Generally, before a new building or significant addition is approved, a soil engineer has to take samples from the ground and send them to a lab for analysis. The engineer uses the results to develop a foundation system, which the architect employs in his design. The engineer then has to approve the architect’s plans, providing a so-called “clean letter” to the buildings department. Then, after foundation pier holes are drilled, the engineer has to write a letter saying that the work conformed to the requirements of the soil report. Requirements for this level of analysis can make it crucial for an architect to be available to address issues of compliance.
California has, like most U.S. jurisdictions, adopted the International Building Code. But any municipality can add to the code—so long as it makes findings that the added requirements address local conditions—and architects can be critical to making those determinations. In Hillsborough, one addition to the code involves runoff. ‘This is a hilly community—and we have drainage issues. If you live at the bottom of a hill, you might get inundated,” says John Mullins, Hillsborough’s chief building official. So Hillsborough has imposed rules about runoff—essentially, “water that comes off your roof should go into the ground before it goes into the street,” Mullins says. Not every town has hills as steep as Hillsborough, but most towns have something that makes them different from surrounding communities, and that may justify building code additions.
There are also topographic, meteorologic, and geologic reasons for a high level of scrutiny. “In San Mateo County, we have everything—snow loads, wind loads, coastal ranges, and seismic activity to consider,” Mullins says.
Given the proximity of the San Andreas Fault, Mullins asks to see structural designs for all but the smallest buildings. “The architect does the drawing, then gives it to the structural engineer—they work hand in hand,” Mullins says. He adds that, while there’s no legal requirement that a residential project be submitted by an architect, “It’s certainly a lot less painful to go through the process where there’s a design professional involved.”
Convincing the Rest
Yet, not everyone in the profession is sold on the idea that engaging local government is the right way to ensure full employment for architects. Mark Bartos, AIA, founder of Bartos Architecture in San Mateo and a member of the San Mateo County Design Review Committee, is concerned that by working on the profession’s behalf through local government, architects could “perpetuate the myth that architects care only about themselves,” he says. “To advocate for making things difficult for homeowners so they have to hire us isn’t what we should do. People should be allowed to build their own dwelling without an architect.” Still, Bartos, who specializes in educational buildings, acknowledges that “one reason I love doing school facilities is that the State of California explicitly respects the need for architects on school facilities.”
Noemi K. Avram, AIA, another chapter member, also isn’t happy about the perception that architects might use government posts to make things difficult for their competitors. After all, she says, “The more we regulate, the more we stifle design.”
And she may be right. In Hillsborough, the Architecture and Design Review Board appears to discourage Modernism. According to its design guidelines, “because of the dangers posed by poor modernist design … homeowners and architects proposing to develop buildings in one of the subtypes of Modernism will be subject to a higher level of scrutiny during the Design Review process.” But the good news is that to build a house in any style requires an attention to detail that all but requires an architect’s involvement.
Does It Work?
San Mateo County, infused with Silicon Valley wealth, isn’t like other places. “People here are highly educated and appreciate good design, and they know architects are the ones who can provide it,” Matthews says. His firm’s projects include the Stillheart Institute, a retreat center located in a coastal redwood forest, and the SMART Center, a 16,000-square-foot education building on the San Mateo High School campus.
And in an area where most houses cost more than $2 million—sometimes much more—and the median income is as much as 44 percent higher than the rest of the state, homeowners are willing to pay for professional advice. Eric Nyhus, AIA, principal of Burlingame, Calif.–based Nyhus Design Group and a member of Hillsborough’s Architecture and Design Review Board, says, “There’s no law requiring an architect on a residential project, but there have been incidents, with unlicensed designers, where the buildings department sent the drawings back, over and over, with requests for more detail.”
Stewart, who says he has designed more than 100 houses in Hillsborough, says, “These regulations aren’t silly. They make for better buildings.” And “whatever rules make for better buildings,” he says, “will automatically make it more difficult for untrained professionals to take work away from you.”
That’s OK with Matthews, who says having an architect involved may increase the value of a house by 30 percent or more—far more than the architect’s fee. Besides, he says, “rules that improve the quality of buildings—by increasing the chances that an architect will be involved—benefit everyone.”
Though there are few places with the same statistical alchemy as San Mateo County, there are lessons that architects in other areas can learn from its example.
Not surprisingly, national AIA is both tracking—and encouraging—its members’ participation in local government. Paul T. Mendelsohn, vice president, government and community relations for the AIA, said his office had identified approximately 1,250 members who hold positions in local government—up from around 850 members four years ago.
What those architects do is very different from the lobbying that happens at the state and federal levels. There, the goal tends to be standardization, such as the adoption of uniform building codes, to make it easier for architects to practice in multiple jurisdictions. But the lesson of San Mateo County may be that architects have more to gain by participating in local government. After all, architects practice in communities (very few have national, or even statewide, practices), and it is in those communities where they can make real changes in what gets built.
Brooks Rainwater, national director of local relations for the AIA, and director of its Citizen Architect/Civic Engagement programming, says, “I can only imagine the well-designed, livable, and sustainable communities that we could help create by getting more architects actively involved in communities nationwide.” He adds: “There is a lot of momentum out there for this effort and the more we can get architects actively engaged in their communities the more we can get them back to work.”