Building the Dream City

In my previous post about the principles that would govern my ideal community (affordability, space, distribution of labor, technology, education and job skills, and self-determination),  several of you made comments and asked questions about how those principles might work in practice. Here are my thoughts.


Across the street from my workplace is a Lowe’s (Lowe’s is a hardware/supplies store, for those of you that aren’t familiar with it). The Lowe’s parking lot has a bunch of sheds. Being the odd kind of guy I am, I took a tour of the sheds during lunch one day, and discovered that sheds are a lot cooler than I thought. One looks like this:


It’s about 100 sq ft (9.2 sq m) with a workbench at one end. It’s got enough space to lay out a couple of futons, and the workbench could make a decent dining bar. But my favorite is this one:


It’s a little bigger, at 120 sq ft (11.1 sq m), but best of all it’s really tall and has a loft storage area.

The first one is about $1,000 and the second is about $2,000. Best of all, they’re stick built, which means they could theoretically be insulated and drywalled. I figure that a tricked out shed would come to about $5,000.

Now, before you try and burst my bubble and tell me that no one wants to live in a shed, let me say — I know. But that’s not entirely true. There are a few people who might enjoy it. The kind of people who read Thoreau, or Calvin and Hobbes. Or who enjoy watching movies like “No Impact Man”. So I understand that living in a shed isn’t your kind of thing. That’s cool, I’m not going to make you live there.

That said, there are some concerns that really do need to be addressed.


First is the word “shed”. Because, despite what I said above, really no one wants to live in a shed. But people are cool with living in cabins. And these sheds are pretty similar to the cabins we stayed in at one of my Boy Scout camps. So I’ll call them “cabins” (even though you know that I’m really just talking about sheds).

The problem with these cabins is that they don’t have bathrooms or kitchens. So, I envision a few of them built around a shared restroom facility, kind of like this:

Cabins1 (1)

Add in a main central dining/recreation hall and some walking trails, and it starts to look like a community:

Cabins2 (1)

Set aside some of the open areas as gardens, fields, and playgrounds and you’ve got something that meets a lot of the “Space” criteria that I outlined in my previous post.

But back to affordability, how are we doing? Well, if I were to target, say, 3 – 5 acres for this, the land would cost (in my area) somewhere between $50,000 and $500,000 (or more), depending on how close to town it’s located. As a talking point, I’ll say $250,000.

I don’t know much about construction costs, so I’ll just pull the other numbers out of the air — $200,000 for each of the restroom facilities, and $400,000 for the dining hall. That puts me at a little under $1.5 million. Split that between 10 families and you’re at $150,000 per family. The internet tells me that a home loan for $150,000 at 5% comes to about $800 a month.

What about legality — zoning and building codes? I mean, legally you can’t really live in a shed…ahem…cabin. And what about financing? You can’t get financing for a weird project like this just as easily as you do for a conventional home purchase.

Okay, you’ve got me there. I don’t really know anything about the legal or finance aspects of construction. And I know there’s plenty that I’m glossing over — property insurance, maintenance, etc. I’ll have to get back to you on that.

As for the other principles — distribution of labor, technology, education and job skills, and self-determination — I’ll come back and write more on those later too.

36 comments for “Building the Dream City

  1. Bob
    October 22, 2011 at 5:52 am

    I lived a lot of months in sheds in the Marines. We called them Quonset Huts.
    Your living plan_if you use “Big Cabins”_ is called Adirondack Architecture. Very costly, but I’d live there! I am with you_ openness has a great value.

  2. Jax
    October 22, 2011 at 8:21 am

    Out where I’m at 5 acres costs about $5-10,000 dollars, there are ZERO building codes (I got weird looks from the county offices when I went in and asked before building my home), and there a lot of people I’ve met who live in cabins with not more than 200 sq feet. If restrooms and dining are in separate buildings then it would work just fine. Still a bit small for families though… I’d go with a moderately sized yurt for them.

  3. October 22, 2011 at 8:40 am

    Sorry to bring up Europe again, but I just love wandering through the IKEA showroom and seeing all their clever space-saving models. Tony and I were on the verge of building ourselves an “IKEA house” once upon a time: So, yeah. When you get around to furnishing the shed, I recommend a trip to IKEA.

  4. October 22, 2011 at 10:00 am

    Nice, Bob. What’s an Adirondack?

    Jax, I spent a few weeks in Mongolia several years ago. I loved yurt life. The family I stayed with had two yurts plus a small cabin they were building. When it was hot during the day, they would just roll up the walls (made of felt) to let the breeze through. As for the model I’m proposing here, I’d probably just double up on cabins to meet the needs of the family. Each shed can sleep two people, so if you’ve got six people in your family then you’d just purchase three sheds.

    Sarah, I think that every time I go through Ikea. I love their “live in 210 sq ft!” designs :) Then again, I just love Ikea generally. I like the understated, clean, and modern lines of their furniture.

  5. el oso
    October 22, 2011 at 10:15 am

    Get outside of the city limits and you can build just about anything. Why not make a double wide or triple wide cabin for large families? Only $3-5,000 more. I think your estimates for bathroom and dining facilities are pretty high. I could build a large dining hall complete with tornado shelter for 70-100 people for ~$50,000. Bathroom facilities will be smaller and less expensive. There are all sorts of possibilities as long as you are not living in a large city.

  6. Al
    October 22, 2011 at 10:18 am

    What is stopping you from living this way?

  7. October 22, 2011 at 11:25 am

    There are lots of campgrounds set up very much like this.

    BTW, for everyone else: — there are lots of neat things that can be done. Especially when you can reduce a library to a kindle and journal and otherwise keep things on-line, you can make dramatic changes to the space you need.

    Now, just to find a way to store clothes and shoes …

  8. October 22, 2011 at 11:29 am

    Dane Laverty — look at recreational property designs for groups. Your drawing looks like a map to any number of facilities.

  9. Rob Perkins
    October 22, 2011 at 11:52 am

    Congratulations, you just defined “Condominium”, with the only difference being the distance between the housing units.

  10. Bradley
    October 22, 2011 at 12:17 pm

    I think a bunch of separate little hooches would be more expensive to heat in the winter (or cool in the summer) than a larger communal building. I would have a window-covered courtyard that lets a controllable amount of light in and traps the heat. With lots of plants like a greenhouse, patio space, tables, grills, landscaping, etc. Big enough for community meals. Then around the periphery of the courtyard there would be bedrooms, showers, recreation rooms, garages and workspaces.

    The outward-facing walls would be heavily insulated to minimize heating and cooling costs. A large central exhaust fan in the courtyard would be used to draw air through the rooms on windless days. From the air, it would look square or octagonal. Much of the roof would be covered with solar panels, except the courtyard of course. Enough solar to live off-grid.

    Gray water from the showers would be used to water landscaping or vegetables outside the building.

  11. Bob
    October 22, 2011 at 1:19 pm

    “There are lots of campgrounds set up very much like this. Yes.
    They are Adirondack Architecture in form that forces you into a life style. You MUST walk in nature to eat. You can only eat when meals are serviced. You have to eat with people you don’t know. If you want to go to town, you can only go when the bus leaves, etc.
    I love staying at Camp Curry in Yosemite.
    But if you really want to try communal living, try a one month bus tour in Europe.

  12. queuno
    October 22, 2011 at 3:11 pm

    Unless you’re putting a giant dome over this, I don’t know many women who want to walk outside in the elements to the bathroom.

  13. October 22, 2011 at 3:56 pm

    And there are some people who want more privacy from their children than others.

  14. Dane Laverty
    October 22, 2011 at 4:14 pm

    el oso — Everything you say is true. My particular vision just involves very nice facilities. The shared bathrooms will include showers and laundry (and closets — there’s no room for clothes in the cabins!), and I want them to feel nice, not merely functional. Same for the dining hall. I want it to look less like this — — and more like this — .

    Al — Aside from the obvious (money, land, permits, and a dozen co-inhabitants), the biggest roadblock is figuring out specifically what the community would be like. You’re right, there’s really nothing stopping me from going out right now, buying a couple acres and setting up a shed on it. But my vision is for something more than that. I’m writing these posts because, the way my mind works, I never know quite what I’m looking for until I put it in words.

    Stephen (#7) — Your observation about reducing a library to a Kindle is spot on with my desire to have a high-tech community. I think technology makes it possible to live comfortably with much less than we needed just five years ago. The internet can effectively supply a lot of the information and entertainment needs that once required dedicated appliances and facilities. As for storing clothes and shoes, that will be done in the restroom facilities. It’s never made sense to me that we build closets in our bedrooms when the place where it would really be handy to have clothes is where we bathe.

    Rob Perkins — I don’t think people in condominiums live in sheds and use shared restroom facilities. You’re right that there are similarities between condominiums and what I’m describing, but there are some important differences as well.

    Bradley — The main reason for the separate dwellings is that it fits better with American sensibilities. We value space and privacy. It may be less energy efficient, but then again, if they are small and well-insulated it might not be so bad. I’m more concerned with creating a pleasant, comfortable living environment than an extremely energy efficient one. “Green” is one of several conflicting priorities here, and not the highest one.

    Bob — Yeah, the whole point of this is to be as non-communal as possible while still reaping the benefits of shared facilities. I’ll get into more detail on this later, but if I can design this community right, each family will be able to decide how much or how little community interaction it wants.

    queuno — Yup, or men for that matter. That’s alright, conventional homes already meet their needs. This community won’t be desirable to everyone, nor do I intend it to be.

    Stephen (#13) — Also true. One point I didn’t make clear is that each cabin sleep two people. That means your kids will likely be in a separate cabin next to yours.

  15. Mark B.
    October 22, 2011 at 4:28 pm

    You can save a lot of money on building costs (to say nothing of heating/cooling expenses) by living in dugouts. And a composting outhouse will save the planet and provide fertilizer for your gardens as well.

    But, one man’s dream is another’s nightmare. I’d hate to live in a permanent campsite.

  16. Mark B.
    October 22, 2011 at 4:37 pm

    Do you really gain any privacy/separation by living in small compounds with communal bathroom and eating facilities? Why not combine all the separate “homes” into one multiple dwelling–both vertically and horizontally connected to the others? That way, the bathroom won’t be “outdoors” and solid walls and floors can give everyone the privacy he or she wants in the living quarters.

    Of course, what you really need is a whole community of that kind of house, with markets and other businesses and a nice public park within walking distance.

  17. Bob
    October 22, 2011 at 5:08 pm

    What you dream of is Public Housing. Each time we build it in the USA, we end up blowing it up. It just fails to work_ no matter how nice you make. The only hope it has, is lots of money coming from it’s members. Like a Cruise Ship. Even then, for only about a week.

  18. Rob Perkins
    October 22, 2011 at 5:29 pm

    Dane, they don’t, and you’re right, and I should have been less pithy; I was thinking of the self-governance agreements necessary to make your layout arrangements work on a long-term basis. So my thinking was that people in condominiums live in units and use shared facilities. The fact that they’re not bathrooms and kitchens in virtually all workable condo cases doesn’t change the social exigencies all that much, to my thinking.

    But, to me it also sounds like you’re drawing cues from Ursula Le Guin’s depiction Annares society, in The Dispossesed (which are not original, just well-depicted). It makes me wonder if you’ve read it.

  19. Raymond Takashi Swenson
    October 22, 2011 at 6:17 pm

    In Idaho Falls there are two weeks every winter when the low temp is minus 20 Fahrenheit. During the rest of winter it is cold and windy with drifting snow that seldom melts. Having to go outside in those conditions just to use a toilet or eat is unimaginable. You would need something that is fully enclosed from the weather, more like a home for seniors.

    In Omaha, you would have to have tornado shelters. Light structures like these would blow aeay like kites. And it gets darn cold in winter there, too. Same goes for anywhere that gets hurricanes periodically.

    In several of the large urban metro areas I have lived in, like the SF Bay Area and Washington DC, the lack of physical entry security would make your plan unacceptable. Keepung clothing and other items of value in a building that can be pilfered without you knowing about it is a problem.

    A lot of older folks are reluctant to expose their bodies in a group bathroom situation, even just among others of the same sex. Does use of this bathroom get regulated by California which requires women to share facilities with men who claim they are transgender?

    I am picky about the food I eat. I would not want to be stuck eating lousy cooking once or twice a week. My work schedule at the office and teaching evening classes at a university makes set mealtimes useless.

    Finally, my experience in small grouup dynamics is that there are some people whose personaluties drive them to boss others around. Dealing with them in the limited context of a ward can be hard enough. Having to live with them when I am trying to relax at home would be intolerable.

    Even in what might be the optimal situation, whete all residents are close family, there can be family dynamics that make for friction.

  20. Tim
    October 22, 2011 at 7:36 pm

    Possible answer to cold problem: underground hallways.

    I also don’t like the idea of communal bathrooms. In fact, my ideal home in such a community (which I would totally try to do if my best friends–old college roommates, family, etc.–lived in the same city I did), would have bedrooms and bathrooms plus a tiny living room/mini-kitchen (small couch, tiny table, two chairs, sink, hot plate, toaster oven, mini-fridge and small microwave). Meals would still be at the larger dining hall, but that arrangement would allow for some flexibility. And certain individuals would not be allowed to cook for the group.

    I think I’d also have a building for exercise–some basic gym equipment, plus a half-court basketball court and a racquetball court. That’s assuming it’s in an area like Idaho Falls where the winter weather can get pretty harsh.

  21. Dane Laverty
    October 22, 2011 at 8:19 pm

    Mark B. (#15) — Yeah, that goes back to what I was saying about balancing competing interests. Green living is one factor, but its not the prevailing one. I don’t want to live in a hole in the ground either.

    Mark B. (#16) — I think that separate dwellings provide a very different level of privacy from connected housing. When you’re in an apartment building, you can hear your neighbors stomping around upstairs or watching TV next door. Having a “separate place” as a retreat away is, I think, a value-add.

    Bob — Sure, that’s true. Fortunately historical failures don’t prevent us from attempting future success. I’ll do what I can to learn from what didn’t work and see if I can make something that does work.

    Rob Perkins — I’m not familiar with Ursula Le Guin, but it sounds like I should go check her work out. I’m less concerned with being original than I am with being effective.

    Raymond — Those are all valid concerns. In fact, those kinds of concerns are the reason it’s taken me years to get this far. It’s only recently that I realized that I can’t build a community that will work for every person in every place. But I can try to build a community that will work for me in the place that I’m at, and I hope that it might be valuable to some other people as well. Not everyone, but someone.

    Tim — Underground hallways would be awesome and expensive. I’ll just stick with building in a temperate climate. But you’re right about exercise. A gym facility would fit in very well, I think.

  22. Bob
    October 22, 2011 at 8:40 pm

    That’s just ugly. A hot plate? Two chairs? Where’s your family? Basketball and racqueball for you. Lots of boxs of Mac & cheese and old buddies from school….

  23. October 23, 2011 at 1:22 am

    Bob, you can’t diss a man’s dream! Everybody gets to love what they love and that’s the rules.

  24. Bob
    October 23, 2011 at 5:25 am

    “In the Big Rock Candy Mountains,
    There’s a land that’s fair and bright,
    Where the handouts grow on bushes
    And you sleep out every night.
    Where the boxcars all are empty
    And the sun shines every day
    And the birds and the bees
    And the cigarette trees
    The lemonade springs
    Where the bluebird sings
    In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.

    In the Big Rock Candy Mountains
    All the cops have wooden legs
    And the bulldogs all have rubber teeth
    And the hens lay soft-boiled eggs
    The farmers’ trees are full of fruit
    And the barns are full of hay
    Oh I’m bound to go
    Where there ain’t no snow
    Where the rain don’t fall
    The winds don’t blow
    In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.

    In the Big Rock Candy Mountains
    You never change your socks
    And the little streams of alcohol
    Come trickling down the rocks
    The brakemen have to tip their hats
    And the railway bulls are blind
    There’s a lake of stew
    And of whiskey too
    You can paddle all around it
    In a big canoe
    In the Big Rock Candy Mountains

    I’ll see you all this coming fall
    In the Big Rock Candy Mountains”.

    Sorry I dissed Tim’s dream and broke the dream rule.

  25. Tim
    October 23, 2011 at 7:12 am


    Remember the community dining area/kitchen? The vast majority of the cooking would still be done there. I imagine the central kitchen would be pretty decked out.

    And those buddies from school have families too. Quite frankly, I’d rather my kids hang out with my buddies’ kids and their own cousins than anyone else.

  26. October 23, 2011 at 8:59 am

    What about those who get up in the middle of the night? I’m not sure I would enjoy the walk every night.

    With a storm like I’m told we had last night … (I slept through it) would be even less pleasant.

  27. Bob
    October 23, 2011 at 12:19 pm

    I just LOVE your ideas of a community dining area full of Mormons and their kids! Sooo much fun__ like eating at Chucky Cheese three times a day!

  28. Geoff - A
    October 24, 2011 at 4:45 am

    I admire the idealism but… Your home is your greatest assett and also the greatest opportunity to save money by increasing in value. By avoiding what you percieve as the excesses of today you will also avoid the opportunities it provides to increase your wealth.

    You may be able to build (using unskilled labour with more substantial and apropriate materials, such as ecoblocks, which I have built with, which are super insulated and, depending on the roof, hurricane peoof.

    I personally like space and privacy and would not be joining you in your future.

  29. Jay S
    October 24, 2011 at 12:14 pm

    Dane – I think your proposed building solution is off the mark, if you want the more autonomous community you discussed. Most of the Co-housing I have seen is of the condominum type. Each family has its own self contained unit, sometimes attached, sometimes detached. There is generally a larger meeting room with a kitchen, activity space etc.

    The last one I looked at had homes that were 2-3 bedrooms and 600-1100 SF. They had a Community Hall, which had a large open space like the Cultural Hall at the church, perfect for community meals, performances (with included stage), as well as kitchens you could use for larger meals, parties, canning etc. They had a few “activity” rooms which were geared towards art (closets for supplies, easels, etc) and recreation (pool table, ping pong, game tables etc), and 2-3 “guest rooms” which could be reserved for out of town guests (and for which there was a nominal fee). This was also where the grounds maintenance equipment was stored. I believe there was also a woodworking type shop, but this would be something nice. (Also could add in here a garage type workshop)

    This is appealing to me. I have my own space for my own family for every day living, But instead of having to have extra space for the occasional activities I can use the communal facilities.

  30. N.
    October 24, 2011 at 1:17 pm

    A couple of thoughts:
    – For those interested in downsizing their lives and living more compactly, you could follow the Tiny House Blog, a blog dedicated to the idea of smaller, simpler, more sustainable living. Great stuff.
    – Shed living/building/etc. I recently bought/built a 12×20 outbuilding for use as a workshop/home office. It’s “finished” (drywall, insulation, power, AC, networking, trim work, etc). It probably cost about $11000 total (but I did all the labor after frame out, foundation+frame was about $8500). *However* it doesn’t have any plumbing in it. Putting plumbing in it would have taken my building permit cost from $500 to over $9000, and that doesn’t include actually putting in the incoming water or outflowing water pipes. There are a few other issues that make this structure less good for long term (20-60 year) habitation, mostly having to do with earthquake resistance and energy efficiency. Otherwise, I could totally live in this, if I felt peeing in a bucket or on a tree outside was for me. :)
    – Communal living. There are a lot of options between the common suburban single-family housing, and a yurt/camping commune. Private-gated communities, condominiums, cult-compounds ;), Yosemite rec camping, etc are but a few of them. I’ve had family and friends try a few different kinds of communal living, and almost all of them have fallen apart in less than 20 years. The people’s needs/wants change; their children don’t want to continue to live there/own/use the yurt after the parents have passed on; close proximity or diverging philosophy causes internal strife.

    What I think has the most value is the idea that there can be competing ideas of what “living” looks like. I’m glad that someone loves condos and someone loves suburban single-family. I love hippy communes and survivalist trapper cabins. I really dislike local gov’ts telling people what is and is not a home through zoning laws. I’d let a million kinds of ideas bloom so everyone can find a kind of “living” that matches their goals and dreams. There are very few problems for which “more freedom” is not a good solution.

  31. RickH
    October 24, 2011 at 1:18 pm

    Bob – I spent about 6 months in Bosnia with the U.S. Army as part of the Stabilization Force there. We also had this kind of setup, except with more straight rows, rather than “clusters” of cabins. Each building (we called them “sea-huts”) had room for 3 people to have a fair amount of privacy. You could reduce privacy and add 3 more, or even 6 more with bunk beds. We had communal shower and toilet facilities. In the middle of winter it was not too convenient having to face the snow and ice to use the bathroom, but overall it wasn’t too bad. There were a couple of dining facilities on my base, as well, and good outdoor areas – a cross-country style running trail (3 laps = 2 miles, I think), soccer fields, and woods. (Of course, we were supposed to stay out of the woods because of land mines thought to be left over from the war, but still…)

    But as far as living arrangements go, it really was pretty nice.

    Oh, and BTW, if you go to and look for Tuzla Air Base, you can get a great view. The very orderly clusters of buildings to the north of the runways are the “cabins” and you can see the running trail going around the soccer field immediately north of the runways.

  32. Bob
    October 24, 2011 at 2:16 pm

    Our Quonset Huts had 40 people in them plus bunks and foot lockers. We marched to the Mess Hall at 4:30AM. We had trays of food and 10 min. to eat. Marching and PT in AM. Classes until 6PM. Cleaning, personal stuff until 8PM, Talk, smoke, write letters until 10PM. Lights out.

  33. October 25, 2011 at 5:51 pm

    You’ve already raised some of the big practical concerns here about mortgages and zoning, so let me raise another.

    People are somewhat willing to entertain the idea of communal eating. Most will be against it, but its at least entertainable.

    Communal bathrooms and communal showers eliminate 90% of the women who might otherwise be willing to consider something like this, and probably nearly that proportion of men. Even more if you have to go outside to get to them. Cold, wet, rainy, and needing to pee is no way to go through life.

    You are right that you can’t attract everybody. But the percentage of the population who are seriously interested in quasi-communal living is already so small that I don’t think you can afford to insist on communal outdoor restrooms unless for some reason its absolutely integral to your plan.

    So . . . is it absolutely integral? The only justification I see you offering is cost. But at $200k to build a facility that serves 4 huts, surely you can build a bathroom or two at $50,000 per residence?

  34. RickH
    October 26, 2011 at 1:56 pm

    Bob – ouch. We did that too, of course, but it was mostly at Basic Training and a few exercises where we only stayed short-term. The setup in Bosnia was much nicer.

  35. jjohnsen
    October 27, 2011 at 9:29 am

    I’m with Adam, why not build more, less expensive bathrooms? That communal thing would kill the idea for my wife in a second.

    Lack of central air for cooling would kill it for me.

  36. Space Chick
    October 30, 2011 at 6:20 pm

    @ Geoff “Your home is your greatest assett and also the greatest opportunity to save money by increasing in value.” ROFL…

    Seriously, we’d love to find a place where all our friends and siblings could live in close proximity, and share meals as desired. But I think we’d prefer separate homes with the ability to meet at will, and not HAVE to share space unless we wished.

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