Re: "Targeting" the wealthy
From: Fred H Olson (
Date: Fri, 14 Jul 2006 09:34:52 -0700 (PDT)
Jenny, Great Oak Cohousing, Ann Arbor, MI, juniperjojo [at]
is the author of the message below.
It was posted by Fred the Cohousing-L list manager <fholson [at]>
after restoring the subject line.
--------------------  FORWARDED MESSAGE FOLLOWS --------------------


I wanted to address your thoughtful email.

First, we (Great Oak in Ann Arbor, Michigan) did use a somewhat
non-traditional building method, as we opted for "manufactured" or
"modular" housing.  (We used Royal Homes out of Ontario, Canada, which is
now doing some really neat modern, ecologically-friendly modular homes
including the "Glidehouse" and the "Q" house:  check it out at
(And no, I don't work for Royal Homes.)  Our floor plans were modified to
suit the factory-built housing limitations.  Our smallest units are 2-BR
2-story townhouses, which had to be narrowed about 10" if I recall
correctly in order to reduce each floor to a single module.  They are
still quite pleasant to live in but as a 2-BR townhouse owner I did miss
the additional 10" of width.  The most significant effect of this change
was that the first floor bathroom had to be a half bath instead of a full

We definitely saved money by opting for this building method instead of
traditional "stick-built," which in our part of the country is by far the
most common, and (in my opinion) the quality is really quite good,
although -- as I said in my email to Chris ScottHanson -- there are things
I wish (with hindsight) we would have done differently.  The biggest
problem we had (again, in my opinion) was of coordinating the various
construction workers with the Canadian builders.  We had a local, and very
reputable, construction company act as general contractor in charge of the
entire project, but we have had ongoing issues with site drainage and
walkways that don't make sense and so forth, all of which (in my opinion)
was caused by having architects in Michigan and California, builders in
Canada, and contractors (e.g., electrical, plumbing, concrete, grading) in
Michigan, and the party who is ultimately responsible has not always been
clear.  (The local company blames the builder; t he builder blames the
architect; the architect blames the developer; the developer blames us,

To answer your other question, "Is it that the tastes of cohousers and
ecovillagers simply don't overlap?" -- my answer would be no, it's not
that simple.  We had, at the inception of our group, some members who
envisioned "earthships" built into the hillside, or who (myself included)
dreamed of using rammed-earth construction or straw-bale, among other
ideas, but the realities of the timing-cost-quality triangle kept coming
back to bite us.  Most of us wanted to move in and start living our lives
in a different way NOW; I was pregnant at the time and wanted to move in
YESTERDAY, and as it was I had to wait to move in until my son was nearly
a year old.

It may be interesting to note that the really passionate advocates of
alternative building methods dropped out quite early on in our development
process.  Clearly, to them the alternative building methods were more
important than the community aspects.

A great number of us really, really wanted radiant heating in all of the
units, but affordability was one of our primary objectives and so radiant
heating fell by the wayside.  This is one example of why government
subsidies may be the way to go; hopefully, in the future, one could at
least partially offset the costs associated with energy-efficient building
practices by getting tax breaks for implementing same.  These may be more
readily available already in other parts of the country.  In Michigan,
there was a subsidy for solar-powered water heaters last year, and some of
our members took advantage of that to retro-fit their units for solar hot

There were also the realities of most people needing mortgages (our lowest
home prices were ~$140,000 for 2-BR flats, with 3-BR 3-BA walkout houses
costing as much as ~$400,000 for 4-BR 3-BA walkout units -- I don't know
about you but around here most people need a mortgage to swing that kind
of money), which are easier to come by when sticking to traditional
building methods.  You can be purists and insist that all of your members
build their own houses at a cost that means they won't need a mortgage,
and wait 15 years to get enough people to make your dream a reality, or
you can make compromises.  I suspect that the difference between cohousers
and many of the people on this list are that the cohousers have made
compromises in order to "live the dream."

I'd still love to live in a straw-bale house, some day.  I'd love it even
more if it was straw-bale cohousing (and I know that there are common
houses, and maybe even individual homes, in cohousing in Arizona that have
been built with this building method), and I'd love to do some of the
building myself.  But for now, I gratefully accept the less-than-perfect
modular house I live in with my ridiculously happy child, whose greatest
disappointment most days is if he walks outside and cannot find a friend
to play with *immediately*.

For any one who's interested in seeing what modular houses look like
(although it's a bit disappointing, in that they look a lot like regular
houses) check out our website:  (Our neighbors at
Touchstone also built their homes using modular housing; you can see their
community here: -- their website appears to
be a little out-of-date, probably because they are still in the process of
moving in and figuring out how to be a cohousing community.)

Interestingly, in response to your question "How small of a greenspace can
be made to feel like a refuge?" -- I realized that I often wish we had
opted for LESS open space.  I would have preferred (again, with hindsight)
more closely-packed rowhouses, with all of the shared space not scattered
between, in front of, and behind the buildings but all in one place.
Again, this is just one of many compromises I made to live in a place
which is in so many ways, imperfect, but which I am always proud to call

Great Oak Cohousing (aka GoCoHo)
Ann Arbor, Michigan

--- Orig message ----

Date: Wed, 12 Jul 2006 14:37:11 -0400
From: Brian Bartholomew <bb [at]>

> One of the main realities is that typical contractors have no
> interest in learning new building methods or working with
> alternative materials, and if you insist that they do, they will do
> so, and charge you double.

To me, researching cheaper building technologies and then finding
contractors who already use them seems like the easiest way to break
the price deadlock.  In my forming group we don't particularly want to
pay the median house price in our area, so we will be looking hard at
semi-factory-built alternatives that are not energy and build quality
disasters like traditional trailers.

How small of a greenspace can be made to feel like a refuge?  Do you
need 10 acres?  Or would 1 do if it were densely forested and
landscaped full of nooks, paths, mazes, treehouses, and such?  Can you
build a coho for ten households on 2 acres?

| And no groups have formed who want to build the kind of off-the-grid
| housing that is allowed in communities like Dancing Rabbit where
| people can live in tents for $3,000 a year. It would be really
| interesting if you wanted to do that.

As someone who is willing to self-build all sorts of alternative
wierdness, I've wondered about that.  Is it that the tastes of
cohousers and ecovillagers simply don't overlap?  That it's banned by
zoning/permitting/licensing/publicity/etc in areas where cohos want to
be?  That coho structures tend to have mortgages, which require resale
values, which requires acceptability to broad tastes?


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