Re: Common House Design Process (long)
From: Lynn Nadeau (
Date: Thu, 18 Jan 2001 16:53:41 -0700 (MST)
Common House Planning Overview

At RoseWind Cohousing in Port Townsend WA we went about CH design and 
building in about the longest way possible, but that worked out because 
it was years before we had the money to really build it anyway (lot 
development model, 24 lots, self financed, no developer). Some of what we 
learned may be relevant.

We are now close to occupancy on a 2800 sq ft CH with which we are well 
pleased. Our total expenses are under $300,000. We used a lot of 
volunteer work. 

I say "do this and that": of course there is always the option of doing 
it yourself or hiring out the responsibility, but these are all tasks 
which need to be addressed in planning a CH. 

Many groups have praised the programming workshops offered by the 
Cohousing Company. With so many CHs already designed and built, if money 
is tight you may be able to learn what you need, indirectly. You'll need 
to decide how much you want to do with and without professionals. There 
are pros and cons either way. 

the usual routine of What All Do We Want, design it all, then slash 
radically, but it's easier if you start with a financial reality check, 
and prioritize within that.) 

Figure a realistic cost per square foot for construction, consulting 
local builders. Note what that figure does and does not include.

Then look at non-negotiable expenses. Consult your local building 
department regarding fees for building permits (including a few rounds of 
revisions, almost inevitably), inspections, impact fees, hookup fees for 
utilities. Note whether there are required infrastructure costs which 
will come in with the CH - do you need additional roads, paving, parking, 
fire hydrants, sewer cleanouts, fuel lines or tanks, utility trenching, 
fire engine turnarounds? 
How much do you want to allot for landscaping, plants, paving, ramps, 
outdoor furnishings, outdoor design work, play equipment? This can easily 
cost many thousands of dollars, even with volunteer help.

Address professional costs. How much do you want to budget for architect, 
landscape architect, legal or accounting advice, specific consulting like 
for acoustics or lighting?

Allot a generous contingency percentage. Delays which may be beyond your 
control can involve inflation in the cost of materials and labor. There 
will always be things that you didn't think of that will cost money. 

Consult with your local building department, too, to determine how they 
will classify the building. If, as is often the case, you are considered 
a public assembly building, you will have additional expenses to build to 
"commercial" standards, such as stronger floors, and required ADA 
handicap accessibility -- special bathroom fixtures, access ramps, wider 
doors-- and safety features like signage, panic hardware on doors,  fire 
extinguishers, and emergency lighting. 

If you want handicapped-accessible second floor space, then you are 
looking at at least another $20,000 if you use a wheelchair-lift sort of 

Also beyond the usual "per square foot" construction estimates: 
furnishings and appliances, and ecological upgrades. For the latter, 
include a line-item amount in your budget, or you'll be likely to end up 
with few if any of the eco-features you ideally wanted. 

LOOK AT THE MONEY YOU HAVE AVAILABLE. (If you are sitting on part of the 
eventual construction budget, make sure you are getting good interest on 
it.) Take the set costs, professional costs, landscape items, all that 
other stuff above, and a contingency/inflation factor into consideration, 
and with what's left figure out the square footage you can afford. 
Conservatively. You want some quality, not just empty space.

PROGRAMMING. Consider all the usual functions other groups have 
incorporated into their CHs. 
Dining, recreation, kids, kitchen, pantry, bathrooms, bulletin boards, 
entry hall; options like laundry, lounge, art, office, guest space, 
shower, or other items your particular group might want. 
Look at whether you want to build in phases (which costs more total, 
typically), with useful spaces within a phase one, and more when the rest 
of the money comes. Or you may choose to do an in-fill sort of phasing, 
build the whole shell, and fill in as the money comes for furnishings, 
appliances, etc. 
Look at the site plan, topography, big-truck access, light and weather 
issues, to choose the orientation of the building and the placement of 
functions and spaces in connection with the outdoors. 
Evaluate your priorities for up-front cost savings vs long-term savings 
on maintenance and energy use. 
Quality vs quantity. 
Future expandability or flexibility in changing the uses of various 

Use discussion circles, emailings, surveys, lots of approaches. When we 
came to matters on which there was a considerable range of opinion, and 
all had been heard, it was sometimes useful to do the thing where people 
physically arrange themselves in a line, on a scale between the two 
extreme points of view. This made it clear to people if they were way out 
of line with what most others preferred, and sometimes that allowed them 
to be more gracious about letting go of their need. 

Once you get into actual design proposals, it helps to use models. With a 
little practice, one can get quite quick at making and rearranging 
physical models made with foam-core posterboard, architects' scale, razor 
blade, and held together with straight pins. It is also useful to find 
someone(s) in the group who can use or learn a software program like 3-D 
Home Architect: it is amazing how these things can turn a floor plan into 
3-D views from all directions, with furnishings etc. The programs cost 
$50 or less and are very helpful. 

Looking at other group's floor plans can be useful, but often individual 
sites have unique requirements. Ours is an L shape, made of 3 squares 
about 30x30 each, on one floor. 
Entry is at the elbow, giving the foyer access to dining/lounge and 
kitchen in one direction, and lavatories and rec room, in another 
direction. Kid room in between. Our kitchen is a lot like Pioneer 

Search the coho-L archives. Look at individual groups' websites linked to 
the website: some have common house photos. Look at back 
issues of Cohousing Quarterly.
Visiting real CHs is a big help. Visit as many as you can, as many of you 
as can. Carry a tape measure and notebook everywhere you go! Notice also 
churches, community centers, parish and grange halls, ski lodges. Notice 
ADA bathrooms, exit doors, lighting, flooring, seating.

GET HELP, after you've done what you can yourselves. If you can afford an 
architect, there are many advantages to working with one who already 
knows cohousing. We did some work with architect and cohousing resident 
MARY KRAUS, of Pioneer Valley Cohousing in Amherst Massachusetts and that 
was a very positive experience. You couldn't do better. With any 
professionals, establish very clear lines of communication with 
designated liaison people. They cannot, will not, should not, be getting 
input from all over the place at random.

As for the building process, how much you do with contractors, and how 
much you do yourselves is up to you. Keep in mind the legal and financial 
side of things. If you use a general contractor, much is done for you. 
Look at local Labor and Industry regulations, and check also your 
insurance coverage, to deal with volunteer labor, "casual labor", 
liability not only for injury but theft of materials or tools. But even 
if you have a general contractor, and hire most all work out, you will 
still need an active committee or task force to coordinate, supervise, 
check, and be liaison with the whole group when design and budget 
decisions need to be made, and when major jobs are underway. Never leave 
bulldozer operators on their own. 

Last but not least, size your expectations so you are not maxxing your 
budget. It is very satisfying to be able to make some "quality" choices, 
and to be able to cope with unforeseen expenses without having to cheapen 
other items. I have NEVER heard of anyone who complained that they had 

And -- take it from us -- even if you do it less than perfectly, it is 
wonderful to see it finally taking shape! 

Lynn Nadeau
(Some non-essentials in our CH which please us: built-in vacuum system, 
parquet floor and ceiling decorations, Marmoleum, tile, and Smart Wood 
floors, a peek-through window from the kitchen to the entry foyer, sound 
system wiring, recycled wood flooring in one room, glass-front propane 
fireplace, hand painted mural over the entry, stone window sills, 
skylights, colored glass bottles inset in the walls in places like 
stained glass bits, big log posts on the front porch, a display niche in 
the entry for art or flowers. )

>Date: Mon, 1 Jan 2001 21:28:17 -0500
>From: "Zeke/Hallie/Jesse" <zholland [at]>
>To: <cohousing-l [at]>
>Subject: Common House Design Process
>Message-ID: <002101c07463$aa55ade0$92e005cf [at]>
>We at Two Echo Cohousing in Brunswick, Maine, are a "lot development" model
>cohousing group.  We originally planned to pay for our Common House through
>lot sales.  Currently, we have 17 households in residence, we have 6 lots
>remaining for sale, and we don't want to wait until every last lot is sold
>before we start the Common House.  We have raised enough money amongst
>ourselves to begin the design process, with a reasonable assurance that we
>will be able to start building next fall.
>So we are ready to get started with Common House design.  We anticipate that
>we face an extended and potentially challenging process -- trying to balance
>needs and wants against the budget and other constraints, and reach
>consensus on a design.  We would like to clearly define our process before
>we begin, and we hope to be able to draw upon the experiences of other
>communities to help us do so.
>Here's some questions for other communities (especially other
>lot-development communities) the answers to which would help us:
>* Do you have a documented process that you can share with us (either
>published by someone else, or documented yourselves as you went)?
>* Did that process work well?  Would you follow it again?  What would you do
>* What were the "hardest parts" of the process?  Do you think there are a
>few key points that make the difference between "success" and "mistakes"?
>* Since there is no longer a developer involved with our project, how would
>you suggest we oversee the construction?
>* And moving a step beyond process, can we take a look at your common house
>design?  What do you like or dislike about it?
>Thank you!
>--Zeke Holland, of Two Echo Cohousing, where today was a magnificent day --
>sunny blue sky, crisp clean cold air, pristine white snow everywhere, nice
>cross-country tracks through the woods courtesy of those who get underway
>earlier than my 7 year old and me.

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