For nearly an hour the eight people carried on a nonstop discussion in a conference room lined with home site maps. Talk had touched on everything from the pitch of the roof to meatball-shaped shrubs, the precise width of shutters and puddled water at the base of the berm.
At one point, Alexander "Sandy" Stuart, president of the posh Lake Forest, Ill., development called Conway Farms, turned to Maria St. Ville and solemnly said, "The interior of your home can be a swimming pool, a giant lap pool, if you wish. It's the exterior we're concerned about."
Stuart was directing a meeting of his far north suburban development's architectural review board, a committee of architects, a landscape designer and representatives of the City of Lake Forest as well as Conway Farms. This rather august group gathers monthly to approve, modify or reject the plans for proposed homes that owners of lots--costing from a quarter-million to a half-million dollars--hope to build at Conway Farms.
Such review boards exist throughout the country in both upscale and more mainstream housing developments that want to maintain a particular look or aura in the residences as well as landscaping and streetscape.
St. Ville and husband Edward, a radiologist, own a lot at Conway. She was at that board meeting with the architect who designed the house of their dreams, Karl Strassburger of McLean Strassburger & Associates of Northfield, Ill.
This was the second time that the pair had been in session with the board and there'd be a third time before their plans "sailed through with full approval."
Though some buyers in developments with such boards talk about the agonies of going through a half-dozen or more meetings, things moved along briskly at this Conway session. No raised voices, ruffled feathers or serious objections.
Suggested changes, for example, were often prefaced with "this is minor, but. . . ."
Nonetheless, the mention of architectural review boards can make some people wince. Such committees have picked up an unseemly reputation for strangling an architect's creativity or stunting a builder's growth potential, for depriving homeowners of their inalienable rights, for discouraging diversity and, most damning, for delaying a home's progress and adding thousands of dollars in extra costs.
"Taste commandos," scoffs a builder's spokesperson.
"At the outset, such boards probably seem to benefit no one in particular," said Tracy Cross, a real estate consultant and analyst in Schaumburg, Ill.
"It's one of those things where beauty is in the eye of the beholder," he said, but the only beholders are people on the board.
As time goes on, Cross claims, "It's the board that upholds the integrity of the community." That means it keeps the community the way the developer, as well as the homeowners who've gone through the same process, want it to look.
Architectural review boards are most often found in large development funded by a developer who creates a master plan, installs the infrastructure and perhaps recreational facilities, then sells lots to builders or individuals.
Such developments are far different from communities or subdivisions operated by builders who purchase tracts of land, build the infrastructure and also design and sell the homes.
The home buyers' input includes choosing location, the style of the home and upgrades versus standard amenities.
In both types of developments, the builder and developer first go through the procedures of dealing with the municipalities that govern their proposed sites. All housing, be it an individual single-family home, a high-rise or a 1,000-unit development, must follow the zoning regulations, ordinances and just plain rules of the town or city in which it is built.
Those rules could involve density, parking, height, relation of size of home to lot and much more.
And then there are the homeowners associations, which have their own sets of commandments that might range from hiring maintenance firms to banning flamingos in the front yard or determining swimming pool hours.
The "covenants, conditions and restrictions" for the homeowners association of Thornwood in South Elgin, Ill., is loaded with definitions and details from budgets to insurance to life's little traumas: A no-go to clotheslines, "discharge of firearms," above-ground pools or window air conditioners. But a basketball hoop is okay with written approval; so are two pets.
Architectural boards are another matter. They may differ in how they operate, but their most significant common denominator is that they--not the owner, architect or builder--make the final decisions about the exterior design and appearance of the homes.
It's the developer that has "the vision" or "the concept" for the look and, yes, price ranges of lots and homes that will define their communities or developments--never are they called "projects."
From their viewpoint, everything they do benefits the homeowners.
"We've reviewed 130 homes," Conway's Stuart said. "The people who go through it have become the board's most ardent defenders."
"Having standards assures homeowners that the next home will be as desirable as theirs," said Marvin Bailey, senior vice president of Crown Community Development of Aurora.
The firm's Thornwood community in South Elgin has guidelines for its proposed nine neighborhoods that expect to have 1,030 single-family homes and 300 town houses; 21 builders, thus far, will build houses from $215,000 to $1 million.
"With multiple builders often side by side, standards are even more important," Bailey said. "Typically, they preserve value and owners resonate with that. When they're building a custom or semi-custom home, owners don't want an exact duplicate across the street."
Developers and architects often loathe what some builders and homeowners love and want: trendy homes in the colors of the moment, be they teal or coral; and Palladian windows, a curved-at-the-top style that is out of proportion or elongated.
Generally, trendy windows are strongly discouraged, as are shutters that are smaller or larger than the width of the windows; homes going up on corner lots or the first home in a development's new phase get top priority with review boards who scrutinize the plans relentlessly. (The first homes that a visitor sees must leave good impressions.)
Conway Farms' elaborately detailed architecture and landscape guidelines include all the heavy-duty stuff dealing with heights and sites, plus an array of no-nos: No flat roofs, concrete driveways, metal or plastic awnings, flood lights, single-car garages.
The easiest way for the consumer to deal with such boards, developers said, is to go with an architect or builder who's worked in the community of their choice.
Maria St. Ville, for example, totally credits the "smoothness" of the entire review procedure to architect Strassburger.
"He is talented," St. Ville said. Far more than that, "He was able to both interpret and incorporate our taste with his design."
It helps that Strassburger was one of the first three or four architects approved to build at Conway and has since completed about 15 homes there. The Conway team said Strassburger knows pretty well "what will fly," and his design for the St. Villes was lauded from the beginning because it would fit so well with "the Conway and Lake Forest tradition."
Strassburger said, "visualizing a house is one of the key stumbling blocks in building a house," and one of the prime rules for getting through it all is "to be realistic about budget numbers to start with. The key is communicating about everything--down to the look and cost of the doorstops." He adds, "That calls for a lot of hand holding."
Builders often get more flak than architects for being uncooperative or wanting to build "only what they know will sell," some developers said, but not for attribution.
But the senior vice president of the Home Builders Association of Greater Chicago, David Craft, said builders are in favor of review committees "because such communities have a better look and feel. The fabric and texture of a community is what you see when you drive down a street."
Craft, president of United Homes, said the only problems arise when "an ordinance or a guideline is not clear."
Though Miniscalco said Fox Mill has had an "incredible retention rate for builders," he and others involved with architectural reviews acknowledge that they've lost builders as well as lot owners because their ideas didn't harmonize.
Thornwood's Bailey said sometimes a potential homeowner walks away because he or she may be determined to have a trendy home.
"Right now, five or six gables are the symbol of a new home," but, they're not for Thornwood, he indicates. "If a developer's principles are at risk, we have to be honest and say no."
But, what if a buyer comes up with a classic, say an authentic log cabin design, or submitted a Frank Gehry-designed home based on his Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain? Could--or would--an architectural review board dare say, "Sorry, no go"?
"Our intent is not to say no to any style if done appropriately," Fox Mill's Miniscalco said. "But no one's approached us with plans for a log cabin."
Thornwood's Bailey said, "Our communities are not for everyone. Individualists who want to do whatever they want to do won't be happy living anywhere that a builder or developer says, 'This is our vision.' "