Re: Design process & energy/heating/design issues
From: Eric Hart (
Date: Sun, 4 Dec 94 18:27 CST
This is in response to a message posted on November 9 by Jeff Hobson
relating to how one incorporates ecological/resource efficiency issues
into the design of a cohousing community. 
        I have been working as a planning consultant to a
cohousing/ecological community in West-Central Wisconsin which is
currently near the end of their site design process.  They want to include
as many ecological/energy conservation features into their dwellings and
community as possible.  They are also interested in low-cost solutions and
are willing to do a lot of the labor themselves.  Last summer we had a
series of workshops where we covered the various ways that ecological
priniciples could be included in the site and building designs.  We
covered such things as super insulation, grey water systems, the layout of
the community, and earth sheltering.  I am part of a design team that
includes an architect and a member of the group who is interested in
ecological design and is the workshop coordinator.  All of us have
knowledge of ecological design principles, especially the architect who
has been researching these topics for 15 years.  It is especially helpful
to have an architect who is supportive and very knowledgeable of
ecological design principles.  They can tell us how to do it cheaply and
ecologically sensitive.  In our group it is hard to distinguish between
the site design process and the ecological aspects of it.  They are
intertwined.  As we consider how far apart the houses will be, we look at
how this will impact the feasibility of shared systems and costs.  Our
design team approach has worked very well.  It helps to have a member of
the group interfacing with myself and the architect to keep us grounded in
the group process and feelings.  I would not recommend the workshop
coordinator also be the architect or planning consultant, however.  We
have hit a few snags so far when we went with the opinions of the workshop
coordinator instead of with where the entire group was going. 
Consequently if the workshop coordinator were also the architect, things
could get hopeless confused (impossible to separate the 'professional' and
the group member roles).  We keep each other going and focused on keeping
the project as ecological as possible and moving forward.  When one person
gets frustrated with the process, another comes up with a new way to
proceed and gets everyone fired up again.  I meet with the architect every
Friday and we talk about the project and other related topics.  None of us
is in this for the money at the moment, we just want to see it happen and
get the experience of designing a community this way.  We would like to
eventually "take the show on the road" to other groups and perhaps do this
for a living one day.  We would like to provide more detailed advice to
other groups currently in their design process.  E-mail me directly with
any questions or projects. 
        My opinion is that the group needs to decide early on that they
want to be energy efficient/ecological and then work to include those
considerations during the entire design process.  There are many ways to
improve on energy efficiency in the design of the buildings, beyond just
what can be tacked on at the end (i.e. energy efficienct lighting, etc.). 
Often if a group just concentrates on doing traditional tract housing they
will run out of money by the time the design is complete and those little
added ecological things that sounded so good, get tossed out.  If you
design for energy efficiency from the start then if added systems (grey
water, etc.) turn out to be too expensive then at least the buildings are
designed right and you get some inherent energy savings.  I would say that
most architects are not very sophisticated when it comes to ecological
design so groups need to look for an architect who is or be willing to do
a lot of the research themselves.  If outside help can't be found then the
people in the group interested in these topics need to do research on
them.  I have found that if a small number of people in the group are
willing to do research and present workshops to the rest of the group on
ecological considerations, that the consideration of these features is
furthered.  It is unrealistic to think that people in the group who are
only marginally interested in ecological design are going to make any
effort to learn about these technologies.  Presenting a workshop on
ecological aspects of building and site design is a non-threatening way to
present the ideas to the group and give the people the information they
need to make an informed decision.  All too often people don't like an
idea because of a stereotypical image they have of it based on only a few
bits of distorted information.  Rather than a few people constantly
bugging the group to consider ecological aspects, workshops can be
presented to give people the information to make an informed decision that
for the time being establishes people's opinions on the topic.  These
workshops should be planned from the start of the design process and
should not be tacked on the end as a way to appease those wanting a more
ecological design. 
        As the design process continues the topics presented in the
workshops should be related to the design problem at hand and the
tradeoffs considered (i.e. between a good view and southern exposure). 
Obviously, every topic covered in the workshops won't be appropriate or
desirable for the particular site or dwelling.  It is the job of the
people who organized the workshops to make sure that ecological concerns
are being included in every aspect of the site design.  As more
information is presented and the site design process continutes, people's
attitudes and desires change.  The process we have used is a sort of
dialetic where the conceptual design is constantly changing with the
presentation of more information.  Once the information is presented then
people can start making choices about how these features should be carried
out on an actual site plan.  Further clarification of the groups vision
relating to ecological criteria may be needed or the group may need time
to focus on group processes for a while.  Both of these things is
happening with the group I am working with at this time.  Starting in
January we will start working on site designs, but perhaps focus on
staging the development (and not do a master site plan at the moment).  We
haven't got to the point of making hard choices so I can't report on that. 
Documenting the information presented at the workshops helps to clarify
facts and figures that are useful as the site design continues.  I
documented all the information that we presented in the site design
workshops and summarized it to refresh people's memory.  I can send you
that synopsis (I've already sent it to six people) if you are interested. 
Hopefully in the future this information will be in an easy to access
format and people interested in it won't have to do hours of research to
present the workshops.  I am hoping to compile such information with other
members of the design team. 
        What we are doing is rather experimental, so if it seems a bit
hazy, that's why.  I doubt any other approach would have worked, and the
group certainly couldn't have afforded to pay an architiect full salary to
come up with a site plan.  The whole idea is to avoid high paid
'professionals' until the end of the process and let the group do as much
of the design work as is possible.  Once we perfect this method I think
this is possible.  Architects should do what they are supposed to,
synthesize what the group and individuals want into a desirable and
buildable community.  Too often architects are paid big bucks to repeat
some tried and true design which doesn't fit very well.  

Eric Hart
Minneapolis, MN 
harte [at]



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