Community design – a group process

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Community design – a group process

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When a group of people begin planning a community together it is easy to get embroiled in disagreements over specific attributes of the design. One way to make this process a little smoother is to start at the conceptual level, achieve agreement on the concepts and goals before moving into the nitty gritty details. One primary advantage of this approach is that when you do get into disagreements you can measure the issue against the goals you previously set out. The concept design is where the group will define the basic outlines of the design, without too much detail yet.

If homes are designed and built by their respective individuals or families, then there is little potential for conflict over home design, but if home design is standardized, then there is much potential for conflict. Designing standardized personal living space with a group demands a lot of compromise from everyone. There is a real tendency for people in the group to want to design their version of a “dream home”. This is normal, and it causes problems because one persons dream is another persons nightmare. One approach that has worked well for several groups, is to start the design process with broad design goals, often referred to as programming, then work down into specifics. For example one group wanted housing to be light, airy, have a variety of costs and to be environmentally sensitive. Conflicts over specifics were compared to how the specifics related to these design goals.


Separating the “Me” issues from the “We” issues

The odds are very high that nobody in your group will have ever tried to design a home with other, non-related people before. This process is hard even for people who are partners, much less folks who are largely strangers. The more you can do to set up a commonly agreed to vision and goals statement the easier this process can be. See setting community goals and values in a vision statement.

Designing the individual homes is where you will find the most entrenched feelings. If your group is doing a standard design for all the homes, you will inevitably run into to some conflicts from individuals. People may care passionately about certain features such as washing machines or sinks. If you are designing a whole site, start by designing the common elements first. This way you break into the group design process with features people will have less attachment to but still want to negotiate. Then, once you have that experience, you will be hopefully better prepared for working out the more thorny issues of personal home design. If your process gets bogged down, drag out your goals sheet that you brainstormed and reflect on what are the big picture goals and how do these things fit in. If one of your big picture goals is to keep costs at a minimum so everyone can afford to stay with the project, this can give something to measure opinions against. This point in the development, where you are making lots of individual design decisions, is where some groups find consensus fails and they resort to voting.

Reminding everyone that compromise and cooperation is a key element of community design on a regular basis during this stage can help ease the decision making.


The most thorough way of doing group concept design is to define all the elements of the design and then group brainstorm each aspect of the whole. This is often referred to as programming. In programming you take each element and break it down into categories and then brainstorm the goals, functions and attributes of each category. When you are finished you have a sort of a written and agreed upon specification that a designer can draw pictures from. The program then becomes the checkpoint against which future designs are measured.

One way to organize this is using a matrix a row for each programming element with column headings for each category. Since this is a wiki and its not convenient to use a table, here is the data laid out a different way:

  1. Element: Children’s room
  2. Size: 18′ x 24′
  3. Attributes: Colorful, airy, soft floors, good light
  4. Needs: Lots of storage, tables for projects, bookshelves, carpeted floor plus craft/paint area with vinyl floor.
  5. Relationships: Flows to outside covered area and playground, close to dining area but not noise intrusive

Once you have developed all the alternatives and ideas you can prioritize the elements. This list then gives you something very concrete to measure plans against. One of the key elements is the relationship of spaces to each other. A good architect will be valuable in helping you understand these relationships. Having an architect or facilitator who is experienced at doing this sort of programming can really help the group move forward quickly at this stage with a minimum of problems.

As you evaluate ideas think about how many hours you and your family would use any particular space. One way to think about design elements is that you are investing money to create spaces and the return on the investment is lots of people hours using the space.

Setting your goals

One way to start the design process is to brainstorm the goals you want your design to achieve. Some groups have used values as a base for their design. On way to generate values is to ask the members why they joined the group and what things are important to them. By listing these as values you can create a starting place which will generally define what you want. Then using those items as a base you can brainstorm ideas which enable the values. For example if one value is: ” a safe place for children”, then you can list design ideas which would enable safety for children such as keeping kids away from cars, having play areas in view of houses, etc.

Be prepared to spend some time

Doing a thorough programming for a site is NOT something you can or should accomplish in a day. You want to give this some of your best energy, be thoughtful, and take time to learn and get some experiences to measure ideas against. Sure, a good facilitator or architect can cram this process into a weekend blitz, but doing so all at once gives the group no real reflective and analytical time to think about and learn about issues and ideas.

Start with a site analysis

One very key element to beginning your site concept is a pretty thorough site analysis. Having a topographical survey done is a good idea to help you create realistic maps. It is really important for everyone involved in the design process to spend time on the site, getting a sense of the light, the slopes, the vegetation, the boundaries, where the wind comes from. You may also want to check for hazardous materials, wetlands, septic percolation, past history of land. Have three or four people work independently and create rough site maps, then check and merge the sites maps into your first scale map. Using large grid paper, set a scale for the map and try to get major features on the map in close to right places. It doesn’t have to be exact yet, but you will want to understand what are the major features.

Using models to try out site design ideas

A common way to get site ideas flowing is to create a large scale map of the building site and to use small boxes, blocks, cardboard models to arrange various site designs. It helps if the buildings and other features are in scale to the site map, in order to get more realistic ideas about designs. When you get a couple of ideas arranged one way to evaluate them is to snap a picture of the designs, then take the pictures with you on a site visit to the actual site. As you evaluate the design against the site you will learn a lot about what will work. Your architect should have tools for evaluating solar exposures and will have a great deal of good advise to offer.

Evaluating architect drawings

Eventually, after lots of discussions and brainstorms the architect will come back with the first design ideas on paper. It can be really hard to visualize structures from drawings. Ask for elevation drawings. Elevations show three dimensions. You will need to figure out a process for evaluating a good plan from a not so good plan.

Remember that this is a design concept and it is OK to have some rough edges here. Depending on your architect your concept may be very rough, with only circles or other rough sketches, or it may be more refined. Your goal is to get all the elements on the site, in roughly the places you want them to go, with the relationships between the elements factored in.

Getting unstuck

It is common that the group may generate several designs, of each of which has some proponent. One way to evaluate such things is to brainstorm a list of aspects for the design then prioritize the resulting list. For example, brainstorm a list of adjectives which describe the attributes of the elements. For example the Commonhouse might have a long list of descriptors such as light, homey feeling, inviting. Then make another listing of functional attributes which might include things such as food service flows from kitchen to tables, entry offers information and coat storage. From the large lists of these brainstorms let everyone have ten votes and place a mark against each item that is important (Each item can get more than one vote) The resulting list should give a good checksheet for evaluating plans against.

A common problem is one or two individuals may have some ideas or propose elements that the majority of the group do not want. Using the prioritized voting system as described above usually works to isolate and remove specific things from specific individuals that do not represent group interests.

The detail design work

Once you have gotten a design concept agreed to the next step is to answer many of the hundreds of questions the design process has generated. You will have to make a lot of design decisions here which may be very technical and detailed. Be sure your decision making structures are up for this, and many, if not most groups end up having a small group or specialist make some of the decisions here. How many extra parking spaces do we need? How many lights will go on the paths and what kind? What will the path be made of? At this stage it is often very useful to break into design teams of 2-3 people and have each team focus on a specific element of the design, getting information and ideas and presenting them to the design team. This is where your design professional is very important. Keep in mind it might be possible to extend, or get an exception from some of the development rules which you will find at this stage.

One thing that can be very useful is to create a design notebook and let people paste and draw into it. A 3-ring binder full of blank pages, divided by sections that represent major areas is a good start. This way when people see a picture in a magazine they like, or visit a site and see a neat feature, you have a place to put all the ideas. It is very useful to have graphical representation of ideas and a design notebook, if started early in the process can create a visual library.

Drawings at this stage will begin to show clear details about sizes and distances and you may want to invest in a hundred foot measuring tape so you can measure things out on the site and mark them. It can really help understand the relationships if you take the design out to the site and string it off and measure it.

Getting input from the planning department

At some stage, when the plan is clear enough your design professional should take the plan to the local planning department to get some feedback. Informal feedback early in the process can save a bunch of wasted time and alert you to potential problems. If you are lucky enough to have an advocate in the planning department, you can get information about upcoming code changes or other issues in the works which might effect your plan.

Dealing with income restrictions

It is common that groups doing blue sky community design work to come up with a list of site amenities and features that exceed the collective community pocketbook. Smaller homes share most of the same fixed costs as a larger home such as bathrooms and kitchens. Cost trade-offs will need to be made depending on the lowest economic denominator of your group. Many groups spend several meetings talking about, listing, prioritizing their living options before they talk with an architect or contractor and understand the costs. Be sure to have a process ready to prioritize what is important so you can review your plan and cut the low priorities. Remember that if you plan well, you can leave a space or infrastructure for an amenity later, even if you can’t afford it now. Just because you can’t afford the art studio now, if you leave a space in the plan, you can build it ten years from now.

As you get into the final design stage, you may discover that your visions are larger than your collective pocketbooks. It is really hard to get an exact handle on what things will cost at this stage. Later, as the contractor is hiring out his subs, the real costs escalate quickly so in your budget process try and keep a buffer. This means take the total cost estimate and add five or ten percent.

Members who have limiting incomes and borrowing potential may place restrictions on the per home costs if you are doing a single project, such as a cohousing development. It is really painful to lose a charter member, someone who has driven the process from day one, because now that it is finally real, they can’t afford to live there. Sometimes huge group trade-offs are needed to accommodate income restrictions. Be cautious and truthful when making cost trade-offs and be sure to understand the limits of the restricting individuals. People want to believe they can financially stay in the project, long after the costs have gone over their heads. The longer and harder an economically strapped member has worked on the project, the harder it may be for him or her to face financial reality.

This started as an article by Rob Sandelin, distributed in various
forms and published online by NICA. Rob gave permission to post it
here, knowing that it may morph into something new as we "wiki" it...

We happily link to the following organizations, all of whom share our strong commitment to promoting community and a more cooperative world:
Cohousing The Federation of Egalitarian Communities - Communes Coop Community Cooperative Sustainable Intentional North American Students of Cooperation Global Ecovillage Network