Building Design Requirements Should Be Reformed, Not Abolished

Townhouse subdivision. Photo: jseattle. CC-BY-SA.

If you’re an advocate of the Strong Towns movement, you likely have a conflicted relationship with local development regulations.

On the one hand, these rules, established at the local level, are often nonsensical and even harmful to our cities. Beloved, successful neighborhoods built a century ago are rendered illegal to replicate today by zoning that prohibits mixed uses or missing middle housing. Parking requirements ensure that our cities waste valuable land and remain auto-oriented, at great cost to their financial bottom line. And a bevy of standards attached to new housing, from design requirements to sprinklers to minimum floor area to maximum density, make homes more costly to produce and drive up the cost of living.

We’ve been consistently critical here of the ways that local regulations enshrine car-dependent development patterns, trap neighborhoods under glass, and prevent cities from evolving to meet their present-day challenges. We’ve been adamant that cities need to breathe and evolve and receive vital, even uncomfortable, feedback on what isn’t working—and that means not trying to impose too much top-down order on them.

For this, we often gets labeled a “libertarian” or “free-market” advocacy organization. You’d think we’d be excited about a statewide rollback of meddlesome local rules on what can and can’t be built.

On the contrary, Arkansas just passed such a statewide rollback, and it is a terrible law. It is a textbook case of what not to do if you’re trying to fix housing affordability problems. And understanding why illuminates a lot about why “pro-regulation” or “anti-regulation” are far too simplistic stances for anyone thinking seriously about how to make cities stronger and more resilient.

Eliminating an Important Local Toolkit

The bill that passed in Arkansas, Act 446, targets local design regulations, and eliminates many of them. Specifically, the bill says that local governments, in most cases, may no longer regulate any of the following for single-family homes:

  • Exterior building color

  • Type or style of exterior cladding material

  • Style or materials of roof structures, roof pitches, or porches

  • Exterior nonstructural architectural ornamentation

  • Location, design, placement, or architectural styling of windows and doors, including garage doors and garage structures

  • The number and types of rooms

  • The interior layout of rooms

  • The minimum square footage of a structure

This is egregious because such regulations are often integral to tools like form-based codes that cities use to encourage traditional, walkable development patterns. These codes are the most promising alternative to the use-based zoning in place in most U.S. cities, because a form-based code emphasizes requiring a building’s physical design to “play nice” with its surroundings, rather than micromanaging what can or can’t go on inside that building. Such codes allow cities to prevent the grave harm that a bad building can do to the public realm around it, while legalizing the kind of traditional neighborhood where you can walk to a corner store or pharmacy or to get a cup of coffee. These places are usually illegal today.

Put simply, design standards are often the most closely connected of all local building rules to the actual harms we’re trying to prevent when we regulate local development.

I corresponded with Matthew Hoffman, who is chairman of the Planning Commission for the City of Fayetteville, and the Director of Urban Design for Miller Boskus Lack Architects. He was an active critic of the new legislation. Hoffman writes, “Fortunately, the law allows regulation of ‘height, bulk, orientation, [and] location of a structure on a lot.’ From an urban design perspective, we have the ability to make sure homes are in the right place, but not the ability to make sure they’re doing the right things once put there.”

A garage-dominated “snout house.” Arkansas cities cannot ban these anymore, according to the new law. (Image: David Wilson via  Flickr )
A garage-dominated “snout house.” Arkansas cities cannot ban these anymore, according to the new law. (Image: David Wilson via Flickr)

Among the most troublesome prohibitions is on regulating the “location… of garage doors and garage structures.” Front-loading garages are an antisocial design feature that, at their worst, can result in a neighborhood that resembles a glorified loading dock. When garage doors dominate the streetscape, it wreaks havoc on efforts to make a neighborhood walkable, or to provide the increased public safety through “eyes on the street” that comes with having people using their front doors and front porches, as is common in the traditional development pattern.

Speaking of which, front porches are a common element of New Urbanist design and form-based codes, and cities would no longer be able to require those either, in any neighborhood.

Throwing the Baby Out with the Bath Water

The most-often stated justification for this new Arkansas law was to promote housing affordability. Yet if you look at the bill’s advocates, you get a different idea of who might stand to gain and why. It was sponsored by a state senator with close ties to the building industry, and the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) was a prominent supporter and touted its successful effort. The NAHB represents large-scale home builders who work in multiple cities and states, and would like the ability to sell houses with the exact same floor plan across multiple regions with minimal hassle, irrespective of local context.

As to whether this will have any sort of decisive impact on affordability, Hoffman is skeptical, though he agrees that affordability is a concern in Arkansas:

Northwest Arkansas is currently the 104th largest [metropolitan area], but we’re growing faster than 96 of the top 100. About 34 people move here every day, and like many other high-growth regions around the country we just aren’t building enough homes to meet demand so prices are rising. While restrictive zoning, high land and labor costs have certainly held supply back, most cities in this area either don’t reg

ulate design on single family homes, or have modest regulations for small areas such as downtown. Suggesting that design regulations have anything to do with our rising prices is at best a gross misunderstanding of the complex issues around housing affordability…. The truth is, home prices aren’t based on garage door placement and the like, they’re based on what the market will bear.

This is not to say that design requirements never drive up the cost of building. But even if you agree that they do, this bill—in optimizing for the single variable of low development cost, throws the baby out with the bath water. This is almost always the case of top-down efforts to fix X while ignoring W, Y, and Z.

There is no question that local governments often stand in the way of housing affordability, sometimes entirely deliberately. But taking away an important tool in their toolkit, without addressing more fundamental factors like zoning that have a far greater effect on housing costs than design standards, is the wrong direction.

A home in a historic district in Fayetteville, Arkansas. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
A home in a historic district in Fayetteville, Arkansas. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

A Double Standard for the Rich and the Poor

Another troubling aspect of the Arkansas legislation is that it imposes a double standard when it comes to who is most likely to get the benefit of well-designed homes.

The law carves out exceptions for historic districts—usually exclusive, well-to-do neighborhoods—as well as for places with a design covenant that was agreed to by a majority of the property owners within an area (thus, renters have no access to this form of recourse, other than trying to convince their landlord). According to Hoffman:

The law says that if you’re fortunate enough to live in a historic district or a neighborhood with strict design covenants, you’re entitled to protections that others are not. Because of the relative permanence of housing, allowing builders one set of standards for rich neighborhoods and another for poor neighborhoods can create inequities that span generations. I think everyone should have access to housing that is safe, made of quality materials, and designed to remain desirable year after year. While I’m sure many homebuilders share these values, I think the most appropriate venue to set minimum standards is the democratic process at the municipal level.

The Arkansas Municipal League and a number of cities opposed the bill, but they faced strong headwinds in the form of legislators’ concern for affordability and misguided deregulatory impulses. Opponents also felt pressure to compromise, says Hoffman, after facing earlier, even more extreme incarnations of the proposal. The bill as originally written would have applied to all residential buildings, rather than just single-family homes.

Design Will Matter More, Not Less, as We Re-Establish Traditional Development Patterns

Local design standards can be a double edged sword. As a planner by training, I have absolutely heard architects complain about requirements written by planners that are architecturally illiterate and nonsensical. Design standards, in the wrong hands, are sometimes responsible for “Frankenstein” buildings that seem to incoherently combine 3 or 4 different facade materials—wood paneling here, brick over there, some metal for good measure.

Bad design requirements that purport to be about aesthetics can be a matter of snobbery even if they are effective, and can often be straight up ineffective. They drive architects and developers nuts, and yes, they can harm housing affordability. For this reason, they’re in the cross-hairs. I asked Hoffman if he agrees with any of those criticisms, which might have led an architect to support this bill. He answers:

I empathize with other architects who are frustrated by poorly written design standards, but I think bad design standards should be improved, not thrown out. As many architects lament, you don’t have to have a license to design a house, and most homes in this country are not designed by professionals. So if you care about crime prevention through environmental design, or the durability of materials in our built environment, design standards are the best way we have to ensure those concerns are incorporated in the design of most homes.

…. There just isn’t enough recognition of the important role design plays in creating compact neighborhoods that people actually want to live in. For example, A two car garage door that was relatively inoffensive on 70’ wide lots can ruin a neighborhood when it’s used in the same way on 40’ wide lots.
As we look for ways to expand housing supply and densify our cities, design has to become more central to our thinking.

We’ve written on Strong Towns about emergent design through trial and error. But it’s important to understand that this is a long, historic process involving trial and error, and not a small amount of survivorship bias.

When you already have a top-notch urban environment, it’s probably not a heavy lift to convince a developer to go along with a compatible design. It’s in their interests to build something that fits in with a place that already works well and is appealing. But when you don’t already have that in place, good design will not discover itself. The incentives are for business as usual, and what comprises “business as usual” is dictated largely by the formulaic approaches of the big corporate home-builders that are members of organizations like the NAHB.

Limiting our ability to talk about design as we plan our communities’ futures is a bad move, Arkansas. Local governments—and especially those interested in reviving the traditional, incremental development pattern in the face of powerful top-down headwinds—need more tools, not fewer.

Thanks to Strong Towns.

Categories Culture

Daniel Herriges serves as Content Manager for Strong Towns, and has been a regular contributor since 2015. He is also a founding member of the organization. Daniel has a Masters in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Minnesota. His obsession with maps began before he could read. His budding environmentalism can be traced back to age 4, when he yelled at his parents for stepping on weeds growing in sidewalk cracks. His love of great urban design and human-scaled, livable places has also been lifelong. Daniel has a B.A. from Stanford University in Human Biology with a concentration in Conservation and Sustainable Development. After college, he worked as an environmental activist for several years, in support of indigenous people's rights and conservation in the Amazon rainforest. He can often be found hiking or cycling. Daniel is from St. Paul, Minnesota.

Creative Commons License
Except where otherwise noted, the content on this site is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.