Planning and Zoning Departments make my face hurt

Bob Borson —  September 15, 2011 — 30 Comments

Planning and Zoning Departments make my face hurt. Maybe not as bad as the original “this make my face hurt” and the infamous “this really make my face hurt” … but my face still hurt.

P and Z Material Takeoffs

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Do you know what this piece of paper represents? (other than a wasted afternoon of my life) This is my note page as I calculated the percentages of masonry versus stucco on a house we are designing. The city where this project is going has a requirement that (and this is verbatim):

At least 80 percent of the exterior walls of the first floor of all structures shall be of masonry construction (see section 12-42-1) exclusive of doors, windows, and the area above the top plate line. Each story above the first level of a straight wall structure shall be at least 80 percent masonry exclusive of doors, windows and the area above the top plate line.

We see this sort of thing more and more often these days; quasi-judicial city departments deciding what it takes to define a quality building (which is apparently 80% masonry).  I can’t begin to tell you how maddening this is to me. Planning and Zoning departments are not supposed to control material selections … they are supposed to control what sort of building type can go where and its physical relationship to surrounding properties (i.e. -setbacks, maximum height, area regulations such as minimum lot size and maximum building footprint, etc.).

Since when did they get to start regulating what materials I can use? The real kick in the ass is that stucco is generally defined as a masonry product because it is made with a mixture of sand, Portland cement, lime and water … all that’s missing is the aggregate and you would have concrete (which was considered masonry last time I checked). The masonry stucco we use on our projects is 3/4″ thick and is applied in 3 layers (scratch coat, brown coat and then the finish top coat). Many people confuse stucco with EIFS, which stands for Exterior Insulating Finish System, which is typically a elastomeric (flexible) coating on top of a board of insulation. Stucco and EIFS are not the same thing by any stretch of the imagination.

But wait … it gets better. For some unfathomable reason, this particular planning and zoning department wasn’t content to just mandate that 80% of the buildings had to be masonry … no, they had to break it up by floor levels. Let’s say that I have found my peace with city employees being put in the position to decide whether or not my material selections make for an attractive building. What possible sense does it make to break it up by floor level? Based on the typical crappy builder homes I see, why not break it up by elevation so you don’t have all your masonry on the front and part of the sides, only to have the rear elevation be vinyl siding? It seems to me that if they wanted to control the impression of good design, why not require that all four sides of the house  the same masonry percentage? And in their definition, the area above the top plate doesn’t count – that means the large gable ends of a house don’t count. What?!

Because you can’t see the rear elevation from the street, the planning and zoning departments don’t care what it looks like as much as the front – I know most spec home builders don’t. This isn’t about creating good design, this is about the illusion of what someone thinks would make good design. In the case of my current project, we met the an overall material percentage of 80% masonry and 20% stucco but we don’t meet that requirement when you calculate the material by floor level. So now we have to apply for a Special Use Permit and go before the Board of Adjustment so we can convince a group of people that the stucco we are using will not make this house look cheap and that we aren’t trying to get away with using a less expensive product to build.

Despite my ranting and raving here I knew this was coming and this unfortunately has become a familiar process to us. I’m not actually mad at the individual people who work at the planning and zoning department – they didn’t make the rule, they just enforce the rule. So why do we keep designing with a material like stucco when we know that were are opening ourselves up to scrutiny and possible rejection? Because we know how good a product real masonry stucco is and so do our clients. We also design a lot of modern homes and stucco is a product that lends itself quite nicely to these types of projects.

Partial Front Elevation Rendering

 

Cheers

Bob AIA signature

even better

  • http://www.swaindetailanddesign.com/ Cheryl

    It’s the Disneyfication of contemporary architecture. Sadly, this is what our generation will be known for….(and I love Disney!)

  • http://www.facebook.com/gtidwell Greg Tidwell

    This seems to be an extraneously stringent regulation for a city planning department. Most times I’ve encountered such regulations, they are imposed by private developments such as shopping center HOAs, PUDs, etc.
    I’ve seen the “no EIFS” and “no stucco” regulations imposed below a specified facade height in most cases as a maintenance issue more than an aesthetic issue.

  • ericd1112

    How many architects hold elective office in your community? I’m guessing it’s zero. This is inflicted upon architects because culturally we’ve decided that architects don’t do messy things like run for office. That of course never stops the lawyers, MBAs, doctors, plumbers and all manner of wannabe architects from running. I’ve held elective office for 8 years and I’m running for a different one in next Tuesday’s election. I can tell you 100% that people respond more positively to my candidacy when I tell them I’m an architect. Zoning boards are appointed or elected – either way their power comes from elections. Run. Tell your friends to do so. Or get yourself or someone you trust appointed to the board(s). Otherwise, quit whining. Power is never given. It is always and only taken. You are being abuse by power in the hands of people who may mean well but who do not understand – or by developers who respond only to idiotic concepts like “curb appeal” and “what the market wants.” Grow up and get in there.

    • taveuni13

      Right on the money. You have to get at least some kind of an education, training , and obtain a license to cut hair in nearly every state, but in all but, last I checked, two, there are no educational, experience, or licensing requirements of any kind to design residential structures up to a fourplex. And then we wonder why the public gets sick of the schlock that is constantly thrown up and then tries to do this kind of cart-in-front-of-the-horse regulation of aesthetics. Good aesthetics, not to mention functionality, need to be considered part of public welfare. This is never going to happen on a large scale when left predominantly to amateurs.

    • Forrealz

      More like anyone who isn’t a power hungry idiot stays away from politics. That game is for sheep, and wannabe sharks with a chip on their shoulder. This stuff is constant and non-stop, I can’t stand it.

      • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

        no name calling. resubmit your comment, this one will be deleted shortly

  • http://campusmartiuschronicle.blogspot.com/ Sean Anthony

    My first reaction to this was that it shows the overshoots of zoning boards.  However, I am not sure that mandating sight lines and road facing facades is so bad, as it can bring cohesion to a city or place.  Unfortunately, these rules should maybe be guidelines, used as an evaluation tool, not stringent rules used for “pass, fail” style evaluations.

    I certainly agree with the notion of the above comments concerning the misconception of “planning boards”.

    • Forrealz

      You’re a moron.

  • Brinn Miracle

    You’ve hit on the general feeling I have towards the regulation of aesthetics. I’ve been planning to do a post on preservation (and why I’m not for it), for many of the reasons you’ve put forward here. While I can respect the intent of most regulations, it is rare that those who enforce them fully understand the intent. That lack of understanding often leads to blanket enforcement, in a field where no two buildings should be the same (at least, that’s what we were taught in school, right?). My feeling is that I don’t want anyone to decide what the definition of beauty is and force me to live within that definition if they aren’t paying for it, or living in it. Thanks for addressing the issue!

  • shtrum

    Have presented before several historic area commissions, and i’ll admit a grudging respect.  Commission members aren’t paid, actually visit and document sites, and put in a considerable amount of time outside the public meeting every 4th Tuesday (where they’re sometimes stuck until midnight).  And while they may nitpick about the color of your fiberglass shingles, their true value is keeping your neighbor from tacking a bathroom addition (wrapped in robins egg blue vinyl with a tar paper roof) to the side of his Queen Anne revival.  Often dreamed up by a brother-in-law of dubious talents.

    New developments, however, are another matter.  And i agree completely about signage;  around these parts, signage is not only determined by location, use group, size of building and type of sign, but also by speed limit and whether the fronting street is considered a street, road, expressway, state route, etc..

    • Forrealz

      You’re a moron. Stop trying to control other people’s lives. These people spend their lives taking joy in shutting down other people’s happiness. Do some research, planning and zoning employees are cunts.

  • Rob

    I don’t envy the part of your job dealing with planning and zoning. You have my sympathy. I’ve had my bouts with several cities regarding signage which will age you over night. All of this over-the-top regulations is why I think architecture in general is far more interesting outside of this country. You’ll be in heaven in London.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      I’m looking forward to it that’s for sure.

      (and signage issues with any city are the worst!)

  • Rob

    I don’t envy the part of your job dealing with planning and zoning. You have my sympathy. I’ve had my bouts with several cities regarding signage which will age you over night. All of this over-the-top regulations is why I think architecture in general is far more interesting outside of this country. You’ll be in heaven in London.

  • Anonymous

    That’s what happens when we try to legislate aesthetics.
     
    And did the guys who wrote these laws ever bother to look at the built environment before the advent of zoning laws?
     
    If I brought a space alein down here and showed him downtown Annapolis and then West Street towards Parole for one example or Old town Alexandria, Virginia and then the Route 1 corridor in Alexandria south of the Beltway as another and asked him to tell me which ones were built before the advent zoning laws and which ones where built after their creation, I’d bet Mr. Spaceman would get it exactly backwards.
     
    You likely know nothing of the places mentioned above but I’m sure similiar contrasts abound in Dallas.
     
    And I love it how some of the people who work for the planning department are called “planners”, implying some sort of creative activity going on. In reality they’re clerks making sure the exibits are 24″X36″ with accompanying JPEGS less than 1M in size or whatever and all reports are submitted in triplicate before the deadline. And these are the guys writing these laws!

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Ha! Unfortunately, you have defined that role pretty well although I am sure the people who took on these planning positions never intended for their roles to be reduced to such capacity.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Ha! Unfortunately, you have defined that role pretty well although I am sure the people who took on these planning positions never intended for their roles to be reduced to such capacity.

  • Anonymous

    That’s what happens when we try to legislate aesthetics.
     
    And did the guys who wrote these laws ever bother to look at the built environment before the advent of zoning laws?
     
    If I brought a space alein down here and showed him downtown Annapolis and then West Street towards Parole for one example or Old town Alexandria, Virginia and then the Route 1 corridor in Alexandria south of the Beltway as another and asked him to tell me which ones were built before the advent zoning laws and which ones where built after their creation, I’d bet Mr. Spaceman would get it exactly backwards.
     
    You likely know nothing of the places mentioned above but I’m sure similiar contrasts abound in Dallas.
     
    And I love it how some of the people who work for the planning department are called “planners”, implying some sort of creative activity going on. In reality they’re clerks making sure the exibits are 24″X36″ with accompanying JPEGS less than 1M in size or whatever and all reports are submitted in triplicate before the deadline. And these are the guys writing these laws!

  • Anonymous

    That’s what happens when we try to legislate aesthetics.
     
    And did the guys who wrote these laws ever bother to look at the built environment before the advent of zoning laws?
     
    If I brought a space alein down here and showed him downtown Annapolis and then West Street towards Parole for one example or Old town Alexandria, Virginia and then the Route 1 corridor in Alexandria south of the Beltway as another and asked him to tell me which ones were built before the advent zoning laws and which ones where built after their creation, I’d bet Mr. Spaceman would get it exactly backwards.
     
    You likely know nothing of the places mentioned above but I’m sure similiar contrasts abound in Dallas.
     
    And I love it how some of the people who work for the planning department are called “planners”, implying some sort of creative activity going on. In reality they’re clerks making sure the exibits are 24″X36″ with accompanying JPEGS less than 1M in size or whatever and all reports are submitted in triplicate before the deadline. And these are the guys writing these laws!

  • http://twitter.com/RLTarch Richard Taylor, AIA

    Hey Bob – nice spreadsheet there, what program is that?  At first glance it looks somewhat more intuitive than Excel.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Ha – I like Excel as much as the next nerd but I wrote these numbers down as I did the area calc’s. I was too busy thinking about writing this post to transfer the information to a real spread sheet!

      Cheers

  • Chris

    ….protecting the health, safety and welfare of the public,…. coming soon to a municipality near you,…. material coverage regulations!!  Absolutely ridiculous.  God forbid your client owned a metal panel fabrication company and wanted to use the product that his/her company produced.  Certainly the public is going to care enough to remove or object to ordinances and regulations similar to this.  Not.

    • Jay Castle

      That is what I keep coming back to, health, safety, and welfare…when is the someone going to mount an offensive (and win!) based upon these three principles. I can’t imagine the distribution of stucco falls under any of the three.

  • http://twitter.com/Splintergirl Amy Good

    So, wait…does that mean that each floor could look zebra-ed?  Maybe I need more coffee.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      no – but it would probably be allowed as long as the calculations and figures met the 80/20 requirement. 

  • http://twitter.com/TALV58 Todd Vendituoli

    I think its just different degrees of the same everywhere today. I had to go to a planning board meeting last night and the items that they were discussing… I really don’t know. I whispered to the people I was with that it probably won’t be long and we’ll need to get a special permit if you actually want to drive on your driveway.

  • Neal P

    This is a problem that Cities try to solve that is created by all of the crap that is build when an architect isn’t involved. It’s reactionary planning, which is never good. A strong design review committee or planning commission that has a good planning and design guidelines to enforce can help this situation. Unfortunately, these guidelines rarely exist or are FUBAR as those you are dealing with. Good luck!

  • Neal P

    This is a problem that Cities try to solve that is created by all of the crap that is build when an architect isn’t involved. It’s reactionary planning, which is never good. A strong design review committee or planning commission that has a good planning and design guidelines to enforce can help this situation. Unfortunately, these guidelines rarely exist or are FUBAR as those you are dealing with. Good luck!

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      you are absolutely correct about it being reactionary planning. It has been my experience that the intent of these rules is to exclude certain possibilities. I was told by the super nice planner I met with that this particular city’s forefathers wrote this requirement into the zoning because they thought it would restrict anybody from building in the modern vernacular. They wanted more traditional homes and felt this was the way to do it.

      • http://campusmartiuschronicle.blogspot.com/ Sean Anthony

        My first reaction to this was that it shows the overshoots of zoning boards.  However, I am not sure that mandating sight lines and road facing facades is so bad, as it can bring cohesion to a city or place.  Unfortunately, these rules should maybe be guidelines, used as an evaluation tool, not stringent rules used for “pass, fail” style evaluations.

        I certainly agree with the notion of the above comments concerning the misconception of “planning boards”.