As good citizens, we're taught to follow the rules. They're there for a reason, arrived at by expert consensus to safeguard the public interest. A substantial part of an architect's job is to ensure compliance with building codes, zoning regulations, architectural guidelines. For the most part, this system works well and argues for the value of architectural services. After all, who else can properly balance these rules with the requirements of client, program, and site, and still squeeze something through the snake that's aesthetically pleasing or even delightful? It's an amazing feat that architects regularly achieve. You are problem solvers extraordinaire, able to reconcile seemingly irreconcilable differences of interest.
But the best architects are more than just mediators, tracing elegantly within the lines of the status quo. The best architects are also advocates for a better solution if one exists, even if it lies outside the boundaries of those comfortable rules. Because sometimes those rules actually stand in the way of the public interest; sometimes they're just short-sighted, misguided, picayune, and arcane. For instance, I have a covenant on my property that turned up during my title search. It says I'm not allowed to drive wagons of alcoholic spirits across my 6,600-square-foot parcel. The rule dates back to the founding of the settlement by abstemious Adventists. Well, I sure hope it's OK that I pull my station wagon into my driveway to unload a case of wine from time to time. ... Needless to say, this relic has no relevance to contemporary life.
As buildable land grows increasingly scarce, more developers and private clients will turn to architects to solve roadblocks of one kind or another. Not only will they want a proficient problem solver, they'll need an adroit advocate for the cause. Maybe the project will require a simple variance, maybe it'll take rewriting zoning regulations for an entire jurisdiction, but your client will look to you to make it happen.
Our cover architect, Ross Chapin, AIA, was his own client with a cause. He didn't like the soulless subdivisions he saw grabbing land by the acre in his adopted home-town of Langley, Wash., so he worked long and hard to change local laws to allow for “pocket neighborhoods” of more densely placed, smaller houses. The result is a more engaged kind of community that welcomes a variety of household types, not just the two-adults-and-two-children stereotype most builders target. There's no driving wagons of spirits across the land because cars are placed away from the buildings, which preserves common green space and fosters social interaction.
Now, Chapin didn't just ride in on a white horse proclaiming his superior idea for suburban development. He was a founding member of his town's design review board, earning the respect and trust of city officials, developers, and interested citizens over the course of several years. This kind of grassroots involvement pays off in so many ways. Not only are you more likely to garner support for your ideas, but your ideas will gain depth and relevance from an intimate knowledge of your community. You'll develop a keener sense for which rules need elimination, revision, or upholding. Best of all, you'll end up a better architect, advocate, and citizen.
Comments? Call: 202.736. 3312; write: S. Claire Conroy, residential architect, One Thomas Circle, N.W., Suite 600, Washington, D.C. 20005; or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.