RE: Exercise in custom home design or exercise in community?
From: Rob Sandelin (
Date: Fri, 18 Feb 2000 09:30:57 -0700 (MST)
These are not mutually exclusive things. As somebody else noted, part of
building community is working together on the design process. How much you
trade off during this process, how you treat each other, what group values
you uphold or discard in this process are touchpoints for community
building. You can do other things in addition, or instead of, this work to
build community amoung the group. Never hold a meeting if you can have a
party instead.

There is a trap, that is used to guilt trip people during design, which goes
like this: If you were a true communitarian, you'd give up _______ for the
good of the community/the planet/the chidren/etc. This is not very
attractive as a community building process.

Remember, very few people who join a cohousing project have any experience
living in community. Nor is it likely that they have very many, if any, of
the skills of being an effective colloborator. So there is not much in the
way of community background or skills at this point. In fact, there is often
friction between old timers and new comers in groups over decision processes
and skill levels. New comers often don't have the same understanding of
group norms and processes and so they barge in and create messes now and

This seems to be pretty normal, people want some control over a huge life
decision. If you go into the design stage, with no conflict resolution
process in place, and with poor community bonds and low levels of trust, it
is unlikely you will have much fun, and you will also most likely have
people drop out of the group shortly thereafter or during. If you go into
this process with good trained facilitators, good communication processes, a
clear and agreed upon conflict resoluton process, and you pay attention to
the groups energy and morale, you will be more likely to come out with your
crew intact and spirits and community bonds high.

Some good advice I have heard several others say, Start your design process
with the commonhouse first. This will give you some experience working on
collaborative design processes, and people may be much less me focused about
this building. Then do the site design work, then do the homes last. That
way you have the most experience,and you understand how to make tradeoffs

After you go through this process, and others, and then live together for a
couple years, THEN, you have the experience, and hopefully some skills. But
by then, all that stuff is ancient history and you will be deep into other

Building cohousing is sort of like PT Barnums response to the woman who
criticized the dancing bears in his circus. "Madam, the miracle of the
dancing bear is not how well it dances, but that it dances at all"

For groups of basically strangers, to come together, put in HUGE wads of
money at risk, in a group project over which they have only marginal
control, all in chase of a vision of a better living environment, is truely
revolutionary. That groups have done this over and over again to the tune
of, what 75 projects built and under construction?, is nothing short of

So that vision, that dream, of community, that fuels all this, is enormously
powerful. It will not be lost because you did not get the lavendar toliet
handles, or the custom lighting in the bedroom. But it may be lost, if you
hold those issues as grudges and resentments, and then use those as a club
to beat each other with.

Pay attention to the processes and the feelings around you. Figure out ways
to get over that stuff. Recruit, train or hire good facilitators so you
don't get bogged down in hours and hours of stomache meetings. This drives
people away.

And be sure when you get to the late stages, and people drop out, and they
will, that you keep pushing that dream, that vision of how you are going to
live together. The primary mistake I see late development groups making is
that they soft pedal the dream because now they have real houses they
can/have to sell. Then the people that buy the houses don't subscribe to the
many processes that you will create, because they were buying a house, not a
dream community life.

This difference between peoples approaches to life in cohousing is the #1
reason I get called to mediate in groups.

Rob Sandelin
Northwest Intentional Communities Association
Lot of resources for forming communities can be found at

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