Forum Journal & Forum Focus

Design Guidelines: A Preservation Perennial 

12-09-2015 17:35

Design guidelines are a perennial of preservation. I hear the same debate today regarding the pros and cons of guidelines-- and almost verbatim--that I heard in the 1970s when I first became interested in the public design-review process. Even proponents of design guidelines have differing opinions as to how, by whom, and for what purpose they should be written. A few random quotes illustrate my point:

"I favor guidelines, but they should be written by an enlightened despot, someone with taste and the ability to make them workable."

"There is more uniformity in what is done in a district without guidelines because developers and architects see what has been accepted by the board so everyone copies that. With guidelines, you can suggest different shapes, lettering, details, etc."

"Guidelines should stress compatibility criteria."

"The examples of incompatibility are more easily described than those that are compatible."

"You can`t write guidelines without talking about details.

"The board should make decisions according to principles and not details."

"You have guidelines, procedures, etc., but what you are really dealing with is people and all those things change with people."

Although I could argue both for and against design guidelines, on a practical level I believe that a historic district or, for that matter, any design district, needs a set of design guidelines in order to be properly administered. Guidelines provide a common vocabulary and a set of standards for all of the participants in the review process. They offer guidance and direction to applicants who are designing projects and to reviewing bodies who are evaluating projects.

Today, there seem to be as many communities revising guidelines as are writing guidelines for the first time, which means that it is always worth reviewing basic questions and considerations regarding their purpose, format, and content (only a few of which can be discussed here). Additionally, preservation is at a pivotal point in terms of broader planning and zoning issues, which means that this is an opportune time to move beyond the standard discussions and arguments about design guidelines and to assess what has and has not worked and why.


The Basic Questions
Whether you are writing or rewriting design guidelines, you need to ask and answer the following questions:

Why do we have a historic district? What is it we are preserving and why? Why do we need design guidelines? What will be their purpose?

It is hoped that the answers to these questions can be based on documentation produced and information gathered when the historic district was designated, including an inventory of the buildings in the district, an identification and analysis of its cultural and visual significance, and a plan that outlines both the goals and the recommendations for the preservation and development of the district and places it within the context of the community as a whole. In all probability, some supplementary material will be required when writing the design guidelines, but the philosophical rationale for designation of the district should be in place.

Design guidelines are support material for administering a district. If a community, a neighborhood, or a preservation commission does not know what it is preserving and why, then the resulting design guidelines will only reflect and add to that confusion. So, if you have not assembled this material and have not asked these questions, you need to back up and take these steps before starting on your guidelines. And if you did these things some time ago, you probably need to ask these questions once again: Who will be using the guidelines--and who do we want to use the guidelines?

In most instances, nondesign professionals will constitute the bulk of users, including many review-board members, property owners, developers, contractors, builders, and perhaps even staff. Consequently, guidelines need to be written and illustrated in a way that is understandable to the nonarchitect, but then do not presume that all architects will understand them either. Guidelines should reflect not only the visual makeup of the district. but also the property owners and/or the people who live and work in the district. For example, design guidelines for a district in a large city with a sizeable design community could be more complicated than those written for towns in which there are few, if any, design professionals.

Who will write the design guidelines?

There may be many answers to this question as well, but the writing of guidelines should involve a combination of groups and individuals. The review board or preservation commission should be heavily involved in the process. There should be a forum for public participation, especially for those people who will be affected directly--property owners, district residents, designers. Although a public-participation process does prolong the writing of guidelines, cultivating that public support is absolutely essential to their acceptance. Professional assistance will be needed and may assume the form of in-house staff and or consultants--frequently both.

A Flexible Format
Here are a few generalizations regarding format: First, guidelines need not be expensive; in fact, a slick and costly publication may have a negative, intimidating effect on property owners and inhabitants of a district--especially a district with low-to-moderate income levels.

Second, guidelines should be of reasonable length. I tend to believe that it is better to err on the side of being too short than too long, and as a yardstick, I always like to quote a board member from Arrow Rock, Missouri, a rural community of fewer than 100 residents. He stated that "a one-page set of guidelines made sense for us because the guidelines cannot be more sophisticated than the board itself." A one-page document may be a little sparse, but it was a very pragmatic approach and one that has worked since 1974 when Arrow Rock was designated a historic district.

Some guidelines are far too lengthy, especially those that are combined with how-to and/or maintenance manuals. Although guidelines should stress the importance of basic maintenance for district buildings, there needs to be a clear distinction between a guideline, e.g., a listing of roof materials that are acceptable for a house, and a maintenance measure, e.g., an explanation of how to fix a roof. The two are often jumbled.

Third, guidelines do not have to be printed and bound. There are other formats--a loose-leaf notebook, mimeographed sheets, brochures, and videos, for example-- although I would never recommend using just the latter. Also, policy papers may be used to address new issues or to supplement existing guidelines. In other words, do not feel pressed to use one document to cover everything--because one document cannot.

Lastly, guidelines need to be viewed as having some flexibility. They will need to be changed over time for several reasons. The districts themselves will change, new issues will arise, priorities will shift. For example, commissions are seeing a substantial increase in the number of applications for additions to properties that reflect our economic times. People cannot afford to sell and move to a bigger house; instead, they are adding on to the one they have. As another example, district boundaries are being extended into such 1930s and 1940s neighborhoods as Yates Gardens in Alexandria, Virgnia. New products and new technology are always being introduced. New policies and programs also will affect guidelines, two of the most far-reaching in recent years being the Certified Local Government program and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The sophistication and self-confidence that commissions accrue with experience is another reason for maintaining flexibility. This could be reflected in the rewriting of design guidelines that are more demanding than those adopted when a district was first created and the commission was inexperienced. Even Arrow Rock is probably ready for more than a one-page document.

Considering Content
Although there are variations to the way in which design guidelines are organized, the history and the analysis of the district is usually placed at the beginning. This immediately establishes the significance of the district and why it warrants protection. Anyone reading a set of guidelines should not have to plow through pages and pages of material and yet wonder, Why are we doing this? Just what is it about the area that`s worth preserving? If that happens, the commission`s job will not be any easier.

Design guidelines should balance the importance of the total streetscape of the district with the importance of individual buildings. A problem common to many guidelines is that they devote much more space to individual house styles and types than to the collective value of elements that distinguish the district--the buildings, the vistas, the open spaces, the landscaping, the trees, the ground surfaces. the walls and fences. While individual buildings are important, most districts are districts because of that collective value and the guidelines should make that clear.

Unless you want to freeze your district in a narrowly defined time period--and I doubt that very many people do--the history and analysis of the district should reflect a continuity of time and acknowledge that each period has contributed to the district--and that what you do, what the present owners and residents do, also contribute to its history. This is important for several reasons: it encourages an appreciation of buildings from all periods and discourages the "earlying up" of later buildings; it suggests, or at least implies, that new buildings need not be copies; and finally, it says that the district has absorbed changes in the past and that it can and will absorb changes in the future that are essential if preservation and historic districts are to survive.


In some respects, we ask--expect--too much of guidelines. For example, guidelines do not eliminate the need for training review-board members or for workshops for property owners and residents in a district. In-house education as well as public education are necessary on a continuing basis. As part of that training, review boards should spend more time assessing completed projects in terms of how the guidelines were applied when evaluating projects, if they consider the results to be successful or unsuccessful, and how the process could have been improved. Too few boards do this, perhaps because they would like to forget their decisions once they are made but then they do not learn from their decisions. In many communities preservation commissions are held accountable for a number of things beyond their jurisdiction, and their meetings become public forums for debating such issues as growth control.

Design guidelines need to specify succinctly those aspects of zoning that affect the design of a project but that are not determined by the historic-zoning ordinance and the preservation commission. Perhaps by denoting these distinctions, guidelines can help in edging communities towards rectifying conflicting and competing historic and nonhistoric zoning ordinances.

Guidelines must acknowledge what are realistic standards for the property owners and/or residents of a district. I use as an example the issue of synthetic siding that was raised when we were writing the guidelines for Galveston, Texas. That exercise forced the review board to articulate a policy that had evolved over the years. As stated in the guidelines, the board would disapprove the use of synthetic siding in most cases but "in those rare instances where the board may allow synthetic siding," an applicant would be required to follow a list of stipulations.


The same example illustrates another issue. When the Certified Local Government (CLG) program was instituted, Galveston was informed that the city might not qualify because of the siding policy as stated in the guidelines. The board chose not to become a CLG, in part because the members felt that a policy that excluded synthetic siding could jeopardize the historic districts politically, not only with elected officials but also with district property owners.

Although the CLG program has become more flexible during the intervening years, this example illustrates why boards should adopt The Secretary of the Interior`s Standards only in tandem with guidelines written specifically for the local district. The Standards do not take into account local economies and local politics, nor do they address such things as how to deal with existing intrusions into historic districts, which is a responsibility of local commissions. The Secretary`s Standards simply were not written for the administration of historic districts on that local, intimate, day-to-day basis: rather, they were written primarily with individual properties in mind and individual properties`s of major significance for which tax credits were being sought. Given that the Standards are now being used on a much broader basis and for an entirely different purpose, the Park Service is obligated to produce a supplementary statement regarding historic districts but that, too, should it be written, should never replace a set of local guidelines.

Ensuring Quality
Guidelines have their limitations, both negative and positive. Design guidelines can set standards but cannot ensure quality, whether it be the quality of overall design or the quality of materials and details. Whereas quality was a term that I seldom heard regarding the review process ten years ago, it is now voiced with some frequency. Often, this reflects a disappointment--a disenchantment, if you will--with what has been built and renovated in many districts.

Boards will continue to grapple with this one because quality becomes as much an economic as a design issue. I also suspect that the quality issue is akin to the old argument that "you can`t legislate good design." But one has only to compare what is built outside of design districts with what is built within their boundaries to see that the review process and design guidelines usually make a difference. They may not produce great architecture, but how much of that do we get anywhere, a comparison that should be made within the total context of our communities not just the district boundaries. Usually, greater attention is given to placement, detailing, materials, landscaping, and overall results where design review is practiced. Numerous architects have told me that just knowing that a design will be subjected to review will improve the design of a project from the beginning. As for the review boards, they do become more demanding in their interpretation and application of guidelines as they acquire experience, self-confidence, and clout.

New Construction: Always a Challenge
More and more review boards arc citing specific references in their guidelines when reviewing applications and making motions regarding their decisions. This is one way of countering accusations that their decisions are arbitrary and capacious. However, there is a flip side to this one that disturbs me with respect to the design of new buildings in historic districts.

In an eagerness to make decisions legally defensible, there is a tendency to write guidelines that encourage, by inference if not example, designs that only parrot existing buildings. This is, after all, the easiest solution for designers, review-board members, and judges to prove compatibility, fit, and contextualism. If we continue along this path, we are indeed running the risk of stifling creativity, a criticism frequently leveled at design guidelines and the public review process.

This leads me to make two recommendations with respect to the new-construction section of design guidelines. If communities want what are essentially replicative buildings in their districts, then most commissions need to be far more demanding regarding the overall design, scale, proportions, materials, and detailing of these building--and their guidelines should reflect that demand. If, on the other hand, communities want a broader sweep of solutions for new design in historic districts, then most guidelines need to be far more forceful both verbally and pictorially in promoting that option. A greater range of design possibilities should be illustrated, not just the one or two examples of infill projects that most design guidelines offer.

It is, of course, easy to tell you how to do these things. What is difficult, even for those with years of experience and practice, is making judgments. I have been in communities that have written guidelines, printed them, started using them and yet, there is a disappointment--almost a sense of betrayal--that "after spending all this time and money, we still find these decisions so difficult." People tend to forget that design guidelines are just that--guidelines--and that the design-review process, like the design process, will always require making judgments. Guidelines are one component of that process. As one commission chairperson said, "It helps to be able to wave the guidelines and say, `Have you read it?`"

Publication Date: November/December 1992


Author(s):Ellen Beasley

Related Entries and Links