Designing a Common House to Feel Like Home

What is a common house? For many, the first instinct is to think of it as a community building. Indeed, a common house shares many of the aspects of a community building: it is a place to gather in large groups, to eat together in a community, to share child care and other common facilities. But thinking of the common house solely as a gathering place can result in leaving out the soul and warmth of the place.

article photoImagine something further. Imagine the common house as home. You return from work and sit down by the fire with today's paper. Later, a couple of neighbors come in and join you for a cup of tea. A few children show up and start working on a puzzle in the next room. The place is warm and full of life; you feel comfortable and nurtured.

What kind of building supports this scene? A community building that provides ample gathering and dining space doesn't inherently offer this sense of intimacy. It leaves you more likely to seek your own home as a place to relax and regroup. But if the common house feels like a home, if the layout, the detailing, the use of textures and colors, all communicate the feeling of a house, chances are you will go to the common house for some of your "home" activities. But how can this large building, often designed for close to one hundred people, be made to feel homey?

The Dining Room

One of the greatest challenges is to make the dining room feel intimate. Here we have a large space, often on the order of 1,000 square feet, which needs to accommodate the whole community during community dinners. Such a large space readily feels institutional if one is not careful of the detailing.

At Pioneer Valley CoHousing, a few simple strategies make the large, cathedral ceilinged dining space feel more intimate. First, the lower part of the walls is covered with a wood wainscoting, painted dark green, extending to just above head height. This defines a lower, more intimate area which is separate from the voluminous space defined by the cream walls and white ceiling above. A small shelf atop the wainscoting provides a place for treasured objects, from candlesticks to small sculptures to this year's canned dilly beans, which add personality to the room. Another strategy was to provide light shelves in the ceiling, which interrupt the cathedral and modulate the ceiling height. This was in tandem with lowering the ceiling in some areas to create a sheltered feeling.

The use of nooks, or smaller areas connected to the main room, can break up the space of a large dining area. In the Sacramento Street common house, a sun porch off the main dining area provides a more comfortable, more private area; glass doors provide a degree of privacy while maintaining the connection between the dining spaces. In Pioneer Valley, one of the lower spaces in the dining room is offset from the main area, creating the feeling of a more protected nook.

Careful acoustical design is also critical in making a large dining area feel comfortable. Too many hard surfaces will result in a noisy and unpleasant dining experience. High ceilings with absorbent surfaces have been used successfully in many communities. Acoustical separation between the kitchen and dining area can be an issue as well: in some situations a noisy kitchen can disrupt quiet after dinner conversations. This separation can be easily accomplished by installing doors at pass-throughs, permitting connection to the kitchen at serving time and separation during cleanup.

article photoKitchens

Kitchens are another key area where the accommodation of a large community can conflict with the feeling of hominess. Some common houses sport large kitchens with commercial appliances, which can readily convey amore institutional feeling. Surprisingly small kitchens can be adequate for preparing meals for the whole community. The kitchen at Highline Crossing is a good example of this: at 216 square feet, it is designed to serve 36 households. Yet it feels like a residential kitchen, and it is easy to imagine walking over to the common house on a Saturday morning and putting on the tea kettle. The kitchen at Trudeslund, also of residential scale, is equally comfortable whether making breakfast for yourself or dinner for 80.

Whether large or small, filled with commercial appliances or not, there are many ways to keep the common house kitchen from feeling institutional. Using butcher block surfaces and wood shelving or cabinetry will add warmth. The use of tiles on selected wall areas will bring a smaller scale element to the kitchen, particularly if attention is paid to color and pattern; children can participate (in advance) by painting glazed designs onto individual tiles. Paintings on the wall, stencilling, hanging baskets of onions and garlic, are all things that can add a homey feel. At Muir Commons, wood cabinets add warmth to a kitchen open to the large dining area. At Puget Ridge, patterned tile lends a more residential feeling to the kitchen. At Pioneer Valley, the stainless steel of the commercial-grade kitchen is set off by a cherry counter and central butcher block.

In kitchens as in dining areas, lighting can play a crucial role. Large ceiling-mounted fluorescents can create an alienating feeling. Direct lighting at specific work surfaces will create a focus and use the light efficiently where it is most needed.

Sitting Rooms

There is a clear need for a small scale, cozy sitting area within common houses. The large great room provides a space€ for larger gatherings, but does not generally welcome a couple of people settling in for a conversation. A small room or nook off the dining area can provide this. At Trudeslund, the family room ceiling steps down from the dining room, creating a more intimate, comfortable space which is highly utilized.

article photoPosting Areas

. It is important to have space to post information in a common house: meeting minutes, announcements, and meal signups. If one is not careful, posting areas * can look institutional or just plain shabby. Providing attractive borders around bulletin boards can help. Use of color and detail in other surrounding areas will keep the posting area from dominating visually. And locating these areas in highly trafficked areas which are visually disconnected from the main gathering spaces provides the ideal balance between access and distraction.

Attractions to Draw People

It helps to create one special element or activity which will draw people into the common house. In Pioneer Valley, the cappuccino bar is such an element. Residents working at home during the day frequently stop over at the common house to foam up a mug of cappuccino. This greatly adds to the life of the common house; it is not an unusual scene to find a couple of people hanging out in the great room in the middle of the day, one sipping cappuccino, the other perusing the day's paper while waiting for their laundry.

Materials, Color and Texture

Materials are very important in communicating the message of home. For instance, it is amazing what a word can do to add warmth to a space. Due to budgetary constraints, and perhaps maintenance concerns, many common houses have vinyl tile or carpeted floors. These tend to convey a more institutional feel. It may be worth scrimping elsewhere to afford wood in at least some of the main common spaces. Another alternative is to use wood accents in key locations. In Emeryville, the mahogany bar top between the kitchen and dining area warms the entire room; neighbors can regularly be found leaning on it and chatting as the cook puts the finishing touches on the evening's dinner. Wood can also be used to trim ceilings and windows, adding just the needed touch.

As far as wall treatment, wainscoting has been mentioned as an element that can bring down the scale while adding character. A less expensive option is to apply some attractive horizontal trim and rely on paint colors alone to define the scale and bring in some interest. Another option is to use stenciling to accent a special area or define a lower space within a larger one; this is a good sweat equity project if you have some artistic types in your community. Ceramic tiles can also be applied to create accents.

A note on color: a prevalent reflex is to paint everything white. However, using colored paint is a cheap and effective way to bring some warmth and character to the building. Good use of color can create moods: quiet, playful, comforting. Even the simple step of covering the major surfaces with cream instead of white will add a great deal of warmth, probably with a minimum of controversy.

It is worth considering reducing space in favor of upgrading materials: you may end up with less space, but that space€ may be used more fully and provide a warmer experience. An example might be to reduce the kitchen area, creating a more residential feel as discussed above, and to use the savings to upgrade the common house flooring. Alternatively, perhaps it might be possible to give up the craft room. After all, the first concern is making the common house nice enough to attract people out of their cozy homes.

Plan Layout

Finally, the overall layout of the common house can serve to give a message either of home or community building. For example, if a main stair opens directly from a hallway as it might in a house, it can evoke the feeling of home. This aspect is much more intuitive, and needs to be evaluated for each specific situation.


Often overlooked during common house design is the need for comfortable, aesthetic furniture. Nice furnishings make an immense difference. It is advisable to account for furnishings in the initial budget - provide a minimum of $20,000. Again, it is worth sacrificing on quantity of space to achieve quality of space. A beautiful, large common house with everyone's assorted old sofas, chairs and tables can look seedy and unwelcoming. The space is designed to suit your needs, and the furniture should be too. Plan to furnish at least the dining area and a small gathering area, so that the principal spaces attract you to use and enjoy your common house.

article photoConnection to the Outdoors

The connection to the outdoors is a juncture which must welcome and attract people. Creating an outdoor room at the main entry to the common house provides a gathering place which draws people into the building. At Southside Park, a generous trellis announces the common house, providing a lovely space to sit in the dappled sunlight. At Pioneer Valley, people often relax together on the cascade of steps leading to the large entry porch, which itself provides a protected sitting area. At Puget Ridge, a smaller gesture suffices to convey a sense of welcome: the gabled overhang with warn wood detailing is instantly inviting. All of these entries create the nurturing feeling that one would hope to find in a home.

A Sense of Character

It is important that the common house reflect the vision of the people in the community. Feeling and imagery are as central to the success of the common house as functional requirements. A careful use of color, textures, and articulation of spaces can convey the emotional messages that reflect our community and make us feel welcome in the building. A common house is at its best when we feel truly at home there and find ourselves stopping in regularly to hangout or chat with our neighbors.$
Mary Kraus is an architect in Amherst, Massachusetts and a resident of the Pioneer Valley CoHousing Community, for which she acted as one of the principal project architects.
Kathryn McCamant is co-author of the book CoHousing (with her husband Charles Durrett). They are the founders of The CoHousing Company, an architectural design and consulting firm based in Berkeley, and they live in the Doyle Street CoHousing Community in Emeryville.