communicate this work, no evaluation or feedback process.

Collective autonomy

The independence of Sanford Cooperative from local Government is crucial to the current nature of the place and the people that live there. Many tenants moved in at short notice and would not be waiting for places in Government run housing situations that can take years and where you do not choose who you live with. The community is working is tandem with, whilst in contrast to, the ‘regeneration’ it is surrounded by. There is a sense that people know who is around, even between those who do not get on in everyday situations there is still a certain sense of security that comes with familiarity.

Our independence is important in many, many ways. I think the application/interview process is one of the clearest signs that we value our independence and consider a similar valuing important in new members. Like most issues of identity, it is largely subconscious significance. We are almost completely autonomous from the council (apart from our ongoing financial obligation, and various local safety laws), and I think there are only a few specific reasons for this to be changed (e.g. To improve the likelihood of being able to extend/buy our leasehold on the land within the next thirty years).

Jason Brooks

Within the confines of the social housing sector our independence is one of our greatest assets. As a fully mutual co-op with a contractual tenancy we are totally independent from the council, we are also exempt from the (very restrictive) Decent Homes legislation. This basically means we have vastly more freedom to pursue our own agendas in our own fashion. (3)

Gavin White

As far as government regulation we have a lot of freedom because the purpose of much regulation is to protect the customer from the landlord, here we are customer and landlord.

Jim Noble

We are a fully mutual housing co-op. We are autonomous. The council owns the land, which we lease from them. We have a duty to secure a freehold on the site to guarantee the co-op’s future.

Nic Hodgkinson

I’m not sure we are independent, we are heavily dependant on the local
council (for the land we rent), and possible grants (i.e. we applied
for one for the Folkus festival and I think we got some for the C60

Conor O’Meara

As with any public art activity, it can ask questions and make suggestions, present opportunities and debate, create incisions to what already exists but it cannot exist independently.


Self-sustaining and engaging the local community, this street naturally encourages and facilitates further initiatives and collaborations. It can be considered as dialogical, community or public art, a sculpture, functional housing: all or none of these.

The cooperative is a mix of people’s ideas, which often match adding coherence, potential and depth; and also clash creating an unknown dynamic and changes in direction. Generally people adapt and work together within the whole, and though there is warbling, guessing and stumbling about, thinking does streamline to create clarity in concept and functionality.

Something about the community only achieving a tiny bit of its potential; and yet that tiny bit is magical and a great achievement in London terms.

David Kirali

“In the years I’ve been here the area has been gentrified in light of some unpleasant history. The whole area was known for violence and drugs. That is being changed. Though we’re not part of the deliberate government project to develop the New Cross area; it is happening – we’ve changed ourselves”. Jim Noble

“Things freed up once there was a democratic way of working and an elected chair. Sanford was changing, with only three to four vacancies a month compared to the previous twelve or so; it was becoming more stable. It’s now seen more as a street of homes because of this duration. People are more inclined to look after the place if staying on.” Gavin White

With the current financial climate, environmental, psychological and global awareness rising; this small slice of land and the people that live there are providing an achievable solution to many of the wide spread issues of city dwelling. John Vidal of The Guardian, describes it as ‘one of the most ambitious low carbon developments in Britain today’. (4)

My personal belief is in support for co-owned grass roots projects, therefore ideas that empower individuals and communities to sustain themselves without hinging around profit based agendas. This is why I am motivated to communicate the Sanford Cooperative model; which is not promoting free labor and the retraction of funding from public services or Government responsibility to society. It is about methods of survival adopted to make the best of what we have available, by civilians priced out of the housing market, or in rejection of corporate and private land ownership; whilst thinking about art commissioning, real community living and creative freedom.

Whilst writing this essay, arts funding along with most public services are being cut and the next month at Sanford there are no places available for new tenants – for the first time in the history of this Cooperative. The new Coalition Government has adopted cooperative ideas into policy and we are at present unsure how this will manifest itself – will it empower ‘independent’ groups of individuals? Or will it provide loopholes for large organizations as well as an excuse to further push free labour onto those who cannot afford to work without a wage?

Art is interwoven with life in this affordable housing situation. The quality of life is high and desirable because of the sense of community and local belonging. But we go out to work for a wage whilst also living and working at the Cooperative, for the cheap rent subsidizes the onsite labour. We are currently and historically no more a part of Big Society than a private landlord, and are interested to see how the situation progresses.


New/current activities (since summer 2010) include:

Development has been agreed on for the car park area as well as more garden area and raised beds for growing food. Currently there are discussions as to the commissioning of a new building: it might be a competition between resident’s designs, or fielded out to architecture students, or something else. This will likely go through a CoM, though the research has side stepped that so far and been very inclusive, which could be the way it continues to develop.

The gate and fence have been highlighted as needing attention, along with greater security. Design questions concerned with gated communities have been raised.

Sanford residents are currently in negotiations to buy the freehold from the council, which have so far been smooth and respectful on both sides.

A small group are setting up a new independent housing cooperative, which will test and explore the supportive statements of the Coalition Government. A documentary is being made of the entire process.


(1) CoM: The Co-op is run by the Committee of Management CoM, which comes together every four weeks and deals with the “day to day business” of the Co-op. In the CoM each house is represented by one member, which has been democratically elected by the house. In Members Meetings (two weeks before each CoM Meeting) the members discuss problems and prepare decisions for the CoM. General Meetings are held twice a year. In these General Meetings all members have a vote. The General Meetings mainly deal with the approval of the budget and the election of the Co-op’s officers (Chair, Secretary, Treasurer, Maintenance, Memberships, Garden, Equal Opportunities and many more).

(2) Co-operative housing service agency in London and the South of England dedicated to promoting, developing, and servicing housing co-operatives controlled by the people who live in them.

(3) By 2010 all tenants in social housing should be living in a “decent home” supporting the Government’s aim of seeing the country’s £20 billion housing repairs backlog tackled. Current Government assumptions, based on the 1996 English House Condition Survey, are that about a third of housing association homes would fail the standard.

(4) Guardian article by John Vidal.


– ‘Ground Control [fear and happiness in the twenty-first-century city]’ Anna Minton Penguin Books, London 2009-10-04 ISBN: 978-0-141-03391-4

– ‘One Place After Another (site-specific art and locational identity)’ Miwon Kwon, The MIT Press, London, ISBN 0-262-11265-5

– ‘Relational Aesthetics,’ chapter Relational Form, Nicolas Bourriaud, Les Presses du reel, ISN 2840660601

– ‘The Society of The Spectacle’ Guy Debord, Zone Books, New York ISBN 0-942299-79-5

– ‘Ways of Seeing’ John Berger, British Broadcasting Corporation, London, ISBN 978-0-563-122449

– ‘Art as far as the eye can see’ Paul Virilio, Berg, Oxford ISBN 978 1 84788 540 1

All images are courtesy of Lee Simmons.


Sanford Housing Cooperative:

Bike shed design:

C60 and Kitchens, project managers:

Co-operative development service agency:

National housing federation:

Photomontage of building the bike shed:

Lee Simmons website: