Archive for December, 2013

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?

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As discussed previously, the Sebastopol Charter School (SCS) is in contract to purchase a 20 acre property at the northern edge of Sebastopol to develop a new campus. The move will relocate the children which are currently located on 2 campuses in town. Grades K-2 are located in modular classroom buildings adjacent to Brook Haven School. Grades 3-8 are located in a mixed-use building downtown on Main Street. As mentioned in the previous post, the current campus locations allow for a larger number of students to walk and bike than the proposed campus location. In addition to being a drive-to location, the development of the new school is a waste of resources in a town with excess classroom capacity.

The number of school aged children has been dropping in Sebastopol for years and the demographic signs indicate that trend will continue. In the 1995-96 school year, there were 1,400 students enrolled in K-8 programs in the Sebastopol school district. (1995 was also, coincidentally, the first year the Sebastopol Charter School opened its doors, starting with one kindergarten class.) Those 1,400 students were housed in 3 campuses, Park Side, Pine Crest and Brook Haven. In the 2012-13 school year the Sebastopol school district had 1,018 students, which includes 275 students enrolled at the Sebastopol Charter School and 132 students enrolled in the REACH Charter School both of which are chartered in the Sebastopol Union School District (SUSD). SUSD is projecting a further drop of almost 100 students by the 2015-16 school year.

Circles indicate a half mile radius centered on existing school campuses. Yellow indicates Sebastopol School District campuses, blue indicates Sebastopol Charter School  campuses and purple indicates Sun Ridge/Reach campus

Circles indicate a half mile radius centered on existing school campuses. Yellow indicates Sebastopol School District campuses, blue indicates Sebastopol Charter School campuses and purple indicates Sun Ridge/Reach campus. Dashed line indicates Sebastopol city limits.

It seems safe to assume that if there were once 1,400 students in the district, there must be desk space for 1,400 in the 3 schools in existence at that time. Since then, the SCS has developed its own two campuses which added approximately 275 desks. So there should currently be space for at least 1,675 students in a school district of 1,018 students.

Faced with the declining enrollment, SUSD decided to close a school campus beginning in the 2011-12 academic year. The SCS attempted to negotiate a lease to move into the vacated Pine Crest School, but could not come to terms with the district. (The sticking point was primarily over the length of the lease with the SCS wanting a longer lease period than the SUSD was willing to provide. The SCS was also pushing the district to sell the campus outright, which the district was not interested in pursuing.) The Pine Crest campus is currently leased to the REACH Charter School and Sun Ridge School, which is a charter school from a neighboring school district. Even adding the students enrolled in Sun Ridge school (252 in the 2012-13 school year), there should still be more than 400 empty desks in the school district. And while it has been dismissed for the time being, SUSD has considered the possibility of closing an additional campus, which would create even more vacant classrooms. So why is the SCS proposing to build another school, with a capacity of 275 students in a school district with more than 400 desks available in existing school facilities? And in a location that is less walkable/bikeable than existing school campus locations.

Again, circles represent a half-mile radius centered on school campuses. The red circle is centered on the location of the proposed Sebastopol Charter School campus. Note how few homes are located within a half mile of the site.

Again, circles represent a half-mile radius centered on school campuses. The red circle is centered on the location of the proposed Sebastopol Charter School campus. Note how few homes are located within a half mile of the site.

The biggest explanation is the desire of the SCS school board to have all the students in one location. While this may have been the original vision of the school, it does not take into consideration a world of dwindling resources, and one in which we are realizing the global environmental impact of auto-oriented development. Visions need to adapt to their times rather than be fixed and inflexible. By remaining steadfast to this vision without considering new realities, the school is about to embark on the development of a new campus that will contribute to current environmental problems, rather than working to solve them. The school should look to take advantage of the fact that there are vacant classrooms in our community, even if this means the continuation of a split campus. There are worse things.

Another reason is the desire by some in the school leadership for a more rural and pastoral campus. The school was founded as a public alternative to private Waldorf education. There is a nearby private Waldorf school, Summerfield, that is located in a rural setting of 30+ acres and includes grades K-12. I believe some people still see this as being an ideal type of campus for the Waldorf curriculum which often includes a biodynamic farm component. While it may be a nice addition, there are many Waldorf schools that do not include a biodynamic farm. I do not believe my daughter’s education, physical, emotional or spiritual development has been limited by not having access to a biodynamic farm as part of her education.

A third reason I could see why the school wants to move would be to have more space. While I acknowledge space is tight at the current downtown campus there are options. I have developed several schematic plans to expand the downtown campus which will be included in a future post. And again, facing our new reality, we could all learn to adjust to living with less space, which the school has done quite successfully to this point. Again, I do not believe my own daughter has suffered from being on a school campus with a limited amount of space. In many ways I think there is much to learn from being in tighter quarters, like having respect for the space of those around you and learning to share.

Other than the attempt to lease Pine Crest, there has not, to my knowledge, been any discussion with the SUSD in regards to other alternatives. There was a discussion in a SCS school facilities committee meeting in the summer of 2013 about starting a dialogue with the SUSD, and the other 2 charter schools in town, to discuss alternatives for accommodating all of the students in the district. As I’ve already discussed, there must be vacant classrooms in the district so it seems that if we were to open an honest conversation with the district, and the other 2 schools, we may be able to discover a win-win situation for all involved. Rather than each of us pursuing our facilities needs without stepping back and looking at the larger picture. But soon after that facilities meeting the SCS school board decided to move forward with the purchase of the out of town property.

The new property is 20 acres located outside the northern boundary of town. Although it is located on a bike path which skirts the northern boundary of Sebastopol, it’s not in a very walkable bikeable location. Looking again at the image, you can see that the new location will be out of reach for many of the families that live in Sebastopol. This is not a good move for the school, or the larger community which will have the impact of increased traffic from parents driving children to school, and then having to drive into town to run errands, go to work, etc.

Again, circles represent a half-mile radius centered on school campuses. The red circle is centered on the location of the proposed Sebastopol Charter School campus. Note how few homes are located within a half mile of the site.

Again, circles represent a half-mile radius centered on school campuses. The red circle is centered on the location of the proposed Sebastopol Charter School campus. Note how few homes are located within a half mile of the site.

The SCS school board owes it to the school families to thoroughly evaluate all alternatives before embarking on an expensive, and expansive, new school campus project. I know there was a great deal of frustration in the dealing with the SUSD over the lease for Pine Crest and I believe this is one reason the school board did not open the dialogue again. But it is a waste of resources to build another school in Sebastopol at this time. And the auto-oriented location will have implications for our community for decades to come. As can be seen in these images, the current school locations are evenly distributed around town and are more walkable and bikeable. The schools are distributed really well right now. We should be taking advantage of the existing capacity of the in-town schools, not building more schools where few will have the ability to walk/bike to them.

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