RE: Design without cohousing expertise
From: Witten & Fitch (
Date: Thu, 3 Feb 2000 17:57:37 -0700 (MST)
Gosh, as a "cohousing architect" it is a little sad to read a few of the
responses to the question posed by Lydia of Wholelife housing.  At least the
one that suggests we architects know nothing about pricing.  Really, some
do, but most of us don't try to tell you that this is our primary function
on a design team.  While I think a community can do everything without
"cohousing design experts, we sure can help.  But of course, I am extremely

I like what Rob Sandelin said about a community focusing on building
community, process, membership, etc. instead of spending all their time and
effort doing what the experts really do best.  It is a long hard road, and
something has to give - it should not be your trust and community spirit.

If Lydia's community has a local architect with some cohousing experience,
this may well be just what her community is looking for.  A local architect
really cares to follow through and be there for the long haul (their
reputation depends on customer satisfaction).

The questions I would ask this architect are 1) does he/she know the code
implications for a commonhouse, 2) does he/she know how to work with 30+
un-related and highly opinionated people in a consensus process to program
the commonhouse and reach consensus on 4-5 standard house designs, 3)does
he/she have any idea about how they want to "control" (or is that
facilitate?!) the customization process, 4)will your contract with him/her
specify what will be included and not included in the customization process.
There are many more questions.  Perhaps they should be listed on the
web-site for everyone to access and amend.

So, what does a "cohousing design expert" bring to the table that this eager
local might not.  Any good architect can take a good program and make a good
building.  But who writes this program?  Often groups want everything
(laundry, craft rooms, teen room, dining room big enough for a wedding, etc,
etc).  It takes quality facilitation and a well planned and executed
interactive design process to brain storm, prioritize, and make tough budget
related choices.  Experience in this process is a big asset.  In the end,
every participating community member should "feel heard" even if they had to
let go of part of their own dream.

Experience living through the customization process is another quality that
cannot be understated.  A designer (and builder/developer) that has been
through "customization" knows enough to warn the community of the pitfalls
so that decisions about the amount of customization are made well in advance
of the design phase, and that controls and disincentives are in place for
individual customizations and change orders during late design and
construction phases.  Inexperience will lead designers and builders to
promise more than they can deliver and the construction schedule and budget
will slip.

A good contract will clearly state what is expected of the architect during
customization.  If your architect loses money during this phase (by trying
to please everyone without adequate adjustments to his/her Contract), it
will be a loss for everyone.

Landscape architects are even more routinely undervalued than architects.
Remember, they are not just bushes and trees people.  Landscape architects
will solve potentially disastrous drainage problems, snow removal problems,
pedestrian way and parking lighting, handicap accessibility issues, that
your community will live with indefinitely.  In all likelihood, your
cohousing community will be mowing the lawns, shoveling and sanding walks -
you don't want problems that inexperience will overlook.  Make sure a
landscape architect is part of your team throughout the design phases.

And finally, all your "experts" should be people you'll like to work with.
You'll be in it together for a year or more.  Do they listen?  Do they have
a sense of humor?  Is their ego going to get in the way?

Thanks for listening!

Laura Fitch,
Architect & Resident @ Pioneer Valley Cohousing, Amherst MA


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