Design Review – Does it improve the quality of the built environment?

Fritz Architecturedesign review Sebastopol urban designDesign Review – Does it improve the quality of the built environment?

Design Review – Does it improve the quality of the built environment?

This post is a follow-up to an earlier post about the design review process. The earlier post looked at the design review process which resulted in lowering the quality of a proposed project in Sebastopol. I’ve recently been working on a project that is currently going through the design review process. And given my recent experience, I question the effectiveness of the architectural design review process in improving the quality of architecture.

I’m not sure how widespread the practice is, but all of the jurisdictions I have practiced in have some form of architectural review as part of the project entitlement process. Single-family homes are typically exempted, but most other projects have a review process before an appointed board and any community members that wish to weigh in with an opinion. The composition of the boards vary, and most have some requirement to have at least one architect as part of the board. However, this does not seem to be a requirement for all and boards often consist of members that have no design background. I wonder why so many untrained in any kind of design field have the ability to determine the outcome of building design. What makes them a better judge than the project architect?

I imagine that the purpose of a design review board is to improve the design quality of the built environment. It seems that by and large, they are failing in this respect. I am not living in a community filled with outstanding architecture even though we have a design review board. There are some good buildings, some bad but most are probably somewhere in the middle in terms of design quality. I would argue that the design review process does little to improve the quality of architectural design and the good buildings that get built are not good because of the impact of the design review process, but are good in spite of the design review process.

I have spoken of this issue before in regards to the proposed CVS/Chase Bank project in Sebastopol. The originally submitted scheme was an awful, generic prototypical CVS building that you see anywhere across the country. After an initial design review committee meeting the developer was encouraged to hire a local architect to help design a project to fit better in the community. The developer took the advice and hired a local architect who produced a design that, although I did not like the project for a variety of reasons,  was actually quite good.  In my opinion, the first revised design was a far superior piece of architecture but due to the design review board and public input it was degraded after numerous design review meetings.

And this is an important point. Design is incredibly subjective. There is no ‘right’ answer. I think the resulting CVS design is worse than the previous. But others probably like it better. Neither view is necessarily right or wrong because design is so subjective. Give a design problem to 5 different architects and you’ll get 5 different designs. And all could be equally good. Or equally bad, or somewhere in between. Take an architectural design through 5 different design review boards and you will end up with 5 different designs. Some may result in good buildings, some bad. But it is far from a forgone conclusion that the design review process will improve the quality of the original design.

I’ve been working on a project that has been required to go through a design review process recently. In this particular community  the planning commission serves as the design review body. The current planning commission is composed of an urban planner with a landscape architecture background, a brew pub owner, a marketing and public relations consultant, a wine maker and a fifth member who I am not sure of his professional background, but am fairly confident it is not in design. I’m not sure why this group is qualified to to pass judgement on architectural design. Years ago I was in a design review meeting where one of the members suggested adding shutters and window boxes to some of the windows. I’m sure she thought that would be a great solution, but really? Luckily she was talked down from that, but it was scary to think that the board could have asked us to add window boxes and shutters to the project in order to get their vote of approval.

During a break in a recent design review meeting I had a conversation with my client about the design review process and how it doesn’t add any value to the final product or raise the bar for quality architecture. My client asked how I would change it. I answered I think design review boards should generally be done away with. Communities should let architects do what we are trained to do. What other profession has to go through a public process like this to get a project approved? I realize that what we do shapes our common built environment for decades and maybe that’s why design review boards have been implemented. But, as I’m sure we all realize, many not-so-good buildings get approved by design review boards and the overall quality of most of our built environment is rather mediocre.

Granted, there is a wide range of ability in the architecture profession, just like any other profession. And if we just let architects do what they do we will undoubtedly get some bad architecture. But we’ll also get some good architecture, and some architecture in between. But would the built environment be any worse than it is with a design review process? I would argue we might get somewhat better architecture if we allow architects to design freely. An architects vision for a project can get so diluted by the design review process that the final product is a far cry from the original intent. Design by committee is rarely successful, and often results in piecemeal design that responds to the tastes of individual design review board members in order to get their vote of approval, rather than following an original design concept. I also find that it tends to result in more ‘traditional’ architecture. I know that has happened with my recent project. It seems design review boards, and the public in general, are more comfortable with what they are familiar with. In this way the design review process has a tendency to stifle design innovation, preferring the familiar. What is interesting is that much of what we would consider traditional architecture was most certainly built without the blessing of a design review board. Design should be allowed to evolve to respond to modern construction materials and techniques and design trends.

If we are going to have to live with design review boards, and I don’t think by writing this post we will able to get rid of them, I believe they should give wide latitude to design professionals and not allow personal subjective opinions come into play. Why is the opinion of a design review board member any more valuable or ‘right’ than what an architect and client develop together as a vision for a project? Maybe the reality is that a good architect is also a good salesperson and is able to convince any design review board of the quality of his/her design. But I believe that we would actually improve the quality of the built environment if we simply let architects do what they’ve been trained to do which is design buildings that respond to a clients program while taking cost, context, functional, technical, social, environmental, and aesthetic considerations. I am interested to hear the experience of other designers and members of design review boards weigh in on this topic. Is there a value in the design review process?

Comments (5)

  1. Hi Paul, interesting article!

    I cannot argue with the premise that architects are trained professionals and know good design better than some members of some design boards. I’ve have seen designs get worse – or more expensive without improvement – following the process, but I’ve seem more designs changed to better fit into a community. I think that one point you made here is key – planter boxes and shutters in exchange for a vote of approval are clearly a problem. That kind of design review process serves no one and should not be in place. In an ideal design review process, the committee members would engage in a discussion with the architect and make suggestions, not demands. Architects are, after all, creative people who solve problems. But – and it’s a big one – architects also work for their clients, and well, sometimes those clients do NOT have the best community design aesthetic in mind. Just saying.

    I think I remember the planter box meeting . . . .

    Jane RIley, AICP

    1. I agree that sometimes the process does improve a design to better fit with a community. And it does have much to do with the makeup of the design review board members. When they are composed of architects, landscape architects and others in the design profession you can often have a more constructive dialogue. And as an architect, I welcome constructive dialogue with peers and believe it can help design. But too often, the people on the design review board have no design experience, or don’t even really know much about the process and their place in it. Design is obviously very subjective and I feel that there is often a belief that going through a design review process makes it more objective. As an architect, I often feel compelled to incorporate a ‘suggestion’ from a board member so that they feel they’ve been heard. But this doesn’t often improve the design, it just becomes a way to get a project approved. Bottom line for me is that I feel there are many projects that get built that are really poorly designed, and I don’t know that we would be in any worse position if we didn’t have design review boards at all. I would love to know of a community that does not have a design review process to see if it has made any difference. Anyone know of such a place?

  2. It must be frustrating for an architect to have to deal with a design review board if they’ve worked hard to come up with a great design. On the other hand, our country is full of ugly or inappropriate commercial and public buildings. No wonder members of the community (who are forced to look at them every day) want some oversight.

    1. I understand the desire for some oversight. But unfortunately, many of the places that have ugly and inappropriate buildings have a design review board that approved those ugly and inappropriate buildings. So I guess part of my problem with the design review process is that I don’t feel it’s improved the quality of the built environment and it’s just become a hoop to jump through that does not necessarily result in a good design.

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