Designing Rules

Making room for different tastes


Irvine, California, is the epitome of tightly controlled urban design, a squeaky-clean edge city of office parks and master-planned neighborhoods. The Orange County town is so tidy that when my husband started teaching at the University of California campus there he couldn't find a gas station.

I've come here to talk with SteveKellenberg, who creates master plans for large-scale developments that sell more than 1,000 homes a year. These "high-production, high-velocity" businesses represent the present and future of American home construction, supplying the booming suburbs of the Sunbelt. I'd heard Kellenberg tell an audience of developers about survey data showing that 63 percent of buyers in master-planned communities want more diversity, while only 32 percent want their neighborhood to look consistent.

That was what I wanted to hear. Like many variety-loving city dwellers, I'm leery of master-planned communities, even though I know they're extremely popular. It's bad enough that even my little 18-unit townhouse complex has ridiculously conformist rules—no plants by the front door, no non-neutral window coverings, no door decorations except around Christmas—but at least our homes are literally connected to each other, making the cost of spillovers high. I can't imagine wanting to live in a whole neighborhood of similar uniformity.

But people really are different.

During the last two decades, master-planned communities with standardized styles and prescriptive "pattern books" have become the norm for large-scale home developments. These communities sell predictability. While old-line suburbs started out fairly uniform to keep down construction costs, owners could (and did) dramatically transform their properties over time. Master-planned developments, by contrast, seek to control changes. Buyers are bound by contract to abide by rules designed to preserve a certain look and feel.

The Highlands Ranch community in Colorado, for instance, limits house numbers to no more than six inches tall and kids' backyard clubhouses to no more than 24 square feet. No white picket fences are allowed in most neighborhoods. An enforcement team cruises the streets looking for such offenses as deviant home colors. (A light purple house got neighbors particularly riled up.) A competing community, Prospect New Town, takes a contrasting tack, going so far as to require striking colors on its houses—no Highlands Ranch neutrals allowed. Prospect, too, tightly regulates its environment. The developers require changes on 95 percent of the new house plans submitted for their approval. "It sounds harsh," says one developer. "But somebody's taste has to prevail, or else it would be anarchy."

In this case, the taste enforcement occurs within a voluntary, profit-sensitive development that has to compete with nearby alternatives offering radically different design philosophies. Homebuyers select the design regime that fits their personalities and lifestyles, and business success depends on design rules that please potential residents. But such restrictions aren't limited to competing contractual communities. The public sector has jumped into the act, bringing similarly uniform standards to property owners who don't necessarily want them.

Building appearance is getting the sort of government scrutiny once reserved for public health and safety. A 1993 survey found that 83 percent of American cities and towns had some form of design review to control building looks, usually on purely aesthetic (as opposed to historic preservation) grounds. Three-quarters of these regulations, covering 60 percent of cities and towns, were passed after 1980, an adoption rate survey author Brenda Case Scheer compares to that of "zoning in the 1930s." The trend appears to have accelerated in the late '90s.

Some communities prescribe design rules in detailed dos and don'ts. Others use general terms like appropriate and compatible, illustrated with drawings showing acceptable and unacceptable examples. Scheer, now the dean of the Graduate School of Architecture at the University of Utah, recalls a suburb that had no specific rules at all, allowing the design review board to outlaw whatever members happened to dislike. The result was an ad hoc checklist of idiosyncratic no-nos. "The strangest things," she says, "like they didn't want to have any windows with round tops on them. The decking on a deck couldn't run diagonally. If you had shutters, your shutters had to be able to close."

That town isn't an isolated example. Architectural review boards, planning commissions, and city councils often have broad discretion to determine and enforce taste standards, from mandating roof lines and window styles to specifying what kinds of trees can be planted. Minutes of routine meetings record officials opining that the red leaves of ornamental bushes will clash with the brick of a shopping center sign and instructing a housing developer to build more single-story homes on certain streets. In one town, a city council member praised the beauty of Bradford pear trees, while in another an official condemned them as an "epidemic."

People are different.

During our visit, Steve Kellenberg comes back to that message again and again, expressing a tolerance that arises as much from relentless pragmatism as from liberal idealism. If you're in the business of designing environments people will pay money to live in, you can't kid yourself about what they value. You can't design your idea of utopia and force everyone to conform to it; if you try, everyone who isn't just like you will go elsewhere to find a home.

Unlike me, some people really do prefer uniformity to variety, regardless of cost. Not everybody thinks it's bad if every house on the street looks pretty much like every other one, or if people can't change their houses much over time. Some people like that sort of predictability. It makes them feel secure, at home in their neighborhood. Even if cost were no object, not everybody would want the same thing I'd pick.

"We have this incredible tendency to overgeneralize about the population and to say, 'Everybody wants this—everybody wants to live in a community where you can't paint your house unless it's the right color and you have to close your garage door,'" says Kellenberg. "Well, the fact is that there really are a lot of people who want that kind of controlled, predictable environment," often because they've had bad experiences in deteriorating neighborhoods. "And there are others that find that an incredibly repressive regime and wouldn't live there if you gave them a house, because they believe there should be an organic, fluid, self-expressive environment."

People are different.

"You have people in Irvine that love living in Irvine," he says. "And you have people that moved to Irvine and leave after five years because they hate it, and they move to Seal Beach or Santa Ana," nearby towns with few design restrictions. In a diverse society, some people will indeed want a lot of rules, "but it clearly isn't something that is the right way of doing it for everybody." Neither is the alternative.

People are different.

Even those survey statistics are misleading aggregates. Some people care a lot about diversity; others really, really want consistency. A lot are in the middle. Some people want to be sure to run into their neighbors. Others just want to stay in with their big-screen TVs or to socialize with the friends they already have. Some people want to be able to walk to the store without seeing a car. Others want to be able to drive in and out easily. The difference isn't one of demographics—age, income, education, and so on—but of identity and attitude. You can find people shopping for houses in the same price range, for the same size families, who want all sorts of different neighborhood designs.

What the survey numbers actually say is that part of the housing market has been underserved. For years, large-scale developers have focused so much on those homebuyers who want a predictable environment and the most house for the money that they've ignored people with other preferences. Offer the long-ignored groups a different sort of design, and they'll reward you handsomely. This pragmatic, trial-and-error process of discovering new sources of aesthetic value is less grandiose, and perhaps less inspiring, than the ideological search for the one best way to live. But it is also less divisive and venomous.

You can see its latest products in the spanking new streets of Ladera Ranch, a huge new development about a half-hour drive southeast of Irvine. A blue-gray Cape Cod home, with the deeply sloping roof of its saltbox ancestors, sits next to an updated beige and brown Craftsman with a low-pitched roof. Down the street is a Spanish colonial with a red-tile roof, and around the corner a stuccoed house whose turret recalls the fantasy homes of 1920s Los Angeles. Although many garages face the street, most are recessed so they don't dominate the landscape. You see porches and yards and sidewalks—social space. And between the sidewalk and street is something no new Southern California community has gotten in a generation: a small parkway planted with trees, spindly today but promising charm and shade as the neighborhood ages.

These are mass-produced homes, with metal windows and Hardiboard concrete siding rather than wood. They'd never pass purists' tests of authenticity. But they offer something genuine and rare—variation in more than façade, rooflines and massing that match their styles, a street of different colors and different forms. Built on the empty hillsides of what once really was a ranch, Ladera Ranch is turning the previously unfulfilled desire for varied and sociable neighborhoods into extraordinary profits. The development sells 1,200 houses a year for prices 10 percent to 14 percent higher per square foot than in the more conventional community right next door. The landscaping and construction quality cost more, acknowledges Kellenberg, but even accounting for those costs, "it still appears that there's a 7 to 10 percent lift in the base values that can only be explained by people being willing to pay more to live there."

People are different.

Specialization pays. "There really is a lot of the market that doesn't want everything to look the same, that does want to have individuality in their home, that does want a diversity of neighborhoods, that wants [the design] to feel like it grew out of the heritage of the place, that are interested in meeting their neighbors, that would enjoy having the street designed as a social space, that would like to have other social spaces and social opportunities that they could participate in," he says.

Ladera Ranch's design owes much to the New Urbanism, a planning philosophy that favors high densities, limited setbacks, and old-fashioned Main Streets. Both put an emphasis on community, and both understand streets as social spaces. But Kellenberg dismisses the New Urbanism's one-size-fits-all doctrines, its "singular mission" that "rejects everything other than New Urbanism." Lots of beloved neighborhoods, he notes, don't conform to New Urbanist prescriptions.

The design for Ladera Ranch isn't New Urbanism. It's specialization—specialization within specialization, in fact. The development includes four different neighborhood styles, each crafted to suit a different personality and lifestyle. And if you want something different, you don't have to buy a place in Ladera Ranch. You can go next door. There's something for everyone and, if there isn't, a smart developer will figure out how to fill in the gaps.

The seeming homogeneity of master-planned communities—the planning that gives them a bad name among intellectuals—turns out to be real-world pluralism once you realize that everyone doesn't have to live within the same design boundaries. Community designs and governance structures are continuously evolving, offering new models to compete with the old. This pluralist approach may overturn technocratic notions of how city planning should work, but it's the way towns are in fact developing in the United States, suggesting that these institutions offer real benefits to residents. From 1970 to 2002, the number of American housing units in homeowner associations, including condominiums and cooperatives, rose from 1 percent to 17 percent, with more than half of all new units in some areas in these associations.

As an alternative or supplement to large-scale local government, some economists (notably Robert Nelson of the University of Maryland) and legal scholars (such as Robert Ellickson of Yale) have begun debating ways to let homeowners who aren't in private associations form them, whether for whole neighborhoods or just a few blocks. Some proposals envision the privatization of former city services such as garbage collection and zoning-style regulations. Others involve only a specialized complement to city governance, with special fees to cover services that people in that small area particularly value. For instance, Ellickson suggests, "if artists were to concentrate their studios on a particular city block, their [Block Improvement District] could make unusually heavy expenditures on street sculptures. Indeed, the prospect of forming a Block Improvement District might encourage artists to cluster together in the first place."

Some of these plans would require unanimous agreement, others a supermajority. The question of whether new boundaries can be drawn around residents without their individual consent is a difficult one. If unanimous agreement is necessary, a single holdout can make everyone worse off. But retroactively limiting what property owners can do with their homes raises the same problems that allowing small districts is supposed to avoid.

This problem is especially great when the new district isn't truly self-governing. Many cities, for instance, allow a supermajority of homeowners to petition to make their neighborhood a historic district subject to special aesthetic controls—potentially a good model of specialized design boundaries. Unfortunately, historic districts usually have to conform to procedures established by a higher level of government. They can't create processes and rules tailored to the wishes of those they govern. In Los Angeles, for instance, a Historic Preservation Overlay Zone is regulated by a five-member board. Unlike a homeowner association board, members are appointed by city officials and other board members, and only three of the five must be residents of the area they govern. Since residents don't have a direct vote, they can't easily predict, or check, the board's actions.

Even some preservation activists admit to concerns. Adriene Biondo, a San Fernando Valley resident who's campaigning to make her neighborhood a historic zone, says she isn't looking to crush individual homeowners' self-expression, only to raise awareness of the history and value of the neighborhood's mid-century Eichler homes. But some local preservationists are sticklers for architectural authenticity, narrowly defined. If the board is captured by purists, admits Biondo, it might even outlaw the pistachio-green siding she and her husband chose to match their vintage car. "I don't think we'd like that too much ourselves," she says.

Even in the best of circumstances, small, self-governing districts wouldn't eliminate aesthetic conflict. Neither do master-planned communities. As anyone who's lived in a small condo complex knows, even small groups of people disagree. Governance rules simply provide processes for resolving disputes. And they help people know what to expect, avoiding the nasty surprises and bitter conflicts that result when aesthetic rules are imposed after the fact. The best we can hope for isn't perfection but fairness, predictability, and a reasonable chance of finding rules that suit our individual preferences. The advantage of narrow boundaries is that if all else fails, we can vote with our feet, not only improving our own situation but sending a signal that the competition is offering a better design package.

The more difficult it is for people to enter and exit—to find design rules to their liking—the more general the rules need to be. A four-block special district can have very prescriptive rules that would be inappropriate for an entire city. A metropolitan area like Orange County that is made up of many smaller cities can offer a range of city-level design regimes.

In larger areas, one way to accommodate different tastes within an overall sense of structure is to make the rules fairly generic. Consider the difference between a work uniform, a requirement to wear black, and a general prescription for "business casual." All three establish an organizational identity, but each allows more individual choice and flexibility than the previous one, accommodating a wider range of appearance and personality. To attract a diverse group of employees, to avoid turning off independent or creative individuals, or simply to stay up to date as fashions change, it may be better to keep the dress code as general as possible.

Along similar lines, Brenda Scheer suggests that urban design regulations should pay more attention to the urban forms that are hard to change and concentrate less on the stylistic details that are easily altered. It's easy enough to ignore a single building you don't like, especially once it's been around a while. But street widths, setbacks, and lot sizes affect the whole experience of being in a particular neighborhood. They establish the underlying structure that creates the sense of place. "If you get the lots right and the blocks right and the street right and the setbacks right, somebody can build a crummy house and it will sit there for 30 years, and somebody will tear it down and build a nice one," she says. "There's a kind of self-healing process that's available if the structure is fine."

This model allows for flexibility, personal expression, and change while still preserving a coherent underlying design. It echoes the pattern identified by Stewart Brand in How Buildings Learn, which examines how buildings are adapted to new uses over time. Brand explores what makes architecture resilient and capable of "learning" as its purposes change. A building, he notes, contains six nested systems: Site, Structure (the foundation and load-bearing elements), Skin (the exterior), Services (wiring, plumbing, heating, etc.), Space plan (the interior layout), and Stuff. The further out the nested system, the more permanent. Moving around furniture (Stuff) is easy; altering a foundation (Structure) is difficult.

In a building, Brand writes, "the lethargic slow parts are in charge, not the dazzling rapid ones. Site dominates Structure, which dominates the Skin, which dominates the Services, which dominate the Space plan, which dominates the Stuff. How a room is heated depends on how it relates to the heating and cooling Services, which depend on the energy efficiency of the Skin, which depends on the constraints of the Structure….The quick processes provide originality and challenge, the slow provide continuity and constraint."

A well-designed, adaptable building, Brand argues, respects the different speeds and different functions of these nested layers. It keeps them separate, allowing "slippage" so that the quick inner layers can change without disrupting the more permanent systems. (You don't have to tear up the foundation to fix the plumbing.)

Scheer's proposal applies a similar model to the surrounding environment. She essentially adds a seventh layer we can call the Street. By limiting design restrictions to the Street, Site, and possibly Structure, rather than the usual obsession with Skin, she makes room for evolution and learning. Like Brand, she emphasizes the effects of time. Given enough slippage between outer and inner layers, we can correct flaws and adapt to changing circumstances while preserving some underlying sense of order. A city, she says, is "a living thing, it's a changing thing, and it has to adapt or it dies. A city that is not having a continuous renewal is a dying place."

A dynamic model of city life recognizes that not just purposes or technologies change over time. So do tastes. Like Capri pants and stiletto heels, aesthetic styles go in and out of fashion, flipping from positive to negative and back again. Hard as it is to believe today, from the end of World War II until the 1980s the Art Deco hotels of Miami Beach were considered "tacky, in bad taste, and old fashioned." When the Miami Design Preservation League was formed in 1976, recalls one of its founders, South Beach "was considered a disgrace to the city, because of its cheap neon lights, 'funny-shaped' buildings, and the signs along Ocean Drive blaring 'rooms $5 a week.'"

Similarly, American tastemakers have for decades condemned neon signs as the epitome of commercial tackiness, and many cities continue to ban neon. Others, however, have rediscovered the lively pleasures of the lights. While some neighboring cities such as Santa Monica have been forcing businesses to take down their neon signs, Los Angeles has spent about a half million dollars helping building owners restore and relight historic neon signs. The city's Museum of Neon Art not only preserves vintage signs but lends them to the popular Universal CityWalk outdoor shopping area. Commercial neon has slowly regained its 1920s status as a source of public pleasure.

The built environment is filled with once-scorned designs that have become architectural touchstones or popular icons. When it was new, a critic called the Golden Gate Bridge an "eye-sore to those living and a betrayal of future generations." Writing in Architectural Record, critic Suzanne Stephens provides a wide-ranging tour of similar examples: "In 1889 artists, architects, and writers, including Charles Garnier and Guy de Maupassant, called the Eiffel Tower 'useless and monstrous.' Frank Lloyd Wright's Larkin Building in Buffalo was deemed 'ugly' by eminent critic Russell Sturgis in [Architectural] RECORD in 1908, and in 1959 his Guggenheim Museum was dismissed by visionary architect Frederick Kiesler. In 1931 Lewis Mumford charged that New York's Chrysler Building by William Van Alen was full of 'inane romanticism' and 'void symbolism.'" Some of the world's most beloved buildings and architects have been dismissed by their contemporaries. Tolerating strange styles can create significant value over time, as the unfamiliar becomes familiar, leading to aesthetic appreciation.

Aesthetics may be a form of expression, but it doesn't enjoy the laissez-faire treatment accorded speech or writing. To the contrary, the more significant look and feel become, the more they tend to be restricted by law. The very power of beauty encourages people to become absolutists—to insist that other people's stylistic choices, or their tradeoffs between aesthetics and other values, constitute environmental crimes. Individuals may expect more expressive freedom for themselves, but they often feel affronted and victimized by the aesthetic choices of others. This is particularly true for places, the touchstone category of our aesthetic era.

Yet now that people increasingly care about look and feel in their private choices, aesthetic regulation is less necessary to control blatant public ugliness. The same taste shift that has made the spread of design review politically viable is slowly but surely changing the definition of what's commercially necessary. Our greatest fears of the aesthetic future are not of too little design, but of too much.