Common House, do it yourself style
From: Lynn Nadeau (
Date: Fri, 18 Feb 2000 21:58:58 -0700 (MST)
>From Lynn Nadeau, RoseWind Cohousing, Port Townsend Washington
(in our 11th year, about to sell our last two lots, to have 24 families)
(the Slo-Track folks, with all the odd different houses, if you were at 
the National)

I loved Rob's PT Barnum quote (about his response to a lady criticizing 
his dancing bears) "Madam, the miracle of the dancing bear is not how 
well it dances, but that it dances at all!"  I shared the quote with a 
number of others here at RoseWind today, and everyone laughed heartily 
and agreed, Yes, that's a great analogy for our cohousing process, both 
globally and in the details. A good reminder, since we sometimes beat 
ourselves up that it's not more perfect. 

Our main "dancing bear" these days is our common house. The process 
lurches sometimes, wobbles sometimes, but golly it does move forward, and 
it's a wonder to see it taking shape. We started the building process 
with numerous details undecided -- either choosing to wait, or simply 
forgetting things. Or changing our minds. But the way we are doing this, 
we aren't losing money if we take longer, just time. At this point, 
besides subs like insulators and drywallers, we just have one paid 
builder, about quarter time. He helps coordinate things, advise,  and 
plan what the volunteers can best do next. We've gone to a three-day work 
party every other week, and that is working well. It's more fun to go and 
join 8 others, than to work alone or with 1 or 2, on most projects. 

We have our 2800 sq ft, one story building closed in, roofed, drywalled 
(mostly), and plumbing and electric roughed in. Fairly basic layout, with 
a 30x30 great room, with both dining and lounge areas, flexible boundary. 
Kitchen a lot like the one at Pioneer Valley, with a lot of input from 
architect Mary Kraus. Youth room, rec room, two lavatories, and a 
generous foyer, entry hall area. Front porch with two big tree trunks for 

Our budget is about $277,000 for the total project, except for 
landscaping. Design, permits, insurance, excavations-- all the way 
through to furniture and appliances.  

Now that there are about 15 households living on site, we can put out a 
call for an impromptu job --- "The drywallers are coming tomorrow and 
there's stuff all over the floors that all needs to disappear, can you 
help from 3 to 4 today? " And have 3-7 people show up on very short 
notice and handle the need. 

When there are workers, there is always someone who is feeding them. 
Earlier, when we had framers here, plus volunteers, we had hot drinks and 
hearty snacks morning and afternoon. With the work parties, a big hot 
lunch (yesterday it was spinach lasagna, garlic bread, salad, and fruit). 
This is a good way to involve people who aren't physically able to do 
construction site work. And the social time is really positive for 

We have built the walls with "rastra block" aka EnerGrid, which is blocks 
of concrete-and-recycled-styrofoam-bits. The stuff is very workable, so 
volunteers are able to run around and trim things with old kitchen 
knives, patch grooves with stucco stuff, carve things, etc. In the 
bathrooms, someone figured a way to cut colored bottles and put them into 
the wall from both inside and outside, cleverly wrapped in reflective 
silver paper, making little circles of stained glass effect. 

The exterior of the building will be stucco-finished, when we are ready. 
Today we were mocking up various people's pet ideas for how to finish the 
corners and exterior window sills. Tomorrow morning we will look them 
over and decide what to go with. The front runner so far is a column-like 
applique with bricks, at the building corners. Using bricks that a number 
of people salvaged from a demolition site last year. 

We also salvaged enough wooden flooring to do one of our big rooms with. 
Lots of volunteer work will go into that, but many here are willing to 
make the extra effort to incorporate re-used wood. 

In the interior, we will be doing a lot with "Structolite" a sort of 
fluffy plaster stuff that works especially well on the rastra-block wall 
interiors, but also works on drywall. 
A messy work party, I'm sure, but apparently the finished effect is nice, 
it's great for sculpting arches and niches, and the dry wall doesn't have 
to be more than fire-taped, which is a savings on that. 

Rob's process of "arrange yourselves across the room according to where 
you stand on such and such an issue" has been good for dealing with the 
wide range of attitudes towards embellishments. Those who are far out at 
one end or another get to speak for their position, and also see that 
they are rather alone in having it. It has seemed to help those at both 
ends compromise--- those who would festoon the building with gargoyles 
and murals and bas reliefs and inlays and carved animals on the rafter 
tails and Taj Mahal arches in every doorway, vs those who are terrified 
of anything but a beige straight line. People are being very good humored 
about some pretty major differences, and many successful solutions are 
being forged. 

Nerves get frayed when people revisit stuff that someone else thought was 
already decided, or someone appears who is upset about what someone else 
did. But we do like each other, and that is all the difference.

 A core committee of 4-6 people are empowered to keep things moving 
forward, consulting with the larger group when it seems needed. So the 
whole community gets involved in deciding how much embellishment we put 
on the exterior, but only the committee researched and decided on the 
heating system, and only I and the electrician decided on what sort of 
thermostats and where. 

While it's all rather basic, we have found room in the budget to add in 
some nice touches -- a transfer switch so  electricity can be used from a 
generator, in case of major power outages in town (which we do get with 
winter storms, and could get in a big earthquake). 
-a built-in vacuum system
-wall hung toilets, also to facilitate cleaning
-some commercial-ready features in the kitchen plumbing, for instance, in 
case we later want to have a Health Department certified kitchen. 
-speaker wire and cables all through the building, to facilitate future 
sound system, phones, TV if wanted
- a display niche in the front hall for fresh flowers or art or such
-a pass-through type window opening from the front foyer to the kitchen, 
to see who's there and what they're doing. 
- a propane tank we'll own and install underground (one or more nearby 
houses will also use the tank, with their own meters). We'll get a better 
price by buying in large quantities, and it will be great not to have to 
look at yet another ugly above-ground tank. 
-a sink in the kid room
- a fireplace-style propane heater, in the lounge area, to heat the great 
room and provide a hearth. We'll probably hand craft some sort of 
mantlepiece ourselves. 
- a professional, counter-level  dishwasher (our other appliances are 
non-commercial, except for a convection oven)
-acoustic ceilings in the rec and kid rooms, and what we're told will be 
even better acoustic mitigation in the dining room, with some sort of 
dropped panels
-skylights in a number of locations

We broke ground for this in the Fall, and expect it to have a Certificate 
of Occupancy this summer. It's really exciting to see it added to day by 

Sometimes we make mistakes and have to back up. Sometimes I don't get 
what I want.  But we are within our budget, so far, about half way 
through the money, and , indeed it is amazing (given our half-baked 
amateurism), but the Bear Does Dance!

Our web site has been updated fairly recently, including a link to a 
recent local newspaper article, with pictures. We're at

More news this summer, I'd guess. Thanks to all whose experiences have 
been shared and learned from in this common house process. 

Lynn Nadeau
locally known as the Detail Queen (that sounds better than FussBudget)

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