Participatory Design: How Designing Together Can Bring You Together

David Oesper

Mary Kraus, a cohousing architect in Amherst, Massachusetts, presented a session on participatory design as part of “The Heart of Community” Coho/US webinar series presented on May 30, 2020.

The context of her talk is the weekend workshops she does for cohousing groups to help them through the process of designing their community—particularly the common house. Besides future community members and prospectives, the local architect hired for the project is also in the room for the weekend workshop.

Often prospective members of the community are invited to the workshop. The workshop can be a good marketing opportunity and a way to recruit additional members, as they witness you as a group working together.

Many cohousing communities share regular meals together in the common house. The majority of your community’s work will be in preparing and cleaning up after common meals.

A “typical” size of a cohousing common house is 4,000 sq. ft. A central island in the common house kitchen is often a good idea. Some communities have a commercial dishwasher and sometimes a commercial kitchen as well.

Cohousing communities have a main gathering area in the commons, the outdoor “living room” of your community. Some key considerations for this area are providing shade and wind protection.

At the weekend workshops, survey questions on a number of possible community features are provided to participants. The answer choices are standard and do a good job of gauging sentiment.

black_square_button Yes, definitely

black_square_button Yes, probably

black_square_button Neutral

black_square_button No, probably not

black_square_button No, definitely not

black_square_button Unsure

We could do something similar here by adding more polls to our polls section.

Mary Kraus acts as the workshop facilitator, and there are ground rules, of course.

Ground Rules

  • Emotions OK, Aggression Not

  • Listen for Understanding

  • Hands to Speak

  • When in Doubt, Facilitator Decides

  • Silence = Assent

  • If Confused, Ask

  • Stay On Topic

  • Let Others Speak Before You Speak Again

  • No Side Conversations

  • Only Equity Members Can Block Consensus

During the workshop, it is important to tap into your own vision—and to hear everyone else’s visions.

Features can be prioritized using printed cards.

As each new idea is presented during the workshop, the “temperature” of members of the group can be measured by using the following answer choices.

black_square_button Love it

black_square_button Like it

black_square_button Don’t like it, but can live with it

black_square_button Can’t live with it

Workshop topics can include the

  • Vision statement

  • Site

  • Common house

  • Individual unit design

The site and common house are the most important to discuss using this workshop format.

Design your common house first so the initial focus is on community and what you’re sharing.

A consideration: Some cohousing communities have associate members who serve important community functions but don’t live in the community. You may want to give them access to some or all of the common facilities. People working in your community but not living there, for example.

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