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Common house design issues

Knowledgebase > Common house design issues

Common house design issues

From ICWiki

If your intentional community is a collectivist one, in which meals are eaten communally, then the Common house will be the heart of your community. A well designed Common house draws people in. Around the dinner table is where much of the bonding of your community will take place so making the eating and meeting space intimate and functional will encourage people to stay and socialize.


Defining your needs

Most people have never used or had a “Common house” so defining what you need versus what you want may be hard. The described from Denmark offer some clues and community buildings, especially churches can offer some suggestions. One idea is to rent a camp or park building for a weekend retreat for the entire group. By using a large community building in a state or local park you can learn a great deal about what makes a good one. Have members visit other Cohousing and intentional communities in your area and don’t be shy of measuring off spaces which work.

Kitchen layout

Kitchen design is both a science and an art. Many groups have hired a kitchen specialist to do their food service design and have a separate group in charge of kitchen design. Think about where utensils, pots and pans etc. will be stored and think of ease of use and access. Remember that a variety of people will be using this space and will not know where things are kept.

Plan how will food get from the stove to the food service You don’t want to carry hot dishes through a crowd. Think about how people will line up to get their food and make this easy and fast. If you are doing a commercial sized kitchen there may be code issues you need to be aware of. For example, in some areas the dinner dishes can not be washed in the same location as the pots and pans and meal preparation utensils. Be sure to confirm with your architect that they have a thorough understanding of commercial kitchen design. Be cautious about using commercial stoves. Commercial stoves are often not insulated and can require expensive fire suppression hoods, which can cost as much or more than the stove itself. Many groups are using high end residential stoves and gas tops with success which are cheaper, well insulated to avoid burns, and often need a smaller, much less expensive hood.

There are logical “work triangles” involving the sink, the stove, counters and food storage areas and you will want to design for teams of three or so. A central work island makes a good social space for people to talk as they chop vegetables and prepare food but place it carefully so it doesn’t interfere with the work triangle.

There are also logical flow patterns for food service and scullery (cleanup). Create a “flow of the dishes” diagram which covers where people pick up plates, how the food gets on them, how the dirty plates get back to the kitchen, how they get to the dishwasher, where the dishes are stored to dry, etc.

Kitchen design and equipment advice

  • Carry a tape measure and use it at camps, church kitchens, restaurants to get ideas of sizes.
  • If your dishes are on a cart instead of in a cupboard you save the whole task of putting them “away”.
  • Having a grill often requires expensive ventilation and grease traps.
  • Restaurants supply places may offer tips about how to find second hand restaurant equipment including commercial appliances.
  • Walk in freezers can require a lot of maintenance and expensive repair.
  • Two food service lines for a big crowd go much faster than one.
  • Be sure if you have a center island it does not block access from sink to stove.
  • A counter level dishwasher means you can slide dish racks along the counter right into the dishwasher.
  • Have a separate group program the kitchen design and use professionals who have restaurant or other proven large group food service experience.
  • Plan enough counter space to stack the dirty dishes next to the dish washer.
  • Storing commonly used cooking utensils in heavy vases on the counters makes them easier to find than in a drawer
  • Heavy china plates make for a very heavy load for a rack style commercial dishwasher.
  • Plan enough counter space or other space close to the dishwasher to store the hot racks of dishes after they come out of the dishwasher.
  • Many commercial dishwashers require a separate water heating unit which needs an electrical outlet and a floor drain.
  • If you use an overhead sprayer be sure the sink area has lots of splash protection on the walls and that the sink and back splash are well sealed. The dishwashing area stays wet for a long time and this can result in counter and wall water damage.
  • Residential stacking ovens built into a wall at 5 feet from the floor make a nice set up. Be sure to get 30″ wide models.
  • Scour restaurant supply auctions for commercial grade stock pots. They are worth the extra price. Top quality stainless steel with thick bottoms make for less burns and easier clean up.
  • Convection ovens cook food faster and use less energy. Convection steamers (Rice cookers) come in large sizes and also cook food faster with less energy.
  • If one counter is lower than the rest, a child or elder who can not stand, or a wheelchair bound person can easily help.
  • Refrigeration is the most energy expensive item in the kitchen. Think carefully about how much you want to store.
  • Commercial steam food warmers like they have in buffet restaurants are very labor intensive to clean.
  • Epoxy floors are slippery. Non slip surfacing for epoxy floors catches lots of dirt and grease and is hard to clean.
  • Be sure to plan for outlets for water warming, tea storage etc.
  • If you put a refrigerator or a freezer in an enclosed pantry you may need a vent.
  • Be sure to have a separate cleaning closet where you can store cleaning materials away from food. Wet mops can smell.
  • Be sure any non-standard design details, such as non-standard backsplashes are on the plan which goes to the subcontractor.

Eating layout

Will people all be eating at one big table, or will there be satellite tables, or both? Think about how much room there should be between tables for walking. One really good way to get a feel for these things is to start a dinner club within your group. Host dinners together at one anothers current residences and you quickly learn both the advantages of community dinners and many concerns. Another obvious resource are restaurants. Don’t be shy about measuring spaces.

Designated spaces

If you designate spaces for a kids room, library, office, small meeting room or other uses try and use actual space dimensions that you can explore. Go to a local public library, park, environmental learning center or best yet, another community and sit in and feel the space. Groups often make decisions on paper without a clear idea of what that space really means.

Kids room

Most cohousing groups plan a place for the kids. The placement of this room is very important. Too close to the dining and the kids noise will effect the dining ambiance, too far away, and the parents of small kids will be concerned. The happy medium is to be able to hear the screams but not the giggles. Nyland and others insulate their kids rooms behind indoor windows so parents can see in, but the noise is significantly muffled.

Kids will want to rumpus about in active play, especially in the winter. Having a basement or other place where kids can be active and loud (with supervision if needed) is a good addition. Many groups plan their kids space as if the kids were going to sit around and read. This is not often the case.

Having outdoor access is nice, especially if there is something outside to attract the kids out.

More advice about common house design:

  • Get good professional help in programming and designing the Common house.
  • Noise is a constant complaint from groups with common houses. It can really pay to hire an acoustical engineer to plan for sound. High ceilings, bare walls and vinyl floors all add up to lots of noise reflection.
    • One idea is to buy several paint drop clothes, give the community kids bright primary color paints and let the kids slop, brush, splash, spatter and hand print paint all over the drop clothes. Stretch the paintings across 2×2 wooden frames, and fill the backside in with insulation. The resulting “paintings” when hung on the bare walls make very attractive, inexpensive sound absorption.
  • Do you really need a 24 foot high ceiling? Lower ceilings make for more intimate feeling spaces.
  • Think about what time of day you will be using the building the most. If dinner is the most common use time, then consider that most use will be after 4pm and plan for windows that capture the late afternoon light, rather than the morning light.
  • Pick an indoor paint color that will hide marks well, and is a regular color, not a custom blend. Buy a couple of extra gallons for touch up.
  • Kids rooms in the basement don’t work too well for kids under 4 and require an adult supervisor.
  • You are going to want twice as many bulletin boards as you think.
  • Corners make nice places for intimate groupings of furniture. If you have a fireplace, put it in a corner.
  • Electrical outlets in the floor, which can be covered by a bit of tile, come in handy. Especially in the middle of a large open area, or by the food service.
  • Put the dining area lights on separate circuits and include dimmers. It can be handy to be able to turn off about half the lights in the dining area sometimes.
  • Be sure to budget for furniture!
  • Many groups have complained that their Commonhouse feels too “institutional”. Think about ways to use corners and furniture groupings, plantings, lighting, textures and wall hangings to allow for a more homey feel. Do you really need a ceiling higher than 12 feet?
  • Having a built in space to put tables and chairs away is helpful, especially right off the dining area.
  • You will want more storage than you think for stuff like decorations, canning supplies, etc.
  • Use narrow tables, 28-30 inches to allow table mates to be closer and intimate. A standard folding table makes you closer to the person behind you at another table than across from you.
  • Lighting is an important intimacy factor. Use warm, subdued lighting.
  • If you put mailboxes in the Commonhouse spec the dimensions which are required and be sure they are in a comfortable position.
  • Shop around for lighting. Lots of variation on prices.
  • Put phone jacks and cable tv outlets in several places when the building is being wired so a phone or computer or tv could go almost anywhere.
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...

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