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What is Cohousing?

For people who long to live in community with others, with the potential to share spaces, resources, chores, and / or meals. There are as many models for this as there are types of families!

The most common model in the United States is when 30 or so families, couples, or individuals band together to buy land, and create a place to live. Generally, it’s composed of individual dwellings that cluster around: gardens, walking paths, and a “Common House.”

What’s a Common House?

A Common House is a shared space where residents gather for: communal meals, celebrations, dance parties, childcare, and more. Common Houses are as varied as the communities that design them, but can also include shared workspace, guest accommodations, workout space, rec rooms, laundry, mailboxes, and storage space.

What are the benefits of Cohousing?

  • Community: Living nearby, sharing space, and making decisions collaboratively helps neighbors form strong bonds with one another
  • Sustainability: Sharing rarely used but necessary objects and spaces helps decrease residents’ carbon footprint
  • Agency: Cohousers have the choice to be surrounded by their friends or to retreat to their private space for alone time
  • Identity: Many groups have formed around shared religious or demographic identities (older adults, queer families, etc)

Where can I learn more?

The definitive source for more information on Cohousing in the US is, unsurprisingly, The Cohousing Association of the United States (“CohoUS” if you nasty)

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What’s the process for forming a Cohousing community? 

Because they’re unconventional in an American context, cohousing & coliving projects are not about speed. Below is an overview of the process we’ve seen the most success with:

  1. Form an organizing group.
  2. Identify your criteria for selecting a property.
  3. Search for property.
  4. Place property under contract & vet its feasiblity with professionals (see post on who that includes here).
  5. Begin design process.
  6. Seek planning approval for preliminary design (this may involve other authorities).
  7. Finalize design decisions.
  8. Create construction documents.
  9. Secure construction loan.
  10. Submit for building permit & negotiate construction contract.
  11. Build it.
  12. Move in!

You may be thinking: that’s a lot of steps! On the bright side, there are nearly 200 cohousing communities in the US, and a network of professionals who can assist you. 
Thanks to Katie McCamant for distilling this complex process into twelve steps!

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Who can help me form a Cohousing Community?

Because time is the greatest risk when developing a project - and design and construction are complex - tapping into the knowledge of experts is critical. If you need recommendations, let us know!

Most cohousing communities engage the following specialists during the process:

Cohousing Development Consultant

This is typically the first person you’ll hire. They help you get organized and guide you through the complex worlds of property selection, development, community formation, and more.


This is what we do! We’ll:
  • Help you understand the pros & cons of properties you consider purchasing
  • Guide your community through the design process 
  • Lead the team of consulting engineers
  • Create drawings for permitting & construction

Consulting Professionals

We interface with this group, incorporate their expertise, and make sure everyone works together. The group may include the following:
  • Geotechnical Engineer: for soil testing
  • Civil Engineer: for utilities & site-scaled infrastructure
  • Landscape Architect: for plantings, drainage, and outdoor spaces
  • Mechanical, Electrical, Plumbing, & Fire Protection Engineers: to right-size & design the building systems
  • Structural Engineer: to make sure the building withstands every day loads and major weather events
  • Additional Consultants: Sustainability Consultant, Acoustical Engineer, Lighting Consultant, Specifications Writer, Code Consultant, Cost Estimator, etc


Most cohousing communities partner with a developer to secure their loan. A developer also lends legitimacy to your project in the eyes of banks and other potential investors. The Cohousing Development Consultant will advise you on timing, terms, and more.

General Contractor / Construction Manager (GC / CM)

This is who will build your project. Many communities engage a GC / CM during early design for preconstruction services. This can be an effective way of understanding costs and streamlining design.

Marketing Consultant

To be successful, you’ll need to find interested community members. Marketing consultants specialize in helping you get the word out.

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What’s “Regenerative Design”?

Regenerative Design is the practice of creating buildings and spaces that meet human needs while contributing to the overall well-being and renewal of the surrounding ecosystem.

It invites a broader range of considerations. For example:
  • Are we using materials that can be harvested without negative impacts on the broader biome?
  • Does the building benefit animals, plants, and fungi?
  • Can the building’s life be extended by prioritizing how it’ll be maintained?

For the Interested Reader

The following quotes are from the book, Material Reform: Building for a Post-Carbon Future, written by the not-for-profit Material Cultures. We share them because they’ve impacted the way we think about our role as architects:
  • “Regenerative resources are resources that can be extracted from cyclic processes of regrowth without reducing the capacity of that cycle to regenerate.”
  • “If the damage caused throughout the long global supply chains…were fully accounted for, regenerative resources would sit at the more affordable end of the range of possible construction materials. However, because not all costs are factored into the market prices of material products, lower-impact materials appear disproportionately expensive compared with mass-produced industrial alternatives.”
  • “Living in a material world made largely from regenerative resources will mean reintroducing a culture of care…It will also mean designing in a way that allows some parts of a building to fail without condemning the whole, and planning for some parts to age, deteriorate, and be replaced without endangering the rest of the building.”

Bonus Content

If you like this, check out the “Primary Sources” stories, pinned to the top of our Instagram profile.

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What type of dwelling is right for me?

There have never been more options for how to live, and we started Primary Projects to help more people find the right fit. While the list below doesn’t cover the full range, it touches on the most common.

Cohousing & Coliving

For people who long to live in community with others, with the potential to share spaces, resources, chores, and / or meals. There are as many models for this as there are types of families!

Custom Homes

For those interested in a house that fits like a well-tailored garment. (We’re best-suited to work on contemporary, environmentally responsible, modestly-sized houses.)

Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs)

For those who want to house a friend or relative, or create rental income. An ADU adds another, smaller unit to your home or property.

Renovations & Additions

When you love the house, but something about it isn’t working. This could be: you need more space, the layout doesn’t flow, your physical condition has changed, etc.

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What are Construction Documents?

You need Construction Documents (“CDs”) for three main reasons:
  1. Municipalities require drawings to issue a permit (this varies and we’ll help identify what’s required: this is usually less than what a contractor needs. We call it the “Permit Set.”)
  2. General Contractors (GCs) require drawings to estimate the project
  3. GCs require drawings to build it

The Construction Documents phase of the project is often a bit mysterious for clients. We’ll have fewer meetings during this phase because the major decisions have already been made.

Documenting a project appropriately takes a bit of time and a lot of care. Thankfully, we have our past work and broader disciplinary knowledge to build upon, but every project has unique aspects. We’ve found that it’s better to spend the time on a good plan than to scramble on site.

The following is meant to help make this part of the process less mystifying by explaining the various architectural components of a typical drawing set.

The Cover Sheet orients everyone.
It shows:
  • An abstract rendering of the project
  • A dimensioned site plan
  • Key zoning & code information
  • A drawing list

Specifications outline the expectations for the contractor. They spell out assumptions related to process, quality, & communication.

Renderings, while abstract, give a perceptual view of the project.

These aren’t typically required by municipalities, but we find that it helps bridge the gap between 2D drawings­ and reality. We’re in favor of anything that helps create clarity from ambiguity.

Floor Plans are the drawings people are most familiar with. They show:
  • Room names & relationships
  • Keys to other drawings (like section cuts & interior elevations)
  • Keys to finishes, windows, doors, & fixtures
  • Locations of electrical & plumbing fixtures
  • Roof slopes
  • Floor, roof, & foundation elevations

Reflected Ceiling Plans are exactly what the name suggests. Its as if you laid on the floor, looked up at the ceiling, and then mirrored that. They show:
  • Light fixtures, smoke detectors, ventilation fans, & similar fixtures locations & tags
  • Outlet & light switch locations
  • Which fixtures are controlled by which switches
  • Ceiling heights, slopes, & materials

Elevations, flattened views of the exterior, show:
  • Overall building & floor heights
  • Window & door sill heights
  • Keys to finishes, windows, & doors

Sections are cuts through the building (the “doll house view”). They show:
  • Overall building & floor heights
  • Key mounting heights for wall fixtures
  • Keys to finishes, windows, doors, & details

Interior Elevations are flattened views of interior walls. They show:
  • Key mounting heights for wall fixtures
  • Keys to finishes, windows, doors, & details
  • Additional detail at kitchens, baths, and other high-investment spaces

Wall Sections are detailed cuts through the building’s envelope showing the:
  • Foundation assembly
  • Floor and / or slab assembly
  • Exterior wall assembly
  • Roof assembly
  • Critical details at junctions

Details are large scaled drawings describing key moments in the project such as:
  • Window & door openings
  • Cladding
  • Roof to wall transitions
  • Interior trim
  • And many more!

Schedules are detailed tables & drawings which describe the following components of the project:
  • Doors
  • Windows
  • Finishes
  • Interior Wall Assemblies
  • Fixtures: lighting, plumbing, accessories, etc

Extra Credit

Because you made it this far!
For residential work the drawing set typically includes framing plans & details from a structural engineer.

For commercial work the set will include that, as well as detailed drawings from Mechanical, Electrical, Plumbing, & Fire Protection Engineers. Sometimes there are others—Lighting Designers, Civil Engineers, etc—but these are scope-dependent.

In both cases, we love working with landscape architects. They understand grading, plant selection, and broader ecological patterns that greatly benefit most projects.

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How much does hiring an Architect cost? 

We charge hourly during an initial Concept Phase to help define your project. If you know exactly what you want, and have a generous budget, this may be waived. Once that’s complete, and we’ve agreed on a scope we’ll put together a lump-sum proposal for the rest of the work.

In the United States, Architects’ fees typically average between 8% and 12% of the Construction Cost. It depends on your project and on the scope of services; the percentage is lower on larger projects or for smaller service offerings.

What does Construction Cost include?

Construction Costs refer to the total expenses involved in building a structure, encompassing materials, labor, equipment, permits, and other necessary expenses to complete the project. These costs typically exclude land acquisition, furniture, and professional services.

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Can you recommend a few contractors?

A “general contractor” (GC) is the person, or company, who will build your house. They organize a team of subcontractors who specialize in certain domains like framing, plumbing, or electrical work.

We have worked with a lot of GCs, but the answer to this question depends on your location and your budget. Typically, if we don’t know someone ourselves, we know someone who knows someone.

As you may have heard, there’s a shortage of contractors. If your project budget is under $1 million— which is all of our clients—it may be hard to attract a GC. Although we generally agree with the principle of “getting three bids” we haven’t seen that level of competition in the last few years.

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What questions should I ask a general contractor before hiring them?

Not all GCs are created equal! The true mark of a qualified contractor is their ability to plan. After they’ve expressed interest, and you’ve sent them the drawings, we’d recommend asking the following questions:

  1. When did you start your business? How did you get your start in the industry?

    Ideally, they’ve been doing this for some time and have a background in it. The reason for this question is: a good GC is like the captain of the ship. You don’t want someone who does this as a hobby and relies on their subconsultants to do the work without supervision.

  2. How many projects are you working on right now?

    You want someone who’s in control of the process. What’s important here is not the number, but the structure they’ve put in place to manage the number. Ideally they either talk about key team members, or they do a low volume of work.

  3. When would you be able to start?

    A very practical question. Hedging is okay, as long as the reason is good. Good reasons include, “The town’s permit review process is volatile,” “I’ll know once I have the finished drawings,” etc.

  4. Have you done a project like mine? How’d it’d go?

    What you really want to know is, “What went wrong?” Even if you don’t work with them, you can learn from this. Also, you understand how they handle adversity.

  5. How do you handle billing? Do you require a downpayment to get started?

    A 10% to 20% downpayment is common. Clarify if work will be invoiced monthly or based on milestones. (Never pay the full amount upfront, and always retain a portion of the payment until the project is completed to your satisfaction.)

  6. Will you handle the permitting & inspection process?

    They need to do this. If they don’t, thank them for their time and move on!

  7. Will there be a site supervisor? A project manager?

    You’re trying to understand, “Is someone in charge?” Even at the smallest scale there needs to be a dedicated site supervisor (“supe”) who directs trades, ensures quality, interfaces with you and the architect, etc. A project manager is required for commercial work and larger residential projects. They’re the office person who coordinates material orders, handles the paperwork side of things ,etc.

  8. What are your job site priorities?

  9. Good contractors will talk about safety, security, and cleanliness. 

  10. How do you communicate with clients?

    What you want is clarity. “We have weekly calls.” “We send an email at the end of each day.” The answer almost doesn’t matter as long as it’s specific.

  11. How long does your warranty on the work last?

    We typically see warranties on the work lasting between one and five years: one for smaller jobs and five for larger commercial work. Product warranties vary by manufacturer and are not at the discretion of the GC.

  12. Will you provide a lien waiver at the end of the job?

    When the job is finished, the gold standard is to have a document stating that you’ve paid in full and as such, the GC and their subs will not place a lien / hold on the property.

  13. Can you provide a list of references: ideally from a client, architect, and subcontractor?

    The client and architect will speak to the GC’s attention to detail and organization from different perspectives. The subcontractor can speak to the way they were treated and how quickly they were paid: both indicators of a well-run business.

  14. How can I be a good client?

    It’s rare for clients to ask this. There are obvious things here, but sometimes we can’t fully appreciate the challenges of other people’s jobs. If asked authentically, it’ll signal to them that you care about forming a relationship.

In addition to this, they need to have:
  • A Current License
  • General Liability Coverage
  • Workers Compensation Insurance

Lastly, we always recommend Googling them!

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