Most cities and towns, and even some neighborhoods, have some sort of governing body that regulates the aesthetics of the architecture. This group is commonly referred to as an Architectural Review Board or a Design Review Board. In the City of Charleston, that group is the BAR, or the Board of Architectural Review.
The procedure for these boards varies from one jurisdiction to the next. Here is the reader's digest version of the Charleston BAR process: The BAR has meetings twice a month at which they typically review 10-20 building designs. Usually the projects are presented by the architect responsible for the building design. After the architect's presentation, the general public has an opportunity to comment on the project before the board commences the discussion. Charleston's board typically has 4-6 members present. The board's discussion about the project typically lasts about 10 minutes and ultimately results in one member making a motion to approve, defer or deny the application. An approval means you are ready to move on to the next step, a deferral means that you've done pretty good, but need some more work. A denial is bad news. The denial says you need to go back to the drawing board.
This is what the Charleston BAR looks like:
The people along the back row are the actual board members who are reviewing the project. It is kind of similar to a jury. The people in the foreground are either waiting to present or are the concerned citizens there to support or criticize a project.
This past week I actually had a BAR meeting one night, and the next night I had a neighborhood design review meeting. We were presenting our new house addition to our neighborhood's design review committee. I just can't get enough of this stuff!
Recently, Charleston’s BAR has been under intense scrutiny, partly due to the increased amount of development and growth happening on the downtown Charleston peninsula. One of my favorite shows, Game of Thrones has a saying that "Winter is Coming." Well, in Charleston the "Winter is not Coming,” so instead the "Northerners are Coming," or "People from Ohio are Coming." I can't criticize because I am one of those Northerners. Aside from a great climate, there are a slew of other attractive features that are drawing folks to Charleston in record droves. Many figures have appeared in the news, but the most common I have heard is that the population on the downtown peninsula is expected to double within the next decade. There seems to be an article every week documenting this boom town.
And because of this rapid population growth, there is an inevitable demand for renovated buildings and new construction for these new people to eat, sleep, work and play in. This building boom has put a tremendous amount of responsibility on the folks who sit on this voluntary Board of Architectural Review, as they are reviewing unprecedented amounts of building designs. Unfortunately for this board, they endure a consistent onslaught of criticism. Common complaints from long time residents and preservationists are that the BAR has been approving buildings that are way too big and definitely too modern. The Post and Courier is very good at highlighting this. On the other hand, Architects and their clients often complain that the BAR is too restrictive and prescriptive in the type of architecture that they mandate. And let's not forgot about the little old lady down the street who just wants to paint her house and repair her roof, but struggles to navigate the red tape. The result is what can be described as a 'thankless' job.
I have to admit, that as an architect who has prepared and presented many projects to the BAR, I along with my clients have suffered much frustration with the process of getting a project approved. A ton of work goes into preparing a presentation for the BAR and some of their decisions are often inconsistent and don't seem fair. I mean, can't they trust us? Architects want to save the world! That being said, after we suffer a deferral or even worse a denial, we eventually lick our wounds, revise our design per the board's comments, and return to present a much improved building. So although the BAR process is an imperfect system, I am confident saying that it ultimately results in a higher level of design and is one of the reasons Charleston's historic beauty and charm has been preserved.
There are many misconceptions about the BAR and I would like to discuss just a few of them. Although my focus of this article is the Charleston BAR, I'd be willing to bet that these same issues are happening in your town.
Misconception 1: The BAR is too easy, not strict enough and approves too many projects.
I have heard variations on this comment often, usually from concerned residents. One particular individual complained that if you review the BAR records, you will find that more than 90% of the items on the agenda pass. As a result of this success rate, this individual was convinced that the BAR had failed it's mission. It is important to note that the purpose of design review boards is not to ward off evil design spirits, but to instead shepherd these challenged projects towards higher design pastures. For example, if John Q. Homeowner proposes a mediocre design for his home renovation, the BAR is not supposed to run him out of town. Instead, the board should provide constructive criticism so that John Q can improve the quality of his home design and return to the board at a later date for a second try. As an architect, you should explain to your clients that the BAR is just one part of the permitting process and is not meant to be a road block. Of course there is the occasional challenged project that for whatever reason can’t get it done and ultimately gets continuously rejected until the project dies. But for the most part, if the client is willing to play the game and the architect has some decent design chops, then getting a project through the process should not be a gauntlet.
Misconception 2: The BAR pushes for traditional architecture.
This is another one I hear often. "Do we need to design something traditional or safe to get it passed by the BAR? There are also some folks that think that the board should be promoting historic recreations....or more buildings with columns as one article mentioned. I can attest that the BAR does not mandate any particular style. There are many different styles of architecture that get approved and the reality is that most architecture doesn't neatly fit into any one style anyway. One method of historic preservation is to design new structures that are representative of their current time period, thereby assuring that the historic structures will be clearly distinguished. See London and New York..........and most European cities
Misconception 3: The BAR pushes for modern architecture.
See response above. The City of Charleston’s City Architect, Dennis Dowd, has told me on multiple occasions that the BAR does not favor any particular style of architecture, but instead focuses on the quality of buildings. If you look at the types of buildings that get approved, there is a wide variety of style.
I created this graphic to illustrate the wide range of architecture that is occurring in Charleston right now.
OK, so I have to admit...I selected 2 projects that are polar opposites. The reality is that most of the projects being designed and approved in Charleston fall in that 'in between' zone. The point is that anything is possible.
The building on the left is the new Gaillard Center Performance Hall. It is currently under construction slated for completion this Fall. This Gaillard Center has gotten a lot of criticism for its design, especially from the local architecture community. I'd like to wait until the building is complete before I give it a full evaluation. I believe that there is room for classical design in Charleston just like there is room for contemporary. My initial observation about the design is that it will struggle to feel authentic. It kind of looks like someone took a stucco building and dressed it up for one of those ol' timey photo shoots. The parts are there, but it still seems fake.
There are a lot of good examples around town of old and new playing together. Here are just a few.
If you are an architect frustrated with an architectural review board, know that you are not alone. Stick with it. Persistence is the key.
If you are a concerned citizen who is frustrated with the changing face of your town, know that evolution is natural and healthy. As is variation.
If you are a client struggling to get a project approved through an architectural review board......................then hire me!