Design Considerations: The Zen View

This is part of series of essays related to cohousing. For more information, see the introduction here.

A neighbourhood development project

As mentioned in a previous posting, but worth mentioning again — cohousing communities are not custom housing projects, they are custom neighborhood projects. As an individual in an individualist society it can be a bit of a challenge to wrap you head around this. The goals of a custom housing project and a custom neighborhood project can occasionally clash and understanding this in advance can help you to prepare to “check you expectations” as so many community members have told me in talking about the designs of their own homes.

These clashes come in a variety of forms. Parking is one of the more contentious ones. People tend to understand the value of pushing parking to the periphery of the community in order to create pedestrian zones where people can gather and play, but it’s also a bit of a stretch for some people to imagine themselves walking home from a distant parking lot laden with several heavy bags of groceries. People do this all the time, of course, it just takes a period of adjustment, a trolley and/or a different strategy around shopping.

One of the particular design challenges that I encountered in visiting communities on the west coast of Canada was related to the issue of views. That is — the views in this area are just so beautiful! There are mountain views, ocean views and forested hillsides! It seems natural to want to orient all the homes towards these views. It’s obvious. However, the problem is when all of the homes are purposefully oriented towards views they are not necessarily oriented towards the community. In the long run, this can have the effect of decreasing the “chance encounters” that breath life into such communities. It also makes the homes and their obviously fantastic views so desirable that you may eventually attract people who are not so interested in the community aspect of the development — but are willing to pay for those views at a first glance.

So what is a community to do, if they are blessed with stunning natural beauty? Shun it? No, of course not — but you don’t want these views to become more of a driver of the design of the community than the development of an engaging and collaborative place to live. There are several ways to deal with this, depending on the nature and layout of the site.

1. You may position the community so that the shared space or courtyard points towards these views. In order to see the views in the distance, you first look out into the commons in the foreground (see example below).

It was a cloudy day when I visited Vancouver Cohousing, but you can see a hint of the views they have on the north shore mountains, yet many of the windows face out into the courtyard.

2. You may also consider is the notion of “zen views,” which is presented as pattern 134 in Christopher Alexander (et al.)’s Pattern Language. They suggests that when continuously exposed to a view, we tend to take it for granted — in the same way we take many things granted in times of plenty.

This is the essence of the problem with any view. It is a beautiful thing. One wants to enjoy it and dink it in every day. But the more open it is, the more obvious, the more it shouts, the sooner it will fade. Gradually it will come part of the building, like the wallpaper; and the intensity of its beauty will no longer be accessible for the people who live there. (p. 643)

They propose a method of design where the views become most obvious while one is in motion — a window in a stairway or while walking from one location to the next, say from your home to the common house. One good example is the courtyard design of Vancouver cohousing — upon entering the commons you are hit with the view of the north shore mountains, yet the homes face into the courtyard, and while some of the homes have a view to the north, they are not the dominant focus of those rooms. You can see this here in the slideshow that accompanies the article.

3. You may save the best views for common elements so that people enjoy them when together. As was done with this interesting little domed element that sits atop Quayside Village in North Vancouver. This conforms with Alexander (et al.)’s idea that if you are going to have a window or place pointed out towards the view, have it in the kind of place where going to enjoy the view is a purposeful act — as in an alcove or a reading nook.

A room with a view a top Quayside Village in North Vancouver. For a nicer photo of this dome, check out the slide show from this article