|(better format) Reflections on cohousing without a developer||<– Date –> <– Thread –>|
|From: Jim Snyder-Grant (jimsgnewview.org)|
|Date: Fri, 11 Feb 2000 12:28:48 -0700 (MST)|
For some of you, the first version of this message was hard to read. Here's another try: 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 professionals. 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 site. 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 know.. 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 issues. 2) Misunderstandings that result from what the group thinks it should be deciding and what the developer (or architect) thinks he or she should decide 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 Quinn. 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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