Common House costs - correction
From: The Newberry Family (
Date: Mon, 24 Jan 2000 22:20:06 -0700 (MST)
I was alarmed to read the letter that Roger Bermin, of Pathways Cohousing,
posted on this website regarding our role as architects in the design of
their commonhouse.  I would like to correct the misinformation presented.
In so doing, I intend to reestablish our professional reputations, but I
also hope more clarity on these complex code and pricing issues will help
other communities in their work

Roger was responding to a question (posted by a member of Solterra)
regarding the size and cost of other communities' commonhouses.  He
responded by saying the Pathways commonhouse was way over budget for the
following reasons. His responses are in quotes; My corrections (rebuttals)
are in italics.

"The builder and architects hadn't consulted with our city inspector when
the original guestimated budget was made. "

These original estimates were not made by the architects.  We were not even
hired when the original guestimates were made.  The Contract that Margo
Jones, Architects signed with their community states very specifically  that
we are not responsible for cost estimating, but that we would provide all
information necessary to the Kohl Construction for them to provide
estimates.  We generally work with an independent cost estimator and I might
recommend that approach in the future

Ted Parker of Kohl Construction and I met with the Northampton Building
Inspector during the schematic design phase.  This was done at my
suggestion, because commonhouses are a new phenomenon and are not even a
"use group" within the State Building Code.  In my experience, it is a good
idea to check in with building officials early on in a project, because
everyone interprets the code differently.  I was surprised that the
inspector insisted that the basement be handicap accessible because of the
laundry.  I spent at least 20 hours of my time consulting with the
Massachusetts Access Board regarding this, writing letters, and ultimately
had the building inspector overruled.  This action saved their community

The State Access Board has ruled that no lift will be required until such
time as Pathways makes their basement "open to the public".  They do not
consider the laundry use "open to the public" unless they let guests or
renters use it.  Obviously, they will cross this "private/public" line in
the not-so-distant-future.  In anticipation of this, the working drawings
call for the floor framing to include a future opening for a lift.

"Apparently every city has its own codes, and some cities are more strict
than others.  Ö[Amherst] codes are a lot less strict."

There is only one Massachusetts Building Code and rarely any stricter local
code ordinances.  The only significant difference from town to town is how
the local inspector interprets it.  An architect has to be careful here:  if
you disagree with an interpretation and feel it is too onerous for your
client, do you just go along with it or risk angering a powerful official by
questioning him/her, or even overruling him?  I know the Building and Access
Codes quite well, and chose to take this risk as I felt it represented the
very financial interests of Pathways Cohousing.

As long as we're talking about code issues, there are two other items that I
believe are very unclear (in Massachusetts anyway) for commonhouse design.
They concern guest rooms and toilets.
a. The Inspector told us that the Pathways' guest rooms (R-1Residential Use)
had to have their own exit, separate from the rest of the building.  I
challenged him regarding this interpretation (because I felt we met the
requirements for "unseparated mixed-use"), but do not know how this will
ultimately be resolved.
b. The Plumbing inspector may reject a handicap accessible toilet room, even
in conjunction with a second toilet room.  While the Massachusetts Access
Board is perfectly happy with a single "Uni-sex" accessible toilet, the
plumbing code requires separate men's and women's facilities.  Commonhouse
programs often do not include the few feet required to make both toilets
accessible.  If the plumbing inspector takes this hard line, I will suggest
that Pathways appeal the decision to Boston.  I have successfully done this
on many occasions.

"In Northampton, the inspector decided that we had to build the Common House
to commercial standards, which calls for much greater load bearing ability,
cast iron plumbing ($$) and other features to meet commercial codes.
Lesson?  Make sure your builder and architect know your city codes before
they budget and start design work."

Margo Jones, Architects certainly knew the commonhouse was a commercial
building.  We carried the price of a structural engineer in our Contract
with Pathways, because all commercial buildings require a structural
engineer's stamp on commercial building plans.

I am unable to find much fault in the work of the development consultant or
the builder regarding early estimates.  Perhaps Doug Kohl's office did not
consider all the implications of a commonhouse at the offset.  The client,
contracted with him for other reasons, not because he had any prior
experience with building a cohousing community.  Furthermore, it is normal
for anyone in the industry to cycle through the estimation process many
times, before she/he gets it right.  It takes years to develop a cohousing
community; I believe four years had passed since the time of the Pathways'
original guestimate.  I'm sure the price of lumber and construction labor
(yes, we're in a building boom right now!) has gone up substantially since
that time.  Unfortunately it is also normal for a client to discover (late
in the game) that cuts need to be made, because they cannot afford
everything they want.  Architect's should not promise rose gardens, and
should constantly remind clients of this tough reality.

And finally Roger concluded as follows:  "SO, after we blithely went through
the first design process with the architect, and after the builder and
architect found out about the codes, the builder came up with a cost
ofÖabout $450,000!!"

I'm sure Roger did not intend this so literally, but I must ask:  Should a
client "go blithely along"?  Many suggestions we made for cost savings were
rejected by consensus by Pathways.  Even after the first
over-budget-estimate, Pathways decided as a community to add two feet to the
width of their great room?  This move so concerned me that I spent
considerable time and effort showing furniture overlays that proved (to me
anyway) that such an addition was not necessary.  Please understand, that I
do not wish to unfairly criticize the Pathways Community.  I state this for
two reasons:  to reestablish our reputation that was misrepresented within
this forum, and to warn other communities regarding the costs of decisions
that you will be tempted to make.

Margo Jones Architects readily accepted some of the responsibility for the
commonhouse being overbudget.  As soon as we heard the figures, I was on the
drawing board sketching alternative deck and elevation options, and making
lists of suggested cuts.  Many of these were accepted and changes were made
to the drawings at no cost to Pathways. We have always tried to be
reasonable, accepting of the "cohousing process", and have not asked for
additional fees for additional services rendered.(such as the enlarged
greatroom, second floor and basement designs, and many, many "Unit Options"
such as bay windows and basement "view-outs").

Developing a cohousing community is an extremely challenging job for
everyone involved.  As Roger himself said (in a previous internet
communication), "the design process went relatively wellÖI think  [Margo
Jones Architects and Mary Kraus Architect] did a fine job dealing with 24
different households".  I am proud of Pathways Cohousing and commend their
community's work in making it happen  I am also very impressed with the
quality of construction that I see weekly at the jobsite.  The community
will be a wonderful and beautiful place to live in, and I feel blessed to
have had a part in it.

Laura E. Fitch
Margo Jones, Architects

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