Re: Coho common houses built to public-building standards
From: Lynn Nadeau (
Date: Mon, 14 Jan 2002 14:54:01 -0700 (MST)
At RoseWind, in Washington State.  In this state, anyway, the 
construction is classified as a certain type of building, among the 
possibilities for non-residences. These have different code requirements. 
Thus, a school or a movie theater has different requirements from a 
church parish hall. We were classified like the latter, an A-5, being the 
most general class of "assembly" place. 

Within that designation, we still had to negotiate with the building 
department about two issues. First, they started out telling us that our 
2800 sq ft building would require FOUR bathrooms, clearly more than 
common sense dictated, and an unnecessary use of space and money. We 
argued them back to two. The variable was what the various spaces in the 
common house were called. For some reason, having our Exercise Room 
become a Recreation Room made a difference. I forget what else, but 
probably the classification of our entry hall and pantry space was also 

We also were being asked to provide floors that supported a large amount 
of weight per square foot, with a lot higher cost. Since we were not 
planning on training elephants, we talked them down to a compromise. 

Lesson: if confronted with requirements that seem unreasonable, it may 
pay to persist in uncovering if there are ways to classify things which 
are still true, but don't kick in the same requirements. 

Truth is another factor. I saw CH building plans for another community 
which clearly involved subterfuge. In the interests of not being called a 
public building, they had labelled their kitchen a "warming kitchen for 
potlucks" and their kid play room a "meditation room", for example. In 
our community, ethics aside, we are so much in the public eye that we 
could never get away with less than frank descriptions of proposed uses. 

Summary of what was different from residential code:
Some of this was explained to us by building dept some by fire dept.
ADA building entrances, internal doorways  and bathrooms. Designated 
parking space, and signage for same, as well as signage for ramp to entry.
Emergency floodlight device for power outage (as might occur in a fire). 
We got a fairly compact $60 exit sign that included this. 
Exit sign over another exit, but not needing internal or outage lighting.
20 ft wide area from dining room exit onto patio, supposed to be free of 
obstacles in case a large crowd needed to spill outside in a panic. We 
will design our patio with this in mind, but will not necessarily have a 
20 ft wide clear pathway all the way to the somewhat distant street. 
Braille rest room signs, in certain placements next to bathroom doors. 
Stronger floors.
Fire extinguishers of specified types, in three locations. 
Panic hardware on all the exit doors (push bar). We forgot to have it so 
they have the same key as the front door. Best to choose a panic bar that 
has a lock which can be independently changed (we didn't know that). 
Locksmith tells us cheap panic door locks often malfunction fairly soon.  
Interestingly, they not only required no sprinkler system, but required 
no smoke alarms. 
No Smoking signs in several places. 
A sign on the front door that said something like "This door must be 
unlocked during normal business hours" (which we take to mean When the 
building is in use). 
I think that's it. 
I was concerned that we'd end up looking overly institutional with grab 
bars and exit signs and all, but there is so much that's NOT 
institutional, that it works out fine. We have had a number of visitors 
to our common house who use walkers or wheelchairs, and they have had no 
problems with entries and bathrooms. 

Things that are not entirely accessible to a person in a wheelchair, 
Kitchen appliances, though the stove top has knobs at the front. Spray 
table and counter-level dishwasher, back burners, and upper convection 
oven racks, sinks, are not wheelchair accessible in the kitchen. Neither 
is the sink in the kid room. 
The north entry to the dining room from outside, which has a shallow step 
up from the surrounding lawn (the terrain makes it unlikely that a 
mobility impaired person would choose this entry anyway). The south 
dining room door fronts on a concrete patio and is thus accessible. The 
main entry to the building, which also leads to the dining room, is also 
entirely accessible, with approach ramp from handicapped parking space.
Pathways between our homes, and between our homes and the common house, 
due to the considerable slope of some of our land. To get from some areas 
to the common house, one would need to drive around the block, if one 
could not handle a hill. There seems to be no way to avoid that. Some of 
our individual houses are "visitable" and others are not. 

Some things we did for safety or accessibility which were not explicitly 
required - an extra set of power outage floodlights, in the front hall as 
well as the dining room. Railings on our low front porch and the ramp 
leading to it. We have improved the pathways across the flatter areas, 
such as the grassy main field, to make them smoother for those who are 
unsteady on their feet. We are also working to make all our pathways 
easier to see in the dark, though we do not want lights.   We have a 
lowered section to the kitchen's butcher-block prep island, so as to be 
convenient for a short or seated person. We boosted lighting in some 
areas of the CH, since some members have vision concerns. We installed 
acoustic mitigations, which can help those who have hearing concerns. One 
bathroom has a height-extender for the toilet seat available, and both 
bathrooms have step stools for children. We have stored cleaning supplies 
and other child hazards out of reach, or used safety latches. 

PS I just got back from a 3-week absence and it is so good to be home. 
New additions to the landscaping, finishing touches here and there in the 
common house, progress on some Issues, and an invitation to lunch, which 
made up for my empty larder. And tonight is a community supper - what an 
easy transition!

Lynn Nadeau, RoseWind Cohousing
Port Townsend Washington (Victorian seaport, music, art, nature)

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