In picturesque New England towns, the threat to good design might be misguided historicism and an overdeveloped sense of independence. The tendency is to romanticize historical buildings that should be maintained in a simpler style. After several years of sitting on the Cohasset Common Historic District Commission in Cohasset, Mass., Alex Adkins, AIA, LEED AP, resigned over its refusal to set objective guidelines. The quasi-powered commission consisted mainly of people who lived on the common, and those asking permission to make alterations were typically their neighbors. “Board members who aren't neighbors find themselves in an interesting predicament,” says Adkins, a senior associate at Boston-based DiMella Shaffer. “You're often the one everyone is counting on to say no if it's something that's not popular, just so neighborly relations are maintained.”
In one instance, in anticipation of the commuter rail coming to town, the commission hired a landscape architect to do a historical survey of the common and suggest guidelines for managing it in the future. “As a reactive body, we had people with a strong presence in the community saying to us, ‘Oh, I'd like to plant a memorial tree for my father or build a memorial bench.' It was all well-intended, but the result was that it was beginning to look like a cemetery,” Adkins says. “The study was the one time where I felt like we had the opportunity to be proactive.” The proposed changes included eliminating a road added in the 1920s that cut the common in two and restoring it to the clear, simple space it once was, where goats would come to eat the grass. “There were good ideas about changes we could make, but in the end everybody resisted any change,” Adkins adds. “One or two neighbors couldn't imagine it being different, and it was more convenient not to do anything.”
Indeed, a few opinionated community members can override the most reasoned architectural arguments. In Langley, a small town at the growing edge of metropolitan Seattle, Chapin also met resistance when he began writing down design standards some 20 years ago. Why, wondered longtime residents and developers, should anyone start telling them what they can do? Chapin worked from scratch, researching the town's building types and drawing on his understanding of urban design. Rather than stop with a list of design do's and don'ts, he wrote a parallel manual meant to inspire building owners to connect to a bigger idea. That sparked a discussion about what kind of town they wanted and what guidelines would nurture that unique sense of place. Subsequent conversations centered on sound urban design strategies, such as bringing the buildings close to the sidewalk, creating planted transition areas, and tucking parking lots behind the buildings or off to the side.
“I would encourage other architects to, by all means, get on the planning board,” Chapin says. “It's very important in terms of looking at where we go 20 or 30 years from now. Architects can see patterns of coherence and help educate others about what makes cities a vital place for people to live and thrive.”
One such pattern-maker is John Torti, FAIA, LEED AP, president of Silver Spring, Md.-based Torti Gallas and Partners, which designs code books for planned communities all over the United States. The trick—difficult but doable—is to meet the budgets of clients and end users while achieving high-quality design. There are two levels of design code, he says. One determines what the buildings' masses will look like—how big, how high, how wide—to establish the character of the street. “This first layer is basically dollar-neutral,” Torti says. “You put parking in the front or back, but you still have to build the parking lot, street, and sidewalks. When they get a plan entitled, most developers will build it as designed.”
The second level—coding quality architecture—is more complicated. “You have expensive versus inexpensive, good designers versus average designers,” Torti continues. “How that plays into the architectural codes the town architects administer is very critical.” Proportion and scale, window-to-wall ratio, how a window is trimmed out—all these facets are done well in buildings people love. And developers want their subdivisions to look good, but at what cost? Absent an enforceable code, too many developers make the wrong tradeoffs, like the ubiquitous brick-front houses that skimp on proportions. “Good design is better than good materials,” Torti insists. “If it's designed well, in any price range you get a better house and neighborhood.”