Re: (common house as a) commercial building
From: MWorswick (
Date: Mon, 28 Apr 2003 12:36:01 -0600 (MDT)
Sarah and Coho-L

This is Matt Worswick of Synergy Design responding.  Mac Thomson had referred 
to me as the designer of several common houses, including Heartwood's in 
Bayfield Colorado.  I live in Harmony Village in Golden, CO, and have 
designed or co-designed 6 of the Colorado coho communities.  (Come see some 
during the conference tours!)

I agree with some of the other comments about this subject from other 
communities around the country.  The (appeal) process is part art (convincing 
building officials) and part science (building code requirements).  I would 
add that in my experience, the difference in the size of the building 
department usually makes a huge difference in the process you need to go 
through!  If you are in a large city (my most recent was Colorado Springs, 
Colorado) as opposed to a small town or sparsely populated county, the strict 
adherence to "code regulations" can vary dramatically.  

For example, in Bayfield, there was one county building official who was open 
to common sense modifications of code requirements based the logic of how the 
building would be used.  For example I appealed the need for a "commercial 
range and fire suppression hood" based on cohousing meals vs. commercial 
restaurant type meals.  In Bayfield final plan approval took only a week or 
so.  By contrast, in Colorado Springs, the building official(s) in a big 
department had NO authority to grant variances.  In order to get the same 
variance for cooking equipment I had to go through a six-person variance 
board that met once a month.  When I lost there, I went to the appeal board 
(another month) where we finally prevailed - a two month process for one 

Of course, this same flexibility with code enforcement usually applies to 
"hand-made houses" as well.  If you want to experiment it in the 

There are a lot of specific "commercial construction" issues that you can run 
into when designing a common house.  Having an experienced cohousing 
designer, architect, or consultant on board EARLY in the process can save 
many headaches (The cohousing company, and Kraus Fitch architects are other 
companies that do this kind of work).  I'm not sure which issues have come up 
for your project at Manzanita Village. In general, I try to adhere to all the 
ADA requirements.  However when budgets and space are tight (and when aren't 
they!) I have (successfully) proposed two notable exceptions:

1) The requirement for 2 separate handicap accessible bathrooms (male and 
female) on the main level.  I will often argue that 1 unisex handicap 
accessible bathroom along with a second (sometimes non) accessible bath 
(often on another level) is adequate and reasonable for cohousing type uses.  

2) Accessibility to upper or lower (basement) levels.  This one is a real 
challenge due to the expense of elevators or lifts.  As nice as it would be 
to provide access, it is often cost-prohibitive.  If that is the case, I am 
very careful to try to design the building so that there will not be an 
exclusive use on those other levels.  If the same function can be 
accomplished on the main level (for example, meetings, TV watching, 
exercising, office work) perhaps with, at most, a rearrangement of furniture, 
then you can make the case that you would not be excluding a handicapped 
person from any of the functions of the common house.  This can also be 
especially important when planning ahead for the "future finish" of a 
basement or loft.  I ask the cohousing group to make this important 
cost/benefit decision (elevator or not) based on their specific, current and 
future, needs.

I hope this may help a little in your, or other communities, approval 
process.  It sounds like you may be late in considering some of these issues 
if you have already submitted your plans for approval.  But, then again, 
Prescott is a pretty small town, right?  At least, hopefully, you won't have 
a mountain of bureaucracy to move!

Best of Luck,

Matt Worswick
Synergy Design
(303) 278-1880
MWorswick [at]

n a message dated 04/26/2003 11:01:41 AM Mountain Daylight Time, 
cohousing-l-request [at] writes:

> Message: 5
>  Date: Sat, 26 Apr 2003 08:18:35 -0600
>  From: Mac & Sandy Thomson <ganesh [at]>
>  To: Coho-L-postings <cohousing-l [at]>
>  Subject: [C-L]_
>  Reply-To: cohousing-l [at]
>  >> In our City's review of our common house construction documents, the 
> decision
>  >> has been made that the CH is a commercial building and must therefore 
> comply
>  >> with ADA and other commercial-construction policies....
>  >> Has anyone dealt with the commercial-building issue with your city 
> planning
>  >> department, and/or with appeal processes?  Advice welcome!  Thanks.
>  The thing that helped us the most to get our common house approved by the
>  building department in the way that worked for us was to work with an
>  architect (Matt Worswick) experienced in common house design.  Matt had 
>  through the process several times with several different building
>  departments so he knew the issues ahead of time and how to address them.
>  - Mac
>  -- 
>  Mac Thomson
>  Heartwood Cohousing
>  Southwest Colorado
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