Guiding a Community Home

Matt Worswick, Harmony Village, Golden, Colorado, and Synergy Design

When I began to look into joining a cohousing community, I went to several groups’ meetings and was especially impressed by the approach and good energy of the group that would become Harmony Village. The original members, Matt Worswick and his wife, Linda, seemed to have the right stuff to make the dream a reality. Walking through the process of designing our own community was an exciting, challenging experience I can never forget, going from a blurry idea to a custom-fit place to be in seventy-five meetings or less! DLW

As the long-awaited workshop begins, I think about the many roles I’ll play today. First, I slip on my striped referee shirt and hang the whistle around my neck, just in case. Then comes the tweed jacket and bow tie. Next, I dust off my cowboy hat and pull on my boots and spurs. Finally, I pick up my pom-poms and I am ready to go. It is time for another home-design workshop with an eager and anxious cohousing group.

My metaphorical outfit represents some of the many roles I may need to play. Similar to a college professor teaching design and construction 101, I’ll need to dispense a tremendous amount of information to an audience with very diverse backgrounds, most of whom have never designed or built a home before. Occasionally, I’ll need to referee disputes between competing factions. Often, my role will be to stand on the sidelines, more like a cheerleader, as the group makes major decisions and choices that will define their community and make it unique. And throughout the whole enterprise, I’ll need to sit high in the saddle, along with my community-process facilitators, acting like a process cowpoke herding those (highly intelligent and independent-minded) cats, trying to keep any strays from sidetracking the progress of the main group.

The room is abuzz with energy and anticipation. Many in the group have been moving toward this moment for years. Some joined more recently, just to be sure they could experience the participatory-design process that is a hallmark of cohousing. Their faces already reflect a myriad of ideas, questions, and concerns that will need to be addressed. They are about to take another huge step from the dream into the reality of what their new home will be. And with it will come a roller coaster of emotions, from fear and frustration to joy and satisfaction.

As a professional guide for this process, I’ve tried to clearly identify the objectives and expected outcomes. On paper, as I review the workshop agenda, it seems orderly and well-defined. Developers may refer to it as “refining the pro forma by finalizing the unit mix and schematic plans,” but for these future homeowners, it will be so much more than that: it will finally give physical shape and texture to their hopes and dreams; it will define the materials and spaces that they will call home for many years to come; and it will complete the picture they have collectively been painting of their future neighborhood.

We’ve applied the wisdom gained by other cohousing professionals over the years, saving individual home designs for last. To help nurture the bonds of commonality, the preceding design workshops have already defined the site and site plan and the common house that the group will share. By visualizing and planning those common elements, each individual has had a chance to imagine and savor the benefits of their collective facilities. They are already looking forward to harvesting from the common garden and building things in the shop; to kids frolicking on the playground or playing adventure games in the natural open space; to gatherings in the common house, from boisterous dinners to intimate book groups or rejuvenating yoga classes. Similar to the initial romance of a relationship, the group has been getting high on the possibilities of community living. But as I’ve learned from experience, the next phase of emerging individuality, or jockeying for power, will almost always add extra tension and excitement during the design of the dwellings.

The transition from dream to reality can be a difficult one. Hard choices will have to be made to balance the many and sometimes-conflicting goals of the group. Some things that members had hoped for won’t make the cut.

Even though I have been in this position numerous times before, it is hard to feel fully prepared. The group has hired me based on my twenty years of experience in energy-efficient and sustainable residential design. Having toured several examples of my community designs, they know that I can create efficient, attractive, and unique homes. What they don’t know is how challenging it can be to combine the values, passions, and ideas of dozens of individuals into some sort of optimally designed buildings. I can feel my heart pounding and the adrenaline rising as I prepare to begin. It will be a wild ride and take some unexpected turns, but that’s why I’ve brought so many hats!

Hardened from many a cat herding, I’ve learned that it’ll save a lot of saddle blisters if we first get the group to agree on where we’re going and how we’re going to get there. So I start off with a detailed description of the design process we are going to use to get to the final designs. The process defines the players and their roles (community, design team, unit subgroups, designer, developer, and builder); the steps along the way and who gets to make which decisions; how communication will be handled between all parties, and so forth. Some of the wise old cats nod knowingly (good process is critical in such a large undertaking). Many others sit with glazed eyes, wishing they could catch a catnap. Others fidget and scratch, wondering when the design fun is gonna start. Then they realize I’m not letting them out of the corral until they reach consensus on this here design process. Itching to hit the design trail, they make a few pertinent refinements and agree to our design trail. Yee haw!

I swing the corral gates open wide with a slide presentation of images from other communities. The rush of possibilities fills the room. “Oh yeah, I love that porch design,” “Can we have floors like that?” “Wow, look at the natural daylight in those rooms.” Laughter and jokes fly. “Looks great, when do we move in?” To prepare ourselves for a challenging afternoon, we all break for a hardy potluck lunch.

After lunch, I’m back, with pom-poms in hand, ready to cheer on the team as they focus on the serious enterprise of prioritizing design standards that will guide the development of their homes. These are the big-picture guidelines that determine which elements are most important to the group. Will the units be single-family, duplex, or multiplex? Which ranks higher—affordability or quality materials and low-maintenance finishes? Trying to prioritize these strongly held values brings passions to the surface.

“We need to be an example to the world of how to live more sustainably,” says one future resident.

“That sounds good,” says another, “But I can’t afford the additional costs for your proposed alternative building materials.”

I reach for my whistle as I step into the fray. I try to calm the passions by explaining that this isn’t a black-and-white decision. This will be a guideline that will help us balance our choices as we continue to design the project. The group then continues through a facilitated process by using an exercise of comparing and prioritizing pairs of design criteria. After an intense hour and a half, the group has carefully sorted which issues are most important.

Now I stride to the lectern, adjust my bow tie, and begin to address the class. An expectant air has taken hold of the students. They know that the information bestowed by the next speaker could potentially determine their futures as cohousing residents. I begin, “Ladies and gentlemen, it is my distinct honor and privilege to introduce to you the Dean of Cohousing Development, Mr. Jim Leach.” Respectful applause as Jim steps forward, followed by a hushed silence. This is serious stuff. This is high finance. After some qualifying remarks about the accuracy of initial home pricing, Jim passes out a detailed spreadsheet and walks the group through line after line of pricing particulars.

There are different scenarios depending on the total number of units, unit sizes, and configurations. Each individual is now able to see the implications on their own home price depending on certain design choices. The more units they can fit on the site, the better they can keep costs down. “But we don’t want it to feel too crowded.”

Attaching multiple units would also save space and money. “But I really like the daylight from an end unit better than an internal one.”

We all listen carefully to each individual’s needs and preferences, then take straw polls to determine which unit size and configuration will work best for each household. Jim runs some new scenarios on his laptop computer and presents a recommendation. The group works toward a consensus, sorting the numerous issues and concerns.

Finally, a decision emerges: for this group, it will be a total of thirty-four homes, with four different models in duplex and quadplex configurations. The scale of the decision leaves the group in a mixture of relief, awe, giddiness, and hesitancy. “Wow, this is it! I hope we made the right decision. … ”

Now it’s time for the most rigorous part of today’s session. For the next three hours, I expound upon a myriad of design and construction parameters. First, there are all the elements that affect the building form, from the number of stories and roof pitches to porches and private patios; issues of style, building codes, solar access, costs, and construction materials are covered. Then it’s time for a detailed look at the interior spaces, such as the zoning of rooms, spatial relationships, traffic patterns, visual connections, and public versus private areas. Each room in the house is covered and many decisions are made about basic components. As the class wraps up for the day, the students’ heads are spinning with new information.

But they’re back again in the morning, excited about their roles as codesigners. The most challenging stretch of the trail is just ahead—agreeing on the designs for each individual home model. As a hardened wrangler, I’ve come to the opinion that consensus is best used for the big-picture issues and decisions, but using it for approving every idea or detail can add months to an already lengthy process, as well as set a poor example for future community decision making. I recommend that most of the details be left to the professionals. Meanwhile, the specifications will be refined over the next several months with the developer and a hardy handful of members known as the design team.

As I work with the subgroups for each model to refine their basic plan arrangements, members add many good ideas for me to work with. As always, a few conflicts arise between individuals. The model-D folks are hung up on the master-bath arrangement and the political correctness of a soaking tub. Conversely, the model-C group wants the option to eliminate bathrooms and convert them to closets. A few members are lobbying for a laundry chute. One says she’ll drop out if she can’t be assured radiant heat in her unit. The model-A group has only two members, but they are having a heck of a time deciding whether they should go with the master bedroom on the main floor or the upper …

My striped shirt is pretty wrinkled by now and my bow tie has long since been pocketed. I’ve lost one of my pom-poms and I’m getting pretty saddle sore. But the designs are coming together. Peoples’ issues are out in the open. Of course, not everyone is getting everything they want, but these homeowners have had their say and their home designs will reflect their own specific needs better than anything out of a plan book or engineered subdivision.

One Year Later …

I’m kicking up the dust on the trail again, and this time it’s not imaginative dust, but real dust. As I walk the construction site, I can see the outcome of all the design work. The first units are complete and look beautiful. It seems like ages ago now that the design process began. It’s been a whirlwind of activity for me, including drawing and detailing all the plans, refining the specifications with the design team, working with the group to create a list of options and upgrades, and coordinating with the developer, builder, and code officials.

The group has dealt with a tremendous amount as well. The pace of meetings and decisions has continued to be intense. Construction cost estimates have increased. Some members have switched to smaller units in order to stay within their budgets. Several more have left the group entirely, but new members have joined, bringing much-needed energy and enthusiasm. Some design features remain from departing members that aren’t a great fit for new members, but most of the design features still reflect the priorities and needs of the community.

It has been a long trail together. Everyone is a bit tuckered out—the group, the builder, and developer. But as we approach final completion, despite the weariness, there is a tremendous sense of accomplishment. Together we have done something amazing. I know that despite the fact that the group feels like this is the end of the trail, it is really just the beginning. They have so many more joys and challenges ahead. I feel like that professor again, proudly watching his students graduate and move on with their lives. And even though I won’t be physically there with them, I’ll be there in spirit. In my office is a favorite memento, a collage with photographs and appreciative notes from many of the households, all surrounding six wonderful words: Thanks Matt! We love our homes!

Related pages:
Creating Cohousing