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?