Site and home design issues

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Site and home design issues

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The key element of designing a social intentional community is balancing the social/public needs with the private needs. The way this balance works will be unique to your group. Some groups go big for lots of public, others lean towards the private side. The more of both you can offer, the broader the appeal your project will have.

A good site design uses the land well. It takes into consideration such things as the orientation of the land to the sun, the wind, adjacent development and the native vegetation. A good architect understands all these things in relationship to the buildings. Don’t forget about the landscaping. Some architects are excellent at understanding buildings but may not know about landscaping beyond beauty bark and commercial shrubbery.

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Elements to consider in a community design

Where will people meet and talk? Consider your climate as you design outdoor spaces but be sure to provide for several places for people to gather and talk. Central walkways, mailboxes, playgrounds or gardens offer places for chance gatherings. Be sure to think about places to sit down. benches, outdoor tables and other outdoor furniture. People can be drawn out of their private dwellings if there is a place that is visible from the home that people gather in.

Do a solar map so you can see where the sun hits in the early morning, at noon and in the late afternoon. Design outside sitting places so they are in the sunshine in the morning. Think about the patterns of people during the day. Where would you want to go early in the morning? In the afternoon? How about at night?

Children will use the whole site. Think about the noise of children’s play areas and how it affects non-parents. Also consider where and how cars and kids will interact. People with children under the age of four will want visual line of site to where the kids play.

Location of the Commonhouse or community building relative to the houses will determine how it is used. Lugging loads of laundry 300 feet is inconvenient even in good weather. If people can see what’s going on in the community building easier, spontaneous gatherings are more likely to occur.

Think about where cars go and how that will impact the use of the site. Having a central but out of the way parking lot can create wonderful interaction opportunities as people park and walk to their homes rather than drive up into the garage.

Home design issues

A very important element of a home in a social community design is how it allows people to interact. In some places of the home, such as the dining or kitchen areas, it is helpful to have views out into the community, so you can easily see gatherings of people you might want to join. In other places, perhaps living rooms, offices, or bedrooms you want privacy from visual access from the outside. Many of the cohousing projects built contain a mixture of public and private zones relating to the homes. Examining the site plans and visiting cohousing communities can give good insights to the public/private balance.

Porches instead of garages on the fronts of homes make for good places to engage in community. Depending on your climate, these may want to be patios, or covered spaces, or even enclosed rooms with many windows.

If you are building several homes at once and keeping costs low is a goal, then you will want to standardize your floor plans as much as you can accomplish. If you can create one or two floorplans, you will save money during construction. However, getting a group to agree to only one or two floorplans may prove harder than it sounds.

If you are going to want mortgages for the homes built in your community you need to be aware of what kinds of things are flags for lenders. Appraisers can offer good advice on the elements of a home that increase its sale-abilty. Remember, what you build will be sold and resold again and again. If you create homes that are difficult to finance or sell in the future, you will be limiting your options of potential buyers even more. .Just because the initial owner is willing to live without a refrigerator does not mean and that any future owner will be willing to do this.

Design cost issues – ways to save money

  • A general rule of thumb is that the more standard elements you have in the homes, the better the bid will be. It is often cheaper to standardize floor plans, build standardized units, then remodel than to allow individual variances and change orders.
  • One way to make cuts in the cost is to phase the development. One group really wanted a guest house and a crafts/art barn. In the final drawings for the permits these things were cut to save costs, but the space to build them later was retained and wiring and plumbing stubs were set aside for later building.
  • Roof tresses come in standard and custom sizes, certain types and styles of roofs that use standard truss sizes can save money.
  • Wall sizes that are variations of common lengths of building materials. 8, 10 and 12 foot lengths make for easy, no cut framing. A building with 25 foot, 11 inch long walls means lots of cuts which wastes materials and takes more time.
  • You will save money if you “stack” your plumbing, so all the pipes are in 1 or 2 walls. This entails designing duplexes and homes with back-to-back kitchens and bathrooms.

Unit Selection

The longer you can put off unit selection in the design process, the less people may take “ownership” of any particular space, and remain objective about some of the design elements. One of places which has potential for conflict is selecting who gets which units. Some groups follow a strict, first come first served approach with the rationale that the sooner a person invests money the greater risk they are taking. Another approach is to have everyone place yellow post it notes with their name on their first, second, and third choices on the site map. This identifies areas for negotiation and then people can talk about their choices and rationales for what they want.

Random but useful advice

  • Don’t forget “dead” storage space. These are things you want to keep but don’t use more than once or twice a year. Things like Christmas ornaments, camping gear, boxes of memorabilia etc.
  • A high ceiling can make a small home feel much bigger.
  • Skylights do wonders for a small space.
  • When you are planning units be sure you understand very clearly what size dimensions actually mean. One group set up a sizing station on their site, with several stakes and string and tape measures. They then actually physically measured off spaces and got inside them to understand what a 10 foot by 8 foot bedroom felt like. They also cutout cardboard templates for beds, couches and tables and placed them in the space to get a real feel. You can do this on scale paper also.
  • Let the architect be the authority to solve design issues. Gulp! Its hard to let go.
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...