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How does the design of a cohousing community differ from the design of other multifamily housing projects?
Cohousing site design typically begins with a programming process that includes the participation of future residents. Ideally this is done in an intensive workshop facilitated by a cohousing design professional. When residents work together (in contrast to a developer driven design process) they tend to prioritize common facilities over individual housing units. And they work hard to find ways to make the project welcoming, affordable and energy efficient.
A fully developed site design is an initial step that will be required by your municipality for permitting, zoning, and variances. Sometimes your desires will conflict with town/city requirements but usually a creative designer can address both.
To get a site permit, your engineering team will have to demonstrate that you are handling all storm water run off on site. These days retention ponds have been replaced by more ecological and attractive strategies utilizing “rain gardens” and “green roofs.”
Essential elements of cohousing sites typically include a balance between public and private domains, safe access to the site, a strong relationship to the larger community, common house, a main gathering area, and green open space. Pedestrian pathways flanked by front porches and activity nodes are fairly unique to cohousing. Other items may be added based on the goals of the community, the location, and the limitations of space and cost.
The site and all common facilities are an extension of each individual houses. When the site, common house and residential units are designed well in a fully integrated process, the housing units can be smaller and the sense of community greater.
Cohousing recognizes that privacy in the home actually enhances community connection. Cohousing site design is a balancing act between site design that supports connection and housing design that supports privacy.
Everyone needs a retreat, but few people are searching for isolation. A gradient between public and private areas enhances both privacy within the home and community at the doorstep. Good cohousing site design includes a realm between public and private. Elements such as front porches, front yards, paths and spaces between parking, the common house and residential units have gradients that support both community and privacy.
People, cars and bikes often entry the property through the same points of access (particularly in an urban site). Prioritizing people over vehicles creates safety, beauty, and connection. In rural sites, fire truck access often overlaps with driveways and pedestrian paths creating situations that encourage driving at speeds that are not friendly to pedestrians. Pay attention to this potential conflict by getting fire department input early and creating effective solutions to mitigate problems.
Many cohousing communities develop creative ways to feel secure without being “gated.” The need for gating and fencing depends on the context of the neighboring properties. The impact of fences is determined by the height of the fence, the quality of the design, the friendliness of the signage, and the interaction between residents and the larger neighborhood as they enter and leave the community.
The design will impact the extent to which the larger neighborhood is invited to share community assets. Ensuring that visitors entering the community can see and identify the front door of the common house is key to creating a welcoming entry.
While the interior of the common house should be the topic of a separate design process, considering where the common house sits in respect to site access points, any courtyard and/or green, internal and external circulation, and the units is critical during the site design phase.
The common house will be the interior living room of the community and to succeed it must draw people in, allow people to feel comfortable (whether alone, in a small group, or in a crowd) and support many types of uses. Therefore, the connection between the common house and the site is critical.
Once within the site, there are typically some spaces that are public to the entire community. A courtyard just outside the common house serves as the “outdoor living room” of the community. It should have a pleasant micro-climate in all seasons, so give careful consideration to sun, shade, wind and places to sit alone and congregate in groups.
When residents are involved in the design, they will often cluster units more tightly than standard housing to maximize open green space. An urban community may have a small lawn suitable for a game of frisbee; a rural community might size the lawn to accommodate a large wedding tent and dedicate space for gardens, recreation and even farming.
Everyone loves to eat “en plein air”. Outdoor dining will be enjoyed more when it is designed for a comfortable micro-climate in all seasons. Sun in winter and shade from the setting sun in summer are essential in most climates.
The pedestrian path can be very narrow and intimate and then widen into courtyards. The distance between front doors across the path from each other is set by the preference of the future residents, but should be close enough for people to hold a conversation porch-to-porch. 30-50’ is considered ideal for this. A “node” should widen to no more than 70’, the distance across which you can recognize facial expression. The width of the pedestrian way will be determined by use:
▪ People only require 4-8 feet
▪ One-way Emergency vehicular access requires approximately 10 feet
▪ Porch-to-porch. 30-50’ is considered ideal for conversation.
▪ Courtyard should widen to no more than 70’
The concept of “front porch living” is a key aspect of cohousing site design. This is where the magic of private /public space happens. Residents hanging out on their porches can feel very private hidden behind railings and potted plants. They can also call out to neighbors walking by with a message or an invitation if they choose. If designed and furnished for flexibility, the public/private intersection can move back and forth as needed. If there isn’t room in an urban environment for every unit to have a furnished front stoop or porch, there can be “activity nodes” shared between several nearby units.
There are a number of cohousing communities with open exterior corridors that lead to individual homes. This allows folks to oversee the common facilities as they come and go. Even if you don’t have time or an inclination to join a community function, it can be refreshing to see beauty and activity as you pass.
Sometimes the exterior path or corridor is just outside the front door and living space of units, and there just isn’t room for a traditional porch. People in cohousing will still manage to define their semi-private, semi-public spaces with patio furniture and potted plants, as they do not tend to write by-laws restricting such informal occupancy of public space.
The same can be said about corridors with units on both sides, which are often used for efficient circulation to units within a dense urban apartment building.
When future residents are involved in the programming of their unit design, they often treat corridors like exterior pathways, asking for natural light, activity niches and room to express themselves at their front door. Natural light in stairs encourages use (exercise and energy conservation!) and creates the type of stair well in which you wouldn’t hesitate to hang out and chat with a neighbor. It is good to think about entry points and stair locations for larger apartment buildings during site design.
Parking in cohousing is usually clustered outside of pedestrian paths and often wrapped around the outside of the property. Permitting generally requires a minimum number of spaces and few communities exceed these minimums. Clustered parking saves space, increases interactions between residents and reduces maintenance for snow clearing. Urban cohousers often convince permitting agents to approve a reduction in the number of required parking spaces. After move in, residents often continue to reduce the site area allocated to parking spaces by converting extra spaces to workshops, cisterns, bike storage, dining areas, etc. Some earn money by leasing spaces to neighboring properties.
A playground is often considered essential in multi-family cohousing. However, if you are in a location with neighborhood parks, you might consider connecting to rather than duplicating them. Cohousing children tend to enjoy the full site and play happens in many “undesigned” locations. Climbing trees, large rocks, ramps and staircases are attractive to kids and often get more us than the playground itself.
Quiet spots within a cohousing community can be real gems. In conventional neighborhoods courtyards tend to be empty and clearly landscaped by “the management”, feeling cold and lonely. In a cohousing community you can often hear the children playing in the courtyard before arriving. Even with their noise, it can feel like a “quiet oasis” as cohousers typically fill the site with plants, even growing them vertically up the sides of buildings. Small nooks with seating for one or two can be scattered around the community as spaces for retreat.
In most suburban and many urban cohousing communities residents find room for vegetable gardens. Many have chickens and some even have beehives on urban roofs. Rural communities often integrate large scale gardening and farming operations with carefully crafted land use agreements.
Biking is common in cohousing and many residents prefer not to store their bikes in their housing unit. Bicycle storage should be discussed during site programming. In urban sites it is often accommodated below grade possibly including a ramp for bikes even if there isn’t one for cars. Other options include bike sheds and common house space. Bike sharing is relatively easy in a cohousing community and reduces the storage requirements (especially for occasional riders).
Kids really gravitate to hard-surface play areas for balls, scooters, chalk drawings and bikes. This usually happens spontaneously in the main courtyard or along pedestrian paths. Planning ahead for toy storage and child bicycle parking will help control clutter. Locate basketball courts and the like away from more quiet zones.
It is not enough to just design the fun spaces. You will need to consider some mundane functions and spaces as well. Carefully plan where will you pile snow and store the snow blower. Consider convenient and ample storage for snow shovels, garden tools, lawn mowers, trash, recycling, and compost and don’t forget clothes lines?
Giving future occupants an opportunity to express their needs and desires in a structured workshop ensures all voices are heard. This is their first step in creating a strong sense of connection with their future home and neighbors. From this point, the community-oriented design is developed. With common goals and priorities established, focus can move toward important site design decisions around the balance of public and private space, housing types, pedestrian paths, and the many design elements that will support “privacy at home and community at the doorstep.” It is the quality of the design and the participation of the residents in the upkeep of their community that will allow the cohousing to be more than just a neighborhood.
CohoUS Staff and Laura Fitch