(better format) Reflections on cohousing without a developer
From: Jim Snyder-Grant (jimsgnewview.org)
Date: Fri, 11 Feb 2000 12:28:48 -0700 (MST)
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Hi everyone:

I wrote the stuff below recently in response to an email from Diane Simpson,
who is getting ready to write an article for cohousing magazine about
working with developers. There seemed to be a lot of stuff in what I wrote
that wouldn't fit into her article, but might be of interest to the list, so
I thought I would pass it on.

First, a review of how New View (Acton MA) worked with developers and other

We did at one point in our history work with a developer on a site in South
Acton. However, he was not committed in any paticular way to our group or to
cohousing, and he ended up developing the site on his own, without us. That
was one of our low points as a group, when we lost hope of moving into that

By that time, we had already assembled a team consisting of an architect, a
development consultant, a lawyer, and various allied professionals. All of
them were deeply interested and committed to the cohousing idea. This being
the early 90s in Boston, none of them had first-hand cohousing experience.
When we got control of our final site in West Acton, we also hired a
builder, who had extensive experience in multi-family construction, but no
particular interest or experience with cohousing.

We got through the development process with some stumbles & confusions &
cost overruns; but with no lawsuits, bankruptcies, or sabotage.

I don't know if I would do anything differently. We are all here, people &
houses & common house, happy enough, only one turnover in 4 years. Who knows
what would have happened on a different route? There seem to be plenty of
ways for cohousing groups to fail. Our route was one that worked.

On the other hand, there are certainly some scars left from the process that
I wish we had had some of way of avoiding in the first place. However, I am
still very unsure what we should have done differently.

The cost-overruns are probably the single biggest problem that continues to
effect most of us. They were caused by a few inter-related factors:

A) Determination to go ahead in the face of risks.

Our West Acton site had many issues such as an iffy septic-field-location
situation, a seller who needed a lot of cash up front, a confusing
permitting situation related to the interplay of septic capacity,
afffordable housing options, and the need for some cooperation with
neighbors to put the final parcel together. A traditional developer might
have said "well, this is too risky. Let's look elsewhere". Instead, after a
lot of discussion, we said "this might be our last chance, and it could work
out well, let's go for it".   This is both a strength and a weakness of
working without a developer: the willingness to take big risks in the
pursuit of a dream. In our case, the risks ended up increasing our costs,
but not sinking us totally.

B) Customization cost.

Customizations multiply costs, as many people have mentioned. You lose some
ability to reuse drawings, or buy standard parts in bulk. You also take more
time, which ends up costing money. There are also more opportunities for
mistakes, which cost money to fix or ameliorate.

On the other hand, customization allows some households who can afford it
and want it to build larger and more complex homes. In any resonable house
cost formulam including ours, larger homes absorb more of the over-all
development costs, including cost over-runs. In that way, having some larger
homes helped the smaller households. Also, I am pretty sure that some of our
households would have dropped out if we had really retreated from our
commitment to allow customization. The standard units we agreed on did not
fit for everyone, but did seem a reasonable base to start from. We did
charge handily for customization: extra building fees, extra architect fees,
extra charges for adding bedrooms and adding livable square footage.

However, I think we really did not have a group sense of how much extra time
and effort all this customization was going to take. But, would we have
wanted to move in sooner, if we had known that it would mean that the base
unit houses would probably have been even more expensive, and that some
households at both ends of the cost spectrum might have dropped out? I don't

C) Builder relations.

In an effort to bring down costs, we asked our lawyer and architect to
negotiate very sternly with our builder over the base costs. This came back
to bite us in some ways: any extras later cost more; and after a while the
builder lost interest in working with us creatively on cost-reductions, and
we lost time & some money-saving opportunities.  I am sure that if we had
been working with a cohousing developer, rather than a builder, the dynamic
could have been different: we would have surrendered more on upfront costs,
by agreeing on a developer-sized profit, but we could have saved time and
money over the longer run by smoother working relationships. But, there were
no cohousing developers in Boston. Plus, as I described above, an
experienced developer might have walked away from this site in the first
place; and/or insisted on fewer customizations, which might have lost us
households. It's really hard for me to weigh out the pros and cons here of
any alternatives.

D) Neighbor relations / permitting breaks

We had some alternatives for bring costs down by building more houses on the
site. One scenario required the cooperation of a number of neighbors, and we
did not achieve an agreement with everyone we needed to. Another scenario
involved bypassing the town zoning restrictions on density by applying to
the state for what is known in Massachusetts as a 'comprehensive permit'.
This would have taken more time, and entailed some risk of getting tied up
in legal challenges as well. Also, now that we are here with 24 households,
it is hard to imagine where we would have put more households - we would
have had to lose more of our lovely unbuilt common land. Again, I'm not sure
if the alternatives would have worked out better. I also don't think working
with a developer would have helped with this one.

OK, back to your specific questions you asked for the article:

1) What about the inherent conflict between the slow, methodical consensus
process and the quick action-oriented development process?

We handled this by authorizing committees to handle details within
parameters agreed to by the group. We also had to have plenty of meetings to
handle exceptional cases that went beyond the parameters. But the key was
authorizing smaller committees. This worked for both the design committte,
which clustered around the architect, and the various development related
committees that handled the various stages of the process: the negotiating
committee, the development committee, and, later during the construction
process, a small liaison committee to handle builder-to-individual-household

 2) Misunderstandings that result from what the group thinks it should be
deciding and what the developer (or architect) thinks he or she should

This certainly happened from time to time, but it was not a major issue, I
think. The design committee worked closely with the architect to work out
process and content issues. Generally, if the architect made a strong
reasoned recommendation, the group went along with it.  I know the architect
had some frustations in working with us: you might ask him directly: Peter

 3) confusion about what "designing your own community" really means. Do
some people think they are going to get a completely custom-built home? How
do they come to understand that this is not possible? (or do they ever?)

We worked in clusters with the architects to lay out base homes for 4
different sizes & layouts of houses (a couple of two-bedroom styles, and a
couple of 3-4 bedroom styles, with detached & attached configurations).
People knew they would need to pay for customizations. See above for more on
the pros & cons of the way we ended up doing customizations.

Some people have suggested that so few people did NOT do customizations that
it was a waste of time & money to have base units. I think I disagree. The
final result is that the houses are similar enough in style to feel
coherent, but different enough to be interesting.  I wonder what would have
happened if we had originally worked with the architect and builder with the
understanding that there would be 24 different houses. I think both
professionals would have run screaming away from the project, based on what
we were willing to pay. If they hadn't run away, and instead had told us how
much this would have cost, many of the residents would have run away.  As it
was, we ended up working together to create a fine home for our
community,and now we get to live together over the next few decades,
recovering from the financial strain of the process.  That's OK by me, and
so far it's OK with my neighbors as well, almost all of whom have chosen to
stick it out, despite the financial evidence from our one turnover that
these houses can easily be sold for more than what we paid for them.

-Jim Snyder-Grant
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