Recently I was having a discussion with one of my clients about the Board of Architectural Review (the BAR). We were getting prepared to submit a project for Conceptual BAR and were discussing exterior building materials. I was explaining how the BAR's viewpoints on materials vary from project to project. On one project stucco may be acceptable, but on another it may be bad. At which point my client said:
"Damn...this is like trying to nail jello to a wall!"
And he was right. Trying to predict the preferences and outcome of a BAR meeting is sometimes very difficult. This unpredictability is one of the reasons that the City of Charleston hired Andrés Duany to develop a plan for revising the BAR process:
In recent years, a large amount of my time has been dedicated to working with the BAR. LS3P does a ton of work in the City, so we are well versed with the BAR process.
It is a very complex system. And just when I think I’ve got the process figured out, I get thrown for another zinger.
This is the second blog in a series in which I will 'attempt' to explain some of the basic processes of the BAR.
The BAR has jurisdiction over the exterior of the building as seen from the public right of way. The most dominant feature of a buildings exterior are the materials of which it is made of.
Architects like to call it the skin.
So what are the rules. Which materials can you use in the Holy City? How do you skin the cat?
Here are the 5 things you need to know about Charleston's BAR and Building Materials.
First a disclaimer. This is based off of my experience working on large commercial buildings (20,000sf+) The rules for single family residential are much simpler. Just look at what the other houses in your neighborhood are doing.
1. The Material Hierarchy.
All materials are not created equal. This is a list of exterior materials from the most highly regarded to the less regarded. In general, the highest priced materials are the most highly regarded.
The Best - Stick with this list and you'll be in good shape.
- Natural Stone - Hey...they built the pyramids out of this stuff. If it was good for Khufu then it is good for you.
- Brick - They built Rome out of this stuff. It has become the safe material to use. Hence, a majority of the new commercial buildings proposed are skinned in brick.
- Metal Panel - A few years ago I would have had this farther down the list. Metal panel is a versatile product with a variety of shapes, patterns and colors. It is also very durable. In recent years, the BAR has embraced metal panel as an acceptable modern choice. Natural metals like copper and zinc are the most highly regarded.
- Wood - Ipe, Sapele Mahogany, and Western Red Cedar are commonly used at entrances and retail storefronts. You wouldn't want to clad an entire building with wood due to our harsh salt air environment, but it can be a great way to add accents.
* Glass - This doesn't really fit well in the list, but generally the more windows and the bigger the windows the better.
Pretty Good - These are still good materials, but you may be asked to upgrade. See upgrade rule below.
- Cast Stone or Precast Veneer - This is an engineered product made to look like natural limestone. Its biggest downside is that it easily chips and gets scuffed. As a result, it has fallen out of favor with the BAR.
- Stucco on CMU Block - It is very rare for commercial buildings to be built with CMU block due to expense. And because of external insulation, putting stucco directly on block has become extinct in the commercial world. Nonetheless, I put it on the list because it is regarded as a good exterior material.
- Stucco on Stud - I could probably write an entire blog post on the BAR and stucco. But it would not be interesting to read nor fun to write. Due to several existing buildings in town having poor stucco jobs, stucco on stud has become almost a taboo thing. As a result, I do not use it on any of my projects. If used, the BAR requires a metal stud deflection specification of l/600. Essentially a higher gauge of metal stud that is less likely to move and less likely for the stucco to crack.
Good Luck - You will likely have trouble using these materials.
Andrés Duany has often reiterated that the BAR should embrace natural man-made materials and shy away from engineered composite materials. And within the year that he started his diatribe, I have already seen a change in the BAR's preferences. These materials, which were previously seen as pretty good, are now outcasts due to their engineered composite makeup.
- Fiber Cement Panels - Very common in residential. Often used as an affordable alternative to metal panel. Corner details and exposed fasteners are things that need to be over come for these products to move up the list.
- GFRC Glass Fiber Reinforced Concrete - A great alternative to natural stone and cast stone. Ideal for ornate details such as cornices and column capitals. I think it is unfortunate that this material has been shunned. Most people can't tell the difference between GFRC and Lime Stone. I think because it is cheaper than stone and engineered it is unfairly judged.
- GFRP Glass Fiber Reinforced Plastic - Same assessment as GFRC.
- Phenolic Panels - Commonly referred to as Trespa, which is a manufacturer of phenolic. I don't know if this material exists anywhere on the peninsula. I only put it on the list because at a recent BAR meeting, an architect referred to this material as a 'wood-like' material. Once he said 'wood-like' the BAR members piled on and let him have it.
2. Location, location, location.
Location always matters. The BAR's expectations for building materials differs from location to location. Luckily Charleston's peninsula shape makes understanding the rules pretty easy. In general, the farther south you are on the peninsula, the more strict the BAR is on every element of design. For example, if you are South of Broad surrounded by 200-year old houses, then you better stick to the basics: brick, stone and stucco. If you are up in the NoMo area surrounded by warehouses and vacant lots, then you can loosen up a bit. Ever seen how much fun the architects up at half-mile north are having?
From bottom to top:
South of Broad - The most historic and most strict part of the peninsula.
South of Calhoun - Still extremely historic, but a little more urban and diverse then S.O.B.
South of Line - Dubbed Upper King and Upper Meeting. Much more diverse than lower King and Meeting. Seeing a renaissance right now.
South of Mt. Pleasant Street - Referred to as NoMo or the Upper Peninsula or the Neck. Much more freedom in this neck of the woods. Pun intended.
3. The upgrade rule.
The BAR will always push you to do better. Common examples:
- Recently I have seen the BAR ask applicants to change cast stone to natural stone.
- On another project they asked the applicant to change GFRC to cast stone and to upgrade GFRP to GFRC.
- It is common to hear the BAR say "you have too much stucco" or "too much fiber cement." The applicant will remove a percentage of stucco for their next submittal at which point the BAR will say "you still have too much stucco."
- If you have a metal coping at your parapet it is not uncommon for the BAR to ask for that coping to be upgraded to stone.
In general, they identify the cheaper materials and push you to upgrade.
4. The downgrade rule.
If you read my blog: The Charleston BAR: The Major Steps then you already know that the BAR is an iterative process in which the board and the BAR staff review the project several times. I counted a minimum of 10 reviews.
Here is a very common scenario:
A project receives conceptual BAR approval promising a building that is 90% brick and 10% cast stone. After a construction estimate the team realizes that they are having budget issues. As a result the team decides to replace the cast stone with stucco because hey...it looks very similar in an elevation drawing right? Or, maybe the less important facade is changed from all brick to all stucco. And while we are at it, let's make the windows just a little smaller.
These changes will lower the cost of the facade bringing the project in budget. Seems like the right compromise right?
The BAR will sniff out these downgrades in a heartbeat. Every time. When you format your drawings for the BAR meetings you are required to show the previous elevations on the same sheet as the new drawings. This makes it very easy for the BAR to notice any deviations.
The result of these downgrades are likely a deferral and return to the original design. It ends up costing everyone time in the long run and no money is saved.
5. The rules evolve.
Remember my client's comment about "nailing jello to the wall?"
Just like building technologies, the BAR is always evolving.
Cast Stone was once highly regarded. Now the BAR asks for it to be upgraded to Natural Stone. Stucco, which is a common material in the historic buildings of Charleston, is now seen as a cheap taboo material. Metal Panel has moved up the charts to a high-end material.
Did I miss anything?
This is based off of my experience with working with the BAR. I hope this is a helpful resource to architects and clients. If I missed anything or got something wrong please let me know. I'd also like to hear people's stories of working with the BAR.