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One of the best parts of my career in Architecture is designing and getting homes built in many different places. Many places I am lucky enough to design homes have an organization that enforces the rules or the covenants of the neighborhood. Sometimes it is a brand-new privately-owned development, sometimes a small town, and sometimes even a National Historic District. They all have their own rules and their own take on what is important. Some of these “Review Boards” are very rigorous and some are just checking the boxes. As you might expect, there are boards that improve the projects and are a healthy process and others that are… well, not so much that.

This is not complaining or venting.

I do appreciate that the folks that make up these boards feel as if they are protecting and serving their communities. I believe that they care and are doing what they believe to be serving. Their intentions are solid. I love that part. None of this is what makes new clients fear or dislike the review board process. This is not the ARB, DRB, ARC, or POA reputation that people lose sleep over when thinking about their new dream house.

They all have their own rules and their own take on what is important.

So, what’s the “Rub”?

Conflict with homeowners and builders I work with occurs when something that is wanted and proposed is not allowed. Nobody likes hearing “No”. My role, as the Architect submitting the project, is to serve as a translator and/or as a on the spot problem solver. Sometimes this is easy. Obvious problem – obvious solution. As the Architect, experience and being able to compartmentalize feelings that you may have is important. My goal in these interactions is not to always be right, but rather to get the client/homeowner what they want in the end as well as creating good Architecture. It has been rare that a review, comment or a rule being enforced will elicit anger or hurt feelings from me, but every once in a while, these things do sting later.

That’s the life of an Architect I suppose. I have seen the opposite. Interactions become heated, not very nice things are said; all walk away unhappy typically. This is a “worst case scenario” in my mind. My clear goal going into one of these meetings, in person, on phone, or now a Zoom meeting is to leave with an approval. (Yes, you must recognize the goal of any meeting before it starts). If we win today, we can move to the next submittal. The goal of getting your clients dream approved and built. I do actively enter with the readiness and openness to receive criticism. When good criticism it strengthens the project. This is not to say I am ready to give in all the time. I do have some tools to use.

 

Nobody likes hearing “No”. My role, as the Architect submitting the project, is to serve as a translator and/or as a on the spot problem solver.

Bad comment? Now what?

My “go to” when a suggestion or a comment is made (that I know takes something away the owner wants or is architecturally wrong) is simple. I react in a way that lets the board know I am hearing their concern. Once I take the couple of seconds to understand the issue, I will try to “teach”. I will address the comment and explain the principles behind the why, and even explain what the intent of the rule is the board member is worried about. Typically, my reasoning is not pointed or abrasive but rather is trying to educate. I approach this as being helpful, taking the side of the member or the board as a whole. This approach is successful a lot of the time. When doing this you must walk a fine line. Nobody likes to be talked down to or to be made to look like they don’t know what they are talking about. Many of these board members are volunteers and usually future neighbors of the client.

What if it’s a fair fight?

Not all boards are “civilians.” Some places have a board made up of, or at least partially made up of, design professionals. Architects, Landscape Architects, Arborists, Engineers, Historical Preservationists, etc. Most of the time this is a better informed and more knowledgeable group. They still have the same goals but take a more informed approach. The best and most rigorous design boards are built like this. The input received is less personal worry and more open ended. A good review professional will point out the issue but let you, as the Architect, solve it. This way of enforcing the rules comes with a dose of “I get it” and understanding what the design goals are. Now, further along in my career, I will still try to teach if I see the opening!

 

How do you know?

I am not a “know- it-all”. I don’t feel that I have anything ever fully “licked.” I learn every year I get older. What I have shared here is what understanding I have today. It has taken me over 20 years of bumping into these things and seeing many wins and fails to get to this point. I currently am the Architect consultant for 5 private developments, 1 small town, and of course any developer, builder, homeowner, or entity that I work with at Allison Ramsey Architects in my day-to-day life. In the past I have served on County and City review boards and even a city Planning Commission. Oh yeah, I have dished it out, but I have received it back hundreds of times as well.

The Review Boards that I am the fondest of and the ones that understand the “why” and “how” of their charge are the ones I see in the end as “Great Places.” These boards are the ones I feel make projects better, following their goals for their community.  The process works if envisioned, regulated, and administrated correctly. When I get the opportunity to work in one of these places, I jump at it.

A few places that I remember being informative, thought provoking, and a general positive influence on a design are:

  • Habersham, Beaufort SC
  • East Beach, Norfolk VA
  • Crane Island, FL
  • Palmetto Bluff, Bluffton SC
  • Wheeler, OK
  • Port Royal, SC
  • Brays Island, Sheldon SC
  • Old Fernandina, FL

Your input, ideas and additional topics are always welcome, it does not hurt my feelings if you have feedback. I love to hear. It makes me a better designer and a better Architect. Maybe even a better person!
Thanks for reading,
Bill Harris
Allison Ramsey Architects, Inc.
[email protected]

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