Re: Private Unit Design - a cost/benefit question
From: Robert Wiener (
Date: Sun, 13 Feb 2000 10:05:17 -0700 (MST)
Interesting questions.
I agree with those who are saying that cohousing needs to be easier and more
affordable to be more mainstream.  At the same time, people who can afford
customization of one kind or another will be turned off if they can't express
themselves and have at least some choices.  "Housism" is pretty ingrained in our
society, and the shape, size, style, etc. of our houses is still so important -
though cohousing teaches us that it is really the community that matters.  It
will take some time to change American attitudes to housing.
In some markets, however, we need people who may be a little more
individualistic.  In many parts of Maine, for example, there just may not be
enough households who want "by the book" cohousing.

With the core group that became Two Echo, we had a majority of people who wanted
to design their own houses.  Frankly, it just seemed like it would be too
difficult to reach consensus on designing the whole community at once.  Though 
didn't know the term at the time, the Lot Development Model was an obvious
choice, for simplicity's sake.
For similar reasons, we chose not to pursue affordability subsidies.  For a 
of amateurs, with a willing developer, but one who was not particularly
interested in cohousing, the prospect seemed too daunting.

So all the houses at Two Echo are basically custom houses; households can choose
their designers, designs, builders, etc.  We have design guidelines and a DRC
(design review committee) that are working out very well.  The houses are good
looking and compatible with a lot of variety.  They are undoubtedly more
expensive than we could have spent using the other approach.  Because timing
rarely works out, using the same builders or suppliers for several houses has 
really panned out as a means of saving money, though we thought it might.
Several local lumber yards are creating credit accounts whereby an amount equal
to 2% of materials sold for Two Echo houses is available credit for the 
to use when we build the Common House.

(That is a drawback that has been cited concerning lot development communities:
Though twelve households are living here, the community still has six of
twenty-seven lots left to sell, so we have to wait for the common house unless 
decide to take on some debt.  It may come to that, but there will some long
discussions and maybe some private donations to cover interest costs if we want
to get going.)

My social conscience grumbles a little at times - Two Echo is solidly middle
class.  We have had households leave because buying existing houses can be
considerably cheaper than building new here.  Nevertheless, we are pleased to be
here, and as the first and only community in Maine, I'm not sure we'd be here 
by some other method.

Anyway, sorry to digress.  It seems important to adapt development and design
choices to local circumstances and the personalities involved in the group.  All
of the ideas put out on this listserve and elsewhere is undoubtedly invaluable 
many new groups, though ultimately the choices are theirs.

Rob Wiener

Berrins [at] wrote:

> This is a tough issue.  I can see both sides.
>     On the one hand, having standardized house plans would have greatly
> simplified our lives these past two years.   At Pathways we went with
> customizable house designs off four basic plans.  It took (just a guestimate
> here) a year's worth of cohousing meetings and family time to deal with,
> created a ton of difficult, emotional and purely subjective decisions (house
> colors was a big one) and slowed down construction with all the variations
> and change orders (despite heavy surcharges after the purchase and sales
> agreements were signed).
>     On the other hand, as we begin to move in within a week or two, watching
> our own homes and those of our neighbors take shape is an unbelievable
> feeling.  It's fun seeing the choices others made; it's a small reflection of
> each family.  And for all the time and money we're sinking into this, I like
> feeling that I had some control over what my house will look like and how it
> will operate.
>      Living in cohousing is the main goal of everyone, orginal occupant or
> not.  Those moving into communities after they are built may not get their
> ideal house, but they weren't there during the design process and didn't
> spend 3-5 years of their lives getting it built; the reality is that getting
> to design your own home is an option open only to the builders.  It's a
> really nice option.  Yes, people drop out and move.  Families change and
> their housing needs with them.  On the other hand, while many houses change
> over, many others don't.  Many families will live in the houses they designed
> for decades, perhaps generations.
>     That said, I can't imagine it will be possible to predict a mix of houses
> that will remain ideal through the years.  I do know that every family at
> Pathways will have the house size they need now and think they will need for
> several years.  Only one family dropped out after we began picking out house
> sizes, and they were replaced just before construction began, so the new
> family's house size was changed in time.  Perhaps a compromise could be
> reached; at a minimum, let each household pick the number of bedrooms they
> need.  Otherwise, it will be difficult to attract people to a project if they
> can't get the house size they need.  Bedrooms can always be added later,
> especially if the houses are designed for easy enlargement.
>     A few other customizations could be allowed for purely objective needs,
> like health concerns (type of heating/air filtration/air conditioning/low
> volatile materials) or accessibility (ramps/bathrooms/kitchen
> counters/appliances).  These could be presented as packages (eg, the "heathly
> home" or "accessible" option) to decrease the number of decisions and
> decrease the complexity of the project.  Leave the purely subjective stuff,
> like house colors, trim and floor choices, and the design features, like
> floor plans and bathrooms, to the professionals.  That will save a ton of
> time, emotional upheavals and money.
>     -Roger

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