• Credit: Sarah Wilkins

Ross Chapin, AIA, who helped draft design guidelines for his town of Langley, Wash., recalls a developer who proposed a 54-unit-per-acre downtown housing complex for the elderly. The building was 150 feet long and three stories high and had no façade changes or connection to the street. Although the zoning code would have waved it through, the design standards stopped the project in its tracks. “It was just packaging the elderly, not giving them honor and respect,” Chapin says. “This one would have had a huge impact not only on that part of town but also on the direction the town grows in.”

So much of good architecture is context: the feel of a street, the way a tracery of tree limbs adds depth to a building's façade, the rhythm of marble stoops or iron railings, the way a house steps into a hilly site. In school, architects are taught to design buildings that respond to the environment in which they sit. Most do this commission by commission, their houses scattered about like jewels in the landscape. Others take on the architectural zeitgeist of entire communities. They sit on design review boards, planning commissions, and city councils. Whether volunteer or paid, they're working within the system to make sure that good design gets built.

As empowering as work in the public realm may be, it's often an uncomfortable position to be in—especially for a practicing architect. Besides the political pressure to vote a certain way, sitting on the other side of the table requires a great deal of objectivity: You need to put aside aesthetic preferences in deference to the written guidelines. You also have to shed the “secret language” of architecture and speak about design in a way that doesn't intimidate or alienate laypeople. Those who've served in official roles say they like spreading around the benefits of architecture and that it puts their own work in context, helping them understand the forces affecting what architects do.

“I think one's training as an architect is misleading in a way,” says Wendy Kohn, San Francisco, who has an architecture degree and co-authored The City After the Automobile: An Architect's Vision with Moshe Safdie, FRAIC, FAIA. As a mayoral appointee to the Lower Downtown (LoDo) Design Review Board of Denver, where she lived until recently, Kohn was one of three architects in a group of seven charged with interpreting and enforcing LoDo's design guidelines. She was also teaching urban design to graduate students at the University of Colorado at Denver. “We're taught that you're making all the decisions at your drafting table,” she says. “As you start to practice, you realize there are people making the key decisions that have huge consequences. Being involved at the city level and interacting with all the voices around the table to affect what gets built was a real privilege.”

small-town politics

For architects in popular vacation destinations, being a member of the design police means deflecting the status quo. Not only do people try to transplant incompatible house styles from their hometowns (picture an Atlanta McMansion in Aspen, Colo.), speculators gravitate to the safety of tried-and-true floor plans. For Ann Darby, AIA, who volunteers on two local review boards in the Vail, Colo., area, the two biggest challenges are ensuring architectural diversity and environmental sensitivity. The homes, which routinely range from about 5,000 square feet to 13,000 square feet in size, need to be stepped into the mountain and scaled to look like part of a community. “We're not in the business of creating suburbs with McMansions,” says Darby, principal of Avon, Colo.-based Darby Architects. But it's a delicate point to enforce. Often the owner push-back is cost-driven—breaking down a house's mass creates more forms, which is more expensive.

Some Vail-area homeowners will ask the Realtor who sold them the land to look over their house plan to make sure it's salable. One plan in particular circulates among the real estate community, resulting in homes that—if not quite cookie-cutter—look similar. Darby encourages people to move away from those stock plans to something that's site-specific, yet has broad appeal. “The homeowner is more likely to accept criticism if it makes the project better,” she says. “But the developer is focused on financial decisions. Many times we'll table a project and ask them to come back with the changes we've encouraged. It's not our business to design people's homes but to lead them in the right direction, and there's a fine line between the two.”