Re: design review
From: Kay Argyle (
Date: Wed, 22 Dec 1999 16:38:26 -0700 (MST)
Sorry this response is a little tardy, my ethernet card croaked.

I'd like to offer moral support to Kate Nichols in her desire to
accommodate individuality or even eccentricity in design.

I'm deeply suspicious of designating one style.  Too often in my life I've
been a victim of one-size-fits-all solutions (sometimes literally --
required uniforms that didn't come in my size), too often I've been a
square peg whose options were all round holes, too many people have
regarded a difference in our tastes as a matter for moral superiority
(theirs) instead of an occasion for celebrating diversity.  The person
whose life was made easier or whose aesthetics were pleased by limiting my
possibilities, didn't pay the costs that went with their choices.  I did.

On a purely practical level, keep in mind that most people are better with
shapes and colors than with digits.  People lose addresses, they forget
house numbers, but they'll remember you said it's the yellow house with a
window like a crescent moon.  They'll remember sitting on your unique
wraparound porch longer than they'll remember whether it was the third or
the fourth identical house on the left, or was it right?

At an envisioning exercise soon after groundbreaking,  we were supposed to
imagine coming home and walking into our kitchen.  One young teen woefully
reported she hadn't been able to find her house, because they all looked

The more that all of the buildings adhere to a single style, the more dated
your community will look in thirty years.

The style of your buildings communicates what sort of people are expected
to live there.  You're never going to achieve diversity if prospective
members look at the architecture and say, no, this is a community for
upwardly mobile professional people, I won't fit.  Diversity of style will
attract diversity of people.

Eighteen of twenty-six units at Wasatch Commons have the same open-plan
kitchen/living room layout.  Most are townhouses, mostly duplexes, with two
bedrooms above the kitchen and living room, sometimes a third bedroom to
the side of the living room, and possibly a fourth bedroom on top of the
third bedroom (the downstairs bath changes from 1/2 to 3/4 for the 3- &
4-bedroom units).   Two "stacked" buildings have a 2-bedroom downstairs and
a 1-bedroom up.  Five units were designed/built to be low-income -- a
1-bedroom in a stacked unit, and a fourplex with a townhouse and three
single-storey 2-bedrooms.  One of these is handicap (extra big bathroom,
wide doorways etc.).  One unit for various reasons ended up being
freestanding with a totally different floorplan and was even built by a
different contractor.

Some options were permitted -- open stair or enclosed, steel or porcelain
sink, rear deck, white laminate or maple cabinets, etc.

In addition, some households worked with the architect on customizations,
mostly very early in the design process.  We joined just as they were
trying to cut off customizations, and the architect really didn't have time
to deal with us.  Our foundation was poured wrong, the roof trusses were
the wrong slope, windows were framed wrong.  It wasn't the inspectors or
our building committee that caught the mistakes, either.  My roommate works
weekends and for months spent her weekdays on-site (lurking in our tiny
patch of preserved "wild area," on the excuse of pruning the trees), and we
went out several evenings a week to check every new thing they did.  Our
customizations caused an incredible lot of hassle and not a few hard
feelings.  Am I sorry?  No.  I wouldn't trade our kitchen pantry nor
especially our extra windows.

Lack of storage is a problem.  -- I know we're supposed to be
"simplifying."  That doesn't mean amputating yourself from your
possessions.  It needs to be a natural process, like abscising a leaf, so
that it falls off by itself in the right season.  Meanwhile the community
has summer tires, a half-dozen pickaxes, and twenty bikes to get out of the

Lack of soundproofing *inside* the house is a problem.  We are fairly well
insulated from the other half of the duplex, but my roommate can't stay up
late watching tv, and I can't load the dishwasher in the morning, because
of waking the other up.  As a neighbor put it, if I sneeze in the kitchen,
he says gesundheit from the bedroom.

I joined after architectural design but before color selection.   Some
members of Wasatch wanted a "unified look" in everything -- buildings,
colors, yards.  I felt very strongly the other direction.  All through the
weeks of the color discussions I kept hearing the songs "Silhouettes" and
Pete Seeger's "Little Boxes" running through my head:  "Met two strangers
who had been/Two silhouettes on the shade/Said to myself, you're on the
wrong block," ....  "And the people/Live in boxes/And they all look/Just
the same."

The "unified look" contingent finally agreed that since the style of each
building was so similar, it would be acceptable to have a slightly greater
range of exterior colors.  Between members concerned about heat gain in our
sometimes oppressively sunny summers and those arguing that the tan,
chestnut, and cow-pasture khaki the architect was recommending for the
stucco were nearly indistinguishable, it was decided to send the colors
back to the architect with a request for paler, more distinct shades.

Our building committee was telling us that natural stucco (already decided
on) absolutely did not come in anything but earth tones.  Somebody laid
hands on a brochure showing what colors were actually available, and the
"color! give us color!" members pounced on a soft yellow shade (which has
turned out to absorb less heat than the others).  We added a fourth color
of shingles, green, to go with it, over the architect's recommendation of
only two colors, or (if we absolutely insisted) three.  The khaki stucco
was traded for a pale grey with grey shingles (but when the stucco actually
went on, somehow had been changed again to an ash brown without consulting
the group).  

Then (this was about the third or fourth meeting on the subject, under
pressure because the first building already had its undercoat on) we did a
quick survey who wanted what color on their own unit, laid a site map on
the floor, arranged color chips on the outlines of the buildings, and
shuffled them around until the people who were using "hodge-podge" as a
dirty word were satisfied with the pattern the colors made.  I'm sure the
seagulls and ducks flying overhead find it very pleasing. ;-)

On to trim colors.  Again the architect picked colors -- stains for the
facing, the soffit, the deck railing, in palettes of barn red, forest
green, and plum purple.  The contractor rebelled, and the choice narrowed
to just plum trim and white soffits or white everything.  We held a meeting
on site to inspect the trim on the first two buildings.  The people who
wanted color held their ground, the people who dislike the purple were told
they could repaint (nobody had time this first summer, and so the question
of whether we are permitted to choose our own color hasn't been answered --
I expect we will, I'm not the only member likely to be mulish), and we
consensed on the purple, with half the members there standing aside --
which as far as I'm concerned says we did not have concensus.

The subject of soffits (the underside of the eaves or porch roof) reminds
me -- if you want photosensitive lights, keep the sensor well away from a
white-painted soffit!  Our lights would turn on at dark, the reflection off
the soffit would fool the photosensor cell, the light would turn off, so
then it was dark again ...  on off on off on off.

Bulk purchasing and standardization can save money up front on the cost of
parts.  It can also save labor costs, because it saves the contractor time
having to keep track of which house gets what, reading twenty different
brands of installation instructions, and (most importantly, in my
experience) ripping out mistakes when the wrong house got the dishwasher.

On the other hand, don't fall into the trap of automatically assuming it
will save money on everything.  Buying five households' worth of identical
carpet doesn't necessarily give you a pricebreak.  Maybe it just forces
somebody to live with a carpet that the color committee or architect adored
and that they themselves refer to as "the pond scum."  Or they are offered
the "consolation" that they can rip it out and throw it away as soon as
they move in, and never mind that they joined cohousing to be with people
who shared their ideal of not living in a throwaway society.

We were restricted to the four interior color schemes the architect picked
out.  I found all four appalling.  Come to find out, the guy building the
countertops was stopping at the laminate distributor on his way to the site
every morning and purchasing exactly as much as he would use that day.  My
roommate and I took advantage of this to switch the pattern in our kitchen
and bath -- *bad* cohousers!  evading process!  defying consensus!  and the
worst sin of all, talking to subcontractors.   ;-)

Hope there's an ingot of experience worth smelting from all this verbiage.

Kay Argyle
Wasatch Commons

Wishing you all a happy solstice -- nice that the last full moon of the
millenium is a memorable one ...  and I don't buy the "there was no year
zero, so _next_ year is the last of the millenium" argument, because (a)
for that matter there was no year one either, since it was calculated
retroactively, (b) the monk who figured it got it wrong, and the millenium
ended a couple of years ago, and (c) I don't feel the need to be bound by
the oddities of an obsolete system.  ;-)

Whatever you celebrate, have a good one.

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