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APA Tackles Design Review (originally posted 7/22/09)

In its July issue of Zoning Practice, the American Planning Associationprovides useful advice for any community considering the adoption of design/architectural standards, especially when a design review board will be involved.

The article, written by James R. Brindell, makes several great points about both the code language used to regulate building design and the way in which design review boards implement those standards.  Notably, Brindell points out that members of design review boards or committees need not only be qualified to make judgments about design, but also to make those judgments in the complex legal context of a quasi-judicial body.  In other words, just being an architect is not enough.  Board members also need to be trained how to make and record legally-defensible judgments.

Interestingly, Brindell seems to throw cold water on the commonly-held belief that design review exists as a kind of distiller for broad, subjective (and easier to write) design standards.  In Brindell’s view, design review by a qualified board does not relieve a jurisdiction of the difficult work of writing clear, objective, measurable standards.

This might lead one to ask, “If the standards still have to be objective, with little room for interpretation, then what’s the point of doing design review at all?  Why not simply write clear, concise, formulaic standards, adherence to which can be determined by a staff planner?”  And this person would have a great point.

With rare exception, Heartland Brick Council advises communities to regulate the most significant components of building design — materials, scaling, facade articulation, roof forms, etc. — with clear, objective language that can be assessed by anyone familiar with development applications and scaled drawings.  In doing so, communities get the greatest possible positive impact without 1) excessively interfering in the design process for private properties, and 2) without the greatly expanded administrative burden that goes along with design review and design review boards, and 3) without slowing the development approval process and costing builders time.  Time, after all, typically costs builders much more than the marginal increase in cost posed by the required design enhancements.

If a community insists on full design review, however, Heartland Brick Council is happy to provide the training to review board members that Brindell recognizes as sorely lacking.  To take advantage of this or any of our free community planning services, please contact me toll free at 866.644.1293

Aaron Steele, AICP

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