Re: Exercise in custom home design or exercise in community?
From: Kay Argyle (
Date: Fri, 25 Feb 2000 17:33:30 -0700 (MST)
> The word "cohousing" seems to have filtered out into the ether and is
> attracting a wide range of people who are all attaching their own
> to the word.

Once in a while somebody utters the Big Threat, "But it won't be cohousing
if we don't --" [have X number of common meals per week, disallow private
yards, recycle, do all the work ourselves, get rid of all our extra
possessions].  We'll be -- tones of horror -- "just another condominium."

Different communities seem to take varying approaches with "add-on" values
such as environmentalism, sweat equity, common land, or voluntary
simplicity, that don't necessarily reflect the core definition of

My understanding, in joining Wasatch Commons, was that "cohousing" meant a
community designed to foster interaction among its residents -- but a
nursing home with a good recreation director does that.  It was exactly the
chance to define my own community (to attach my own meaning) that I was
attracted to.

> Is it really taken as a given by most cohousing group members that they
> will be able to have their own custom-designed house? ...
> What *kind* of customizing was considered important to your group? ...
>  Why was it not possible to discuss these wants
> and needs during the programming phase and come up with a variety of
> that met everyone's needs? Was the cost of the customization ever
> discussed? Did it ever become an issue for some group members?

We didn't belong to the group during programming.  I'm sure the design, and
the options offered, reflected the members of the time.   Even so, most
tweaked this or that in their own place, moved walls, changed doorways,

"Community" was an untried concept.  On the basis of a promise that might
not materialize, we accepted a house we wouldn't have otherwise considered
and attempted to mitigate its drawbacks.

We sacrificed location.  I've got a two-hour commute.  The nearest grocery
stores are shabby, badly stocked, and a long walk away.  It's got no front
yard.  We're in a flood plain between a river and a canal, and the house is
built below grade.  The day they put in the central path and we saw that it
was higher than our front porch, my roommate sat on the curb and cried.

The things we tried to fix were 
(a) we were combining two households' worth of stuff, and the place had
less storage than any single-bedroom apartment I've ever lived in 
-- add storage (the biggest changes, some of them structural),
(b) it was going to be as dark as a train tunnel, and we both get winter
-- enlarge windows and add lights, 
(c) the number of outlets was the legal minimum required by the building
-- more outlets and phone jacks, 
(d) on the unanimous advice of every contractor we talked to at a home show
-- change the open-loop radiant heating to closed-loop.

We discussed a three-bedroom unit instead, but the cost quoted for the
customization still came in below the three-bedroom, and the only one still
available had little privacy.

Some of the changes could have been done later.  It seemed silly and
wasteful to pay for new construction, with the intention of immediately
ripping it apart, pulling out doors and windows that you just paid hundreds
of dollars for and sending them to the dump as construction debris, and
then living with it torn apart for months and years -- it also sounded
stressful.  I grew up in a house being remodeled, I don't recommend it.

Our customization became an issue partly because of being done so late in
the game.  The alterations to the other units were in the original drawings
that the contractor got, and mistakes were minor, whereas our foundations
were poured wrong, the plumbing was wrong, the roof trusses were the wrong
pitch, the windows were framed wrong.  It caused delays, with interest on
the project loan piling up daily.  The building committee still get
tightlipped and testy when reminded of it.

On the other hand, too often we felt like there were guilt-tripping and
covert power games going on, which just made us less inclined to be meekly
accepting.  (It isn't "voluntary simplicity" when it's demanded of you.)

Cost-cuts made just before we joined weren't in the plans we saw, and
nobody could or would tell us what they were (information flow has been a
major problem for Wasatch).  We found out about them one at a time as the
house went up, each one a jolt.

As I told someone at the time, on good days I felt like I was moving to Oz,
on bad days it was Airstrip One (George Orwell/1984). 

When I'm feeling like I was out of my mind to move here, and I retreat into
my house to lick my wounds and try to remember why I wanted to do this, it
doesn't help that I am looking at a carpet that I didn't want in the first
place for health reasons, disliked from the first time I laid eyes on the
carpet sample, was required to pick out from four equally grim
alternatives, and cannot afford to replace.  That carpet is a symbol and an
on-going sore spot.

Kay Argyle
Wasatch Commons

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