Tag Archives: building design

The Importance of a Relatively High Floor Area Ratio (FAR)

By Dom Nozzi

June 11, 2004

What is a “Floor Area Ratio (FAR)”? An FAR of 1.0 means that the developer is allowed to build the equivalent of a one-story building over her entire lot, or a 2-story building over half the lot.FAR An FAR of 2.0 means the developer is allowed to build the equivalent of a two-story building over her entire lot, or a 4-story over half the lot.

An FAR of 0.5 means the developer is allowed to build the equivalent of a one-story building over half her entire lot, or a 1-story over half the lot.

And so on.

I should hasten to point out that while these numbers seem very dense, keep in mind that in almost every case except in, say, the middle of a downtown, an FAR of 1.0 would NOT allow the developer to build one story over the entire lot, as other development code regulations would ALSO require space for landscaping, open space, parking, setbacks, etc. Thus, an FAR of 1.0 would almost never result in a one-story building over an entire lot. It would probably be a one-story over less than the full lot to be able to fit in the landscaping, etc. In effect, what FAR limits do is control the amount of building floor area, and often don’t really tell you how much of the site will be covered by a building.

Walkable urbanism and healthy transit require FARs to be at least 1.5 to 3.0. In Europe, those loveable cities we all love to walk have FARs that are probably well over 3.0. In villageAmerica, as you can imagine, most of our commercial areas have developed FARs of about 0.1 (with most space taken up by surface parking).

Therefore, if a community wishes to encourage more walking and vibrant, sociable urbanism, it should require at least 1.5 FAR. Anything less than about 1.0 locks a community into sprawl, extreme auto dependence and downwardly spiraling downtowns,
because low FARs create unwalkably large spaces that are more car-scaled than people-scaled. People feel more comfortable in the quaint, enclosed spaces created by, say, 2.0 FAR buildings. They feel exposed and in a “no-man’s-land” when FARs are less than 1.0 (which is fine if you are inside an SUV…)

Note that I am NOT suggesting that we require more than 1.5 FAR everywhere in a community. Only in in-town places where more walking and urbanism are being promoted do we want to see 1.5 FAR or more. In suburban and rural locations, it is generally okay to have an FAR of 0.5 or less — unless you are trying to create a walkable neighborhood center (a sea-of-asphalt shopping center that is to be transformed, for example) in the middle of a suburban location.

Here is an excerpt from the Urban Design Toolbox I wrote for Gainesville, Florida that will forever collect dust on a shelf due to its “controversial” suggestions (and despite the Gainesville Plan Board demanding that it be published):

“…  In commercial areas, FAR should be at least 1.0. In office/industrial and mixed use areas, it should be at least 1.25 (Snohomish County WA).  Richard Untermann, a well-known urban designer, calls for FARs of 2.0-3.0 in town centers, and 3.0 for office areas.  San Diego requires at least 0.5 FAR near bus stations.  To increase employment densities, Orlando requires both a minimum and maximum FAR for most commercial zoning.  However, a FAR of 1.0-2.0 is considered ideal for creating transportation choices, yet Gainesville allows less FAR than this in town centers.  Every 20 percent increase in floor space in commercial centers developed as non-office uses is associated with a 4.5 percent increase in ride sharing and transit use…”

I’ve not given much thought to how we should design low-density residential areas, in part because nearly all of the regulations of most all American communities are intended to serve such a lifestyle, which means “we’ve got that covered — no need for more work there.” In effect, what that has meant for me is that I generally assume that the existing FARs that a community has adopted should presumably be appropriate for low-density residential areas.

Note, however, that usually, a community does not have an FAR rule for its single-family areas, probably because generous setback requirements, strict height limits, and the strong market desire for low density means there is very little danger of “too much” floor area in such neighborhoods.

In many cases, the community looking at addressing the needs of various neighborhoods or sub-areas of the community needs to make a decision about what the future intent will be for a neighborhood. Is the intent that the neighborhood remain low-density, smaller and more affordable houses and auto-dependent? If so, it would be appropriate to have an FAR of 0.5 or lower. If, on the other hand, the neighborhood has historically been low density and smaller in house size but is located near a part of the community that is intended to be more walkable and urban (such as neighborhoods adjacent to a transit center or town center), it would probably be appropriate to have higher FARs or no FAR limit so that the neighborhood could incrementally transform into a place that is more walkable, more urban, and perhaps more wealthy (due to the larger size of the homes or the high desirability of the location (in this case, being near all the urban action).

Healthy communities sometimes acknowledge that the historic character of a neighborhood should not be forever frozen in its current character. Sometimes, a neighborhood may have been originally built as a low-density residential area with smaller homes, at a time in which it was remote from the more urban locations of a city. But over time, those urban locations may grow in size or see the emergence of a new “satellite” downtown (such as a shopping center that has been rebuilt to be like a walkable downtown). In such instances, it is usually in the best interest of the city to encourage low-density neighborhoods that are now near urbanized areas to incrementally become more urban and walkable themselves.

In general, such transformation is a response to a market shift. If a historically low-density neighborhood is now within walking distance of where the urban “action” is, there will be more demand for folks who seek a walkable lifestyle to own a home in such a place. Also, when the neighborhoods near an urban center become higher density, they make the urban center more healthy, because a denser neighborhood brings more pedestrians and less cars — and excessive numbers of car trips are deadly to an urban center.

Often, if it is deemed appropriate that a neighborhood should become more compact and walkable, such a neighborhood will incrementally see some of its existing residents, who may prefer a lower-density lifestyle, be replaced by others who DO seek a higher-density lifestyle.

If we didn’t allow this to happen in cities, we’d have farms next door to skyscrapers in downtown NYC.

 

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Architectural Style in Boulder Junction, Boulder Colorado

By Dom Nozzi

May 15, 2015

I attended a “joint” advisory board workshop on Thursday the 14th (multiple boards, including planning board, transportation advisory board, etc.) to hear a presentation about creating a form-based code for Boulder Junction in Boulder Colorado. This was followed by a visual preference survey.

It is said that like politics and religion, one should not get into arguments about architectural style. Too subjective. No universal standards. Everyone has a different taste. Quality urbanism is not dependent on building appearance. And so on.

But I cannot resist expressing my views about style, based on what I experienced at the workshop.

Board members were asked to evaluate over 120 (150?) images of recently constructed buildings in Boulder. I don’t know where most or all of the photos were shot, but it looks like they came from Boulder Junction and possibly the Holiday neighborhood.

I have often heard it said that the architecture in the Mapleton Hill neighborhood — as well as the Boulderado Hotel — has the most lovable design, according to a large number of Boulder residents. That architecture is historic, classical, and ornamental. Many with brick or stone facades.

Why was it, then, that of the 150 building photos we board members were asked to evaluate on Thursday, not a single image showed a historic, classical, ornamental style? Or a façade with stone or brick?

The buildings had almost a complete lack of ornamentation. Very few, if any, cornice lines. The window fenestration tended to have no frames or sills or panes (the few I saw were snap-on, I believe), and only a handful showed a vertical orientation. Building facades and shapes were nearly universally flat, stucco, cubical, boxy, bizzare, weird, and often “warehouse drab” in appearance. Roofs were almost entirely flat rather than pitched (flat roofs tend to be a very poor idea in climates where heavy snow is common, and I personally don’t like them for residential buildings. The retail buildings contained almost no weather protection for the abutting sidewalk (almost none had, for example, awnings or colonnades).

We were in effect asked if we preferred modernist style…or modernist style.

I would have given almost every building the lowest possible score except for the fact that many of them were well-situated on their lots (pulled up to the sidewalk to be pedestrian-friendly, for example). Of the 150 images, I gave none of them a score above 3 (the range was -5 to 5).

Is it possible that the residents and architects of the city I love so much have such poor taste in architecture?

Or is it that Dom is just a fuddy duddy? A stick in the mud? An old-fashioned, anachronistic dinosaur that time has passed by?

Since writing this, I learned that the City had previously conducted a visioning process for Boulder Junction, and the agreed upon aesthetic was to emphasize modernist/contemporary style. This apparently explained why the Joint Board workshop showed a narrow, modernist-focused range of buildings. I was told by someone else, however, that the prior Boulder Junction vision process ALSO showed only a narrow, modernist range of buildings to consider. It seems to me that given the extremely hostile reaction we have heard several times recently about new buildings being built at Boulder Junction (“too blocky” seems common) that there may be a large number of people in Boulder who are unhappy about the architectural vision chosen for Boulder Junction. And I think the negative reaction directed against unlovable modernist architecture counterproductively amplifies hostility expressed toward the compact, more affordable development that Boulder and Boulder Junction needs more of. If it is true that many/most dislike the idea of a modernist aesthetic for Boulder Junction – and I believe it is true – I don’t think this is surprising, because it is well known that large majorities of those polled throughout the world (and therefore probably in Boulder) prefer traditional, classical modernismbuilding design over modernist design. One way to measure this (besides the many opinion polls) is to realize that it may not be possible to identify a single city skyline in the world that is broadly loved AND that consists primarily of modernist building styles. Consider this image…

May I suggest that the City of Boulder consider opening up a new, less narrow, less constrained vision process for Boulder Junction that includes a broader range of architectural styles (such as traditional, classical designs)? We need to avoid Henry Ford’s belief that you can have any car color as long as it is black.

Without that, my hope for form-based coding in Boulder to deliver a future with more charming buildings is sadly declining…

 

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The Tragic Lack of Leadership in City Government

 

By Dom Nozzi

October 15, 2002

Caution: Angry venting below…

Yesterday, I had the extreme misfortune of walking into the planning director’s office to observe a discussion by our city commission at their regular Monday meeting. I was, at the time, a senior planner for a city in Florida. At this meeting, the commission was discussing a (predictable) funding shortfall for the parking garage being proposed to serve the new county courthouse, and the design of this garage.

Despite my better instincts, I decided to watch, largely because a presentation was being made by the consultant designing the garage — a consultant who understands and appreciates quality design. As I watched, I vowed that I would immediately leave the room the moment a city commissioner started uttering a word.

Since 1986, I’ve seen only 4-5 city commission meetings — and those only because I was required to make a presentation to the elected city commission — because it is pure, unadulterated torture to listen to a commission meeting for more than a few seconds. This is true even though every single commission meeting since 1986 has been intimately connected to my professional work.

During the consultant presentation, the upcoming commission direction was already brutally obvious to me without their having yet said a word, despite my not having heard anything previously about commission views on this topic. As is the case with nearly all elected officials faced with funding problems or screams from constituents that a project is “too expensive,” the commission would fall all over itself to cut all of the ornamentation and details out of the garage. To create, as is almost always done, a lifeless, embarrassing, sterile, dreary box building that would create a dead zone in a downtown in desperate need of vibrancy.

I made a mistake by somehow staying in the room when one of our “leaders” began his comments.

The mad dash toward mediocrity had begun.

He starts by insisting that ALL ornamentation and detailing be stripped from the impressive architectural design. Then, the clincher: His ideological buddy on the commission chimes in by requesting that a first-floor “wrap” of offices and retail be eliminated. This “wrap” was required by a downtown ordinance I had written in the late 1990s to try to enliven these deadening auto garages.

I am sure of what my task will be today at the office: Either find a way for the commission to evade this “wrap” regulation, or prepare a staff recommendation to dump the regulation. Elected City Commissioners have an important advantage over private developers: if they don’t like a regulation, they simply get rid of it. “Do as we say, not as we do…”

As the commissioner made has case for dumping the “wrap,” I quickly exited the room. I walked out calmly, but inside I was shrieking in agony and on the verge of vomiting.

A light bulb had gone off in my head: Perhaps more so than with private developers, urban development regulations are necessary to protect against PUBLIC officials who are desperate to find any possible way to avoid making ANYONE unhappy, even if it means substantial design compromise that goes against staff recommendations. The same holds true for a great many staff supervisors. For both commissioners and supervisors, much of life consists of compromising. An important difference, therefore, between leadership and mediocrity is that the leader is uncompromising when it comes to designing for quality of life.

This entire debacle clarified, for me, how I would define leadership in the city government pursuit of an improved quality of life. There are four fundamental elements that create an urban leader. A city government leader…

…Has courage to not cave in on a proposal that is clearly in the public interest. Courage when faced with bleeding heart or “black hat” pressure to stop the proposal or emasculate MayorRileyit.

…Has wisdom about quality, timeless design in the public realm. Is not susceptible to bogus design arguments.

…Is uncompromising in her or his pursuit of an improved quality of life.

Corners are not cut on essentials. It is NOT in the public interest to be penny-wise and pound-foolish. The thousands of lifeless public buildings built around the nation over the past 50 years is testament to how few leaders are found in this country. The entirely forgettable and embarrassing “modernist” public buildings we’ve built since WWII means that our sense of civic pride is nearly non-existent.

…Is decisive. The leader understands that putting off decisions, or referring decisions to “boards,” or “task forces,” or “committees” (that is, substantially increasing the number of decision makers) INEVITABLY dumbs down the proposal, delays the project drastically (to kill political momentum) waters it down to meaningless pabulum, or kills it. The decision-maker knows that momentum to get it done quickly, while the vision is sharp in the minds of the decision-makers, is crucial in avoiding Death by Lowest Common Denominator (the non-decision that offends no one because it does nothing).

I’m sorry to have to say this, but in my 15 years as a town planner in city government, I have not seen a single city commissioner possess these four elements.

Indeed, our two latest additions to the city commission embody the OPPOSITE of the second and third of these four, to the ultimate and possibly long-lasting ruin of this community.

I’ve gotten glimpses of leadership elsewhere: Nancy Graham in West Palm Beach. Joseph Riley in Charleston. John Norquist in Milwaukee.

 

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The Use of Design Codes for Buildings: Are They Enough?

By Dom Nozzi

May 21, 2006

The following thoughts were penned after I read a newspaper article today about tacky buildings and Design Codes.

I had just returned from Santa Fe NM — perhaps the city in North America most known for having strong building design codes to ensure consistency (even the Hilton Hotel and Exxon Gas Station use adobe design there).

My take on their building consistency efforts is that while it is certainly impressive, visually, I don’t believe that such a regulation is the be-all-and-end-all of retaining unique character, ensuring quality of life, and avoiding the Anywhere USA syndrome. Even in their compact, fairly walkable downtown area, Santa Fe has a number of recent buildings that are pulled WAY back from the street by a huge asphalt parking lot out front. There are also a number of large surface parking lots at street intersections (perhaps the biggest urban design blunder a community can make, and one sure to destroy place-making).

I’m sorry, but even if the Hilton uses beige adobe for its building facade, the fact that it joins a number of other buildings downtown by being behind a sea of asphalt trumps all efforts to be walkable and unique through consistent building design.

The BUILDING DISPOSITION (how a building is sited on the property) is the urban design imperative. Give me a building abutting the sidewalk. The exterior appearance is much less important. Buildings at the street create unique, walkable places. This is NOT achieved by calling for “attractive,” “consistent” buildings. Such buildings can easily end up only being designed for happy cars.

Note, too, that a community that requires buildings to be properly located at the street typically create sufficient civic pride. Because of their quality urbanism, they usually have citizens who know that they have a unique place to be proud of. One that will attract visitors and investors and quality immigrants. One that does not have businessmen who need to lower themselves to santa-fe-new-mexico-02creating novelty by building cartoon buildings. It is the quality urbanism that creates the attraction.

Santa Fe
has blundered by thinking that building consistency is the key to walkability and uniqueness. By not regulating building and parking location (and having too many high-speed six-lane roads), they are little more than a Disney cartoon that is best seen by car.

Even if the Shell gas station looks like a Pueblo.

 

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