by Sharon Villines
Architectural review policies are generally hard to write, partly because we have very different housing experiences when we move into cohousing and partly because we don't know how to talk about architecture or colors.. The process touches on understanding how to live in a jointly owned or managed community, legal ramifications, and shared aesthetic or not shared aesthetics. Policies need to be educational. Policies are also interrelated—architectural review is affected by the conflict resolution process and the design process. If you begin thinking about architectural review as soon as you begin thinking about design It might avoid some hurdles later.
A policy is also a legal document. It protects the community from liability. Who is legally responsible for determining if a building permit is needed? Who obtains the permit? Is this wording so vague it has no meaning, is too open to interpretation, or too easily misunderstood? What does "temporary" mean when everything is temporary? Can it be legally enforced? Or is it so arbitrary that it has no effect.
It's easy to specify policies on interior changes because they don't affect anyone else's standards. The major concerns are preventing damage to the building and avoiding negative affects on neighbors who share walls. Installing an interior water fountain will mean a motor and water sounds will probably be louder on the backside, in your neighbor's unit, than in yours. Taking out a load-bearing wall will have obvious load-bearing consequences. But it many not be obvious before the upper floor collapses.
Architectural review needs an educational program and a policy to help prevent structural disasters.
Policies on exterior changes are actually more difficult. Buildings in cohousing communities are close together, and generally of a coherent, consistent design. How much do you want to keep this design? What are your standards for colors—willy nilly? Can people hang or attach whatever they like to the exterior of doors—poodle ornaments or a George Bush portrait 2'x 3.' In neon colors? Standard windows? Change light fixtures? Put pet holes in doors?
In communities that value diversity and freedom, is it applied on the exterior walls, windows and light fixtures? Is my door my door or yours and yours and yours? How do my actions affect everyone else? We think about this in terms of behavior but often not in terms of light fixture choices.
The Circular Process: Plan, Implement, Measure
Plan-Implement-Measure is also called the circular "causal" process because what is relevant is what causes the next thing to happen. But we don't always pay attention to the whole process. We plan without implementing, or implement without planning. We rarely measure except with gut feelings and those might never be verbalized. They just sit there growling. At night they grind their teeth.
A good policy isn't written overnight and if you take all the time you think you need, you will never get it finished. Most of us are grandparents before we are ready to have children and by then there is no point in discussing it. Instead, follow the plan-implement-measure circular process which repeats as long as necessary.
Planning is based on research. What do other people do? What do you want the community to look like? What do you have now? What is the law? How do you feel about it? Hopes? Fears?
Pictures can be very useful in this. Verbalizing standards is hard. The process of looking for pictures will help everyone understand their own assumptions and expectations. Put them on a wall and move them around until they form clusters and you have the temperature of the group. (The web has made this much easier.)
Write a policy that includes as much as you know now and to which everyone can consent. There will still be gray areas and things missing but you need more information to resolve these issues. The only way to get more information is to take action. Make a list of issues that you still need to resolve, save it for later, and move forward.
Include in the policy how you will measure the effects of the policy. Both criteria and methods—how will you track information. And who will be responsible for the implementation and measurement. How information will be recorded so it can be evaluated in the next planning phase.
Test the policy. Follow your plan.
Measurement is not evaluation. Measurement should be as objective as possible. Thinking in numbers helps. How many hours did you have to spend explaining the policy? How many times did residents misunderstand the policy? How many times was it not applied when it should have been? What made people angry? What issues were raised? What was asked that the policy didn't answer?
Circle Forward to Planning Again: Evaluate and Revise
Evaluation is part of planning, not of measurement. If you have decided to review in one year but it is clear that you need to make changes earlier, make them. But as a general practice, do evaluation when revising the policy. The measurements are less likely to be biased, and patterns will emerge that give you more accurate information.
What happened in each application that worked and didn't work.
It's Not Rocket Science
Policies differ from rocket science in many ways. Policies are about choices that are not inherent in the characteristics of mass and energy. Or in the law. There is usually no right or wrong way until the policy is written. A policy determines how you want things to be—how you want to live together. Since people have been deciding how to live together for millions of years and don't yet have it quite right, don't expect to get it right your first time through either.
But experience has shown that in cohousing it doesn't take a million years.