Synergy & Problems in Florida
From: Sharon Villines (
Date: Wed, 9 Feb 2000 09:04:43 -0700 (MST)
I would add a few more comments about the project in Florida. The project
did not fail from lack of enthusiasm on the part of the core group or from
lack of focus on recruitment or lack of good intentions or lack of sheer
effort or lack of organization.

Part of the problem was life in South Florida. Real estate here is
incredibly cheap. Since it is one of the most rapidly growing areas of the
country there are numerous housing developments--gated communities-- going
up everywhere. They all have clubhouses and pools, etc., which on the
surface seem to be very similar to cohousing. Of course they aren't but its
a  hard sell.

The area is also greatly dispersed. The site was in a small town north of
Miami with not bad but not attractive schools. Other sites were considered
closer to Miami but they all had some difficulty or another. it was hard to
find people who wanted to move several towns away or commute further than
they were already commuting. And all sites would have required that.

When the process extends over several years, you lose people as fast as you
attract them. Families have to make commitments to schools systems. Growing
families need more bedrooms _now_, not at some indefinite time in the
future. People are transferred or take jobs out of the area. Marriages break
up. Marriages start. Life goes on.

Professionals are essential from start to finish. Experienced professionals
with track records--people who have done it before. Synergy was dealing with
a variety of unassociated professionals who had not worked together
previously and didn't even consult each other when they worked on Synergy.
The architect for example did not talk to the construction manager. Synergy
members were doing all the back and forth. One member with construction
experience was hired by the group to do the leg work, but ti wasn't enough.
The architects plans were almost a year late, were turned in with many
defects that had to be corrected, and construction costs had risen in that
time. The architect seemed to have no sense of the costs of his additions
and went forward with his designs even when his engineers said he would have
to add things like steel beams, doubling the costs. He did this without
consulting us.

Other professionals charged thousands of dollars and did nothing. And
threatened law suits if they weren't paid. After Katy and Chuck did the
initial design workshops, the local professionals just didn't produce.

Even when people contribute their time for the advantage of getting
experience it will hold you back. Inexperience means people have to learn
and it will take twice as long. This will cost you families/households who
cannot wait around indefinitely--like 5 years. Households willing to buy a
unit are worth much more than you can ever save in professional fees.

Synergy was a fabulous project in concept and in design. That was also part
of the problem. People who are interested in cohousing are also interested
in affordable housing. Environmental and innovative designs are not cheap.
They are less expensive down the line, but few people have the funds to pay
for tomorrow today. The money isn't there.

The difference between the Synergy experience and the Takoma Village
experience is like night and day. Takoma has a developer who works with
other professionals with whom he has established working relationships. He
hasn't done cohousing before but he has done numerous multi family
developments. He can tell the design team what will work and what won't and
why. He has architects and construction managers he can consult in a
telephone call. The people who work with him know they have to produce on a
time schedule or they will not only lose this project but future ones.

For example, huge savings were achieved by selling units on a general floor
plan and not doing the expensive working drawings until most of the units
were sold. This allowed Takoma to change the mix of units without redoing
tens of thousands of dollars of working drawings (requiring re-engineering,
etc.). When the two-story, two-bedroom units were not selling, they were
changed to the two-bedroom flats people wanted. Money was not invested in
engineering before the place was ready to be engineered.

Competition in construction is very high. The margins are very narrow. Time
is money. Professionals don't have time to spend educating and hand holding
the inexperienced. And the inexperienced don't know what questions to ask to
avoid problems. An experienced developer is essential. It doesn't  mean less
work for the group--the Takoma people meet once a week in business meetings
and at least once in committee meetings. All decisions go through the
group--gas or real fireplaces? Open or closed kitchen? On and on. But the
project will be built and occupied in less than two years.

Sharon Villines, Butler
The MacGuffin Guide to Mystery Fiction
Takoma Village Cohousing, Washington, DC

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