Monday, May 18, 2009
Design guidelines have pluses and minuses
By Ann Robinson and Annie Schwemmer
Last week, we summarized the main governmental and private approaches to preserving and legislating our built environment.
Covenants, conditions and restrictions; zoning codes; building departments; the National Historic Register; the Utah State Historical Society and historical districts regulate some of what we can and cannot do in our neighborhoods.
So with all these tools, why do we still have unfortunate remodels and unappreciated teardowns in our neighborhoods?
The obvious answer is that regulating our building environment is no simple task.
The overriding difficulty is the old saying, "Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder."
What's just fine to one person may be an abomination to another. While government agencies can regulate building size and structure, there is no consideration for architectural style or aesthetic appeal.
Everyone wants a neat set of rules that will guarantee that we will all love our neighborhoods and everything (and everyone!) in them.
One way to accomplish this is to implement design guidelines.
These can be generated by a developer and are implemented at the inception of a community (such as Daybreak) or may be imposed by a municipality on all future building.
Design guidelines go beyond typical zoning and building codes by specifying required architectural forms and exterior materials.
They may prohibit certain roof forms or materials, such as man-made stone, vinyl windows or plywood siding.
Design guidelines impose one more layer of review on a homeowner and usually have an economic impact on the project.
While they are useful in preventing the possibility of something that is clearly out of line, they also have the effect of limiting creativity and focusing on the average.
They may prevent a D or E project, but they also tend to prevent A projects. Mediocrity and uniformity are often the result of design guidelines.
If you like the idea of living with design guidelines, look for a community that is based on this concept and move there.
However, if you wish to stay in your neighborhood, you are restricted to the other tools and oversight discussed last week. This does not mean you are powerless: You can try to influence your city council to change zoning laws, work with your neighbors to create zoning overlays, and begin the process of considering if you want to have your neighborhood designated as a historic district.
Changing the process of building and remodeling in your neighborhood is not, however, a cut-and-dried process. You must proceed carefully, or you can make the situation worse instead of better.
For instance, if you are concerned about "monster homes" and set out to lower the allowed roof height from 28 feet to 25 feet, you may create other problems.
A poor design can still fit a large two-story house into this envelope by flattening the roof pitch, resulting in the look of a tool shed on steroids.
A better design would tuck the second story into a roof with dormers and interesting roof lines. But unless a homeowner or developer is willing to invest in a good design and give up floor area for the cause of design, no set of rules will make a difference.
Likewise, a historic review commission may deny a great-looking addition to a home based on — what else — historic precedence, with little concern for the 21st-century lifestyle and needs of the family that lives there.
A structure only has to be 50-years old to be considered historically significant. That means everything built in the 1960s is now historic.
We believe homes and neighborhoods should be able to change and grow as the years go by. Diversity in home sizes promotes diversity of neighbors, allowing options to include young families and older couples in your neighborhood. Diverse architectural style lends interest and variety to a streetscape.
The key is not uniformity but good design. Design must be valued enough in our society that we each take the time and make the effort and investment to see that our homes reflect our own needs, as well as those of our neighbors.
Failure to understand that our homes exist within a context of others around us will diminish the success of the individual project, as well as the aesthetic experience of the entire neighborhood.
One thing is for sure: You can't legislate good taste. As always, we welcome your home architect design questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.