What's the Best Way to Address 'Supersized Homes'? (Hint: It's Not Through Zoning)

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, August 20, 2005

Big houses are here, and that makes plenty of people unhappy.

For instance, Chevy Chase is struggling with what a Washington Post editorial called "supersized homes." The editorial suggested that "jurisdictions grappling with so-called McMansionization should be able to come to grips with the issue through a sensible mix of height, lot coverage and setback standards."

Regrettably, enacting height, lot coverage and setback standards -- zoning rules that govern site use and building size -- has never been an effective architectural or urban design tool. Creating beautiful environments depends on more than dimensional limits. Look at America's cities and suburbs to see what zoning alone has accomplished, or not accomplished.

In fact, under current zoning, "supersized" houses are perfectly legal. They often appear in established neighborhoods on lots where smaller, older houses have been torn down. Much larger and more expensive than homes lining the street they share, big new houses can hurt the collective scale, visual texture and historic character of a neighborhood. This is why many neighborhoods seek to control or even eliminate them.

But tinkering with conventional zoning can never adequately address basic aesthetic attributes that transcend building size. Many other design characteristics affect how a building is perceived and relates to its context: massing and volumetric articulation; roof geometry and roofing materials; facade composition and fenestration patterns; facade materials, details and ornamentation; and landscaping patterns, forms and materials.

A talented architect can fashion a house that is significantly bigger than neighboring houses yet is attractive and harmonious. Conversely, an inept designer could come up with a house that is similar or even smaller in size than neighboring houses yet looks out of place and unattractive.

For these reasons, jurisdictions must go beyond conventional zoning that does little more than regulate height, bulk and yard sizes. For neighborhoods warranting aesthetic stewardship, appropriate design goals and enforceable design guidelines are needed, coupled with a well-managed design review process.

The Post editorial hinted at this approach when it referred to Montgomery County's land-use authority and prevailing zoning restrictions, then stated that "a case can be made for extending those powers where possible to smaller-scale elected bodies" and local communities.

If used properly in advance of issuing building permits, design review is a responsible and fair way to accomplish what local citizens and even some developers want. It transcends zoning with explicit design objectives, provides flexibility to meet those objectives and encourages fruitful discussion. It also recognizes the necessity of informed, case-by-case value judgments, despite specific design criteria.

Design review can't change the talent of an architect, the strong sentiments of a home buyer or the profit motives of a developer, but it can foster higher aesthetic aspirations. Constructive criticism during design can help turn mediocre projects into good ones, and good projects into better ones, while filtering out really bad ideas and ugly architecture.

Nevertheless, a design review process won't succeed unless a number of conditions are satisfied.

There must be clearly expressed design guidelines drafted carefully with both community and professional input. Guidelines are best understood and most useful when they are graphic and illustrate design objectives and limitations through diagrams or visual depictions of specific principles and concepts.

Design reviewers must be qualified and competent to interpret proposals and make judgments regarding both design guideline conformance and design quality. Usually jurisdictions appoint design review boards or committees made up of local citizens, public officials and design professionals, but the nature of those appointments is crucial.

If reviewers lack objectivity, bring personal agendas or have inadequate design experience, the process can be counterproductive. Review bodies must include at least a couple of recognized design practitioners -- architects and landscape architects -- who are respected by the community and who have no financial or professional stake in the outcome of the review.

Finally, design review procedures must ensure that the review process is transparent and timely. Meetings should be open to the public and scheduled during early phases of design, when conceptual alternatives are being formulated and refined.

Conducting the first design review meeting just before applying for a building permit, well after a design has been finalized and all construction documents produced, is useless and potentially very costly in time and money. Because this precludes constructive criticism and dialogue between designer and design reviewers, it would be unfair to both neighbors and developers.

Design review makes sense to me in part because of my own positive experiences with the process. Design reviews in which I have participated, although never flawless, generally have worked. The aesthetic aspirations of developers and their architects always have risen, as has the quality of buildings.

To gain time to explore ways to curtail construction of supersized homes, Chevy Chase has adopted an ordinance imposing a six-month building permit moratorium on new house construction and house demolition. Implementing a design review process should be one of the ways explored.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company