Friday, January 20, 2012

Rules, Rules, Rules, and Frank Lloyd Wright

I have always wondered about the never ending growth of planning and development rules and regulations. There are so many of these death-by-a-thousand cuts ordinances, that it is hard today to point to one, wave a wand, and say, “Be gone with you!” At times you just want to throw the baby out with the bath water and start over.

In the development game (and it is a game, trust me), there are proposals, counter proposals, reviews, and plans. There are general plans, specific plans, regional plans, ordinances, zoning rules, and codes. There is CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act), EPA, Cal/EPA, Fish and Game, Fish and Wildlife, Army Corps of Engineers, and the California Water Resources Control Board (watch out for this one – it may become the most powerful), and hundreds more.

Every project in most states, from a room addition to the development of a new city, is required to wade through some approval system so that it is properly sanctioned for construction. This is understandable, everything bumps up against everything else, these agencies and their approvals help to reduce the friction and potential conflicts that may arise in the future. But, at the same time, it takes someone with the skills of magician to pull the proverbial rabbit from the approval hat. Often, I feel, it is more an effort of tribute (fees) than triumph (approval).

Today we clothe our projects in all forms of environmental garb to deflect and hide the real impacts of a project. “Look, we are going for LEEDs Gold, aren’t we special (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). We are more than willing to develop a project well in excess of reasonable costs, just so we can get our approvals. Look at our grass covered roof, our solar panels, our windmills, or quadruple thick glass windows, our electric plugs for vehicles in the garage. You just have to approve us. We play the game well!”

But the project is still steel and glass, uses millions of gallons of water, throws off like amounts of sewage, consumes electricity, and requires employees (and their nasty cars). The impacts are no different (except by very small degrees) than a more realistic project across the street that is more practically built. But don’t we feel better and we just missed going Platinum LEEDs by not using bamboo flooring, damn.

The practical aspects of zoning and planning laws allow our cities to look to the future and shape how they see themselves adapting to changes in economics and population. They help to anticipate infrastructure needs and replacement. In some ways they also respond to the need to protect the value of properties and equity. This all important aspect of planning affects all of us to one degree or another. Lord knows we all don’t want to live next door to a gas station or McDonalds.

After this current economic mess sorts itself out (trust me, it will but it still won’t be pretty), I am concerned that we will try to increase the governmental oversight even more than we do now. Economies grow and shrink; this is the nature of the business cycles we face. In real estate the rules of supply and demand are rigorously enforced by the marketplace. These rules are not negotiable contrary to what government agencies think; just ask Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac how’s it going? Passing more control to these agencies is just plain wrong.

Do we have enough rules? Are our homes and businesses well protected by building codes? Do we need more layers of approvals, agencies, and codes? Just because we can, should we?

During my short tenure at Kent State in the architecture program in the 1960s we took a field trip to see Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece in Pennsylvania built for the Kaufmann family. It is also called Fallingwater and by most respected and unrepentant architects and designers, the most beautiful and delightful house in America. It is a monument to scale, site, design, imagination, and poor construction (it leaked, a lot). But class, there is also one very important element to remember:
Fallingwater - Frank Lloyd Wright
There is no way this building could be built today. Every local, state, and federal planning agency would give it a thumbs down. To our collective shame!

Stay Tuned . . . .

1 comment:

  1. GREAT post! I think this is similar to what I am attempting to say in my blog. It is at if you want to look and comment. It is a brand new blog and I am DESPERATE for feedback.

    I was in Kent at the same time you were there - during the 60s and the shootings etc.