John Stewart, AIA, remembers the time that a relative in Blue Bell, Pa., asked him to design a small addition to her house. Stewart produced a sketch, which the local buildings department approved in a matter of minutes. The architect was incredulous.

Back in San Mateo County, Calif., where Stewart has practiced for 30 years, the same addition “would have taken a stack of at least 20 sheets,” he says. An architect would have almost certainly been required, not only to design the addition, but to shepherd it through a complex review process, which could include appeals. “This isn’t a place where you can pull a plan out of a book and get it stamped,” Stewart says.

Getting Involved

In fact, Stewart lives in what is—by some criteria—a kind of paradise for architects: Though statistics are hard to come by, it appears that at least 80 percent of new houses in San Mateo County (which includes such Silicon Valley communities as Burlingame, Hillsborough, and Menlo Park) are architect-designed. This is a stunning reversal of the usual pattern: In the U.S., some 80 percent or more of houses are built without an architect’s involvement. As for commercial and institutional buildings, architects who work in the area say that tight controls on what gets built ensure that their services are valued.

But what really makes San Mateo County different even from some other affluent parts of California is that many of its architects have roles in local government. Their input, as city council members, planning commissioners, and even mayors, leads to the creation and enforcement of rules that give architects an edge over unlicensed designers in winning and retaining commissions. To Stewart, the lesson is clear: “If architects want to have more work,” he says, “they should help pass laws that promote better building and make it hard for unlicensed people to design.”

The AIA San Mateo County website boasts a page called “citizen architects,” which lists members who have served in local government. There are shout-outs to nearly half of the chapter’s 70 architect-members, including Jack Matthews, AIA, who—besides being the founding principal of John Matthews Architects—serves as mayor of the city of San Mateo (population 92,000). Matthews makes clear that he didn’t go into government to make more work for architects; his goal was to serve all of the city’s residents. But by raising the profile of architects in the community, he can’t help but make life better for his colleagues. “Simply being in government helps bring the profession forward,” he says, noting that, compared to the number of lawyers in government, the number of architects is infinitesimal. (And no one doubts that lawyers in government make more work for lawyers.)

With half of its local AIA component architect-members having served in local government, others can look to San Mateo County for examples of how this type of engagement can not only benefit the community writ large, but also make its architects invaluable to the design process. Here are some of the ways that involvement in local government translates to more and better work for architects:


Many towns have complicated rules for how much space a house can occupy. There are separate regulations of setbacks, lot coverage, and floor area ratio, each requiring complex calculations. Basements and attics pose particular problems. For example, in some communities, attics more than 5 feet high are included in floor-to-area ratio (FAR), which means that there are certain architectural styles that will be difficult to build, Stewart says. The rules also consider “daylight planes,” which affect the angles at which roofs have to be built, though there are carefully worded exceptions for gables and dormers. And in Burlingame, to encourage separation between buildings, detached garages are encouraged with FAR bonuses. The upshot: To understand the interplay between these various designs, it helps to have architectural training.

Design Review

In some parts of the county, design guidelines are unusually picayune. Hillsborough, for instance, advises anyone considering a tile roof that “the use of factory-made tile should be carefully considered and tile products with a high gloss or shiny appearance should be avoided.” And good luck to a homeowner who wants to use asphalt. “When specifying composition or asphalt shingles, the product selected should be thick enough and of an appropriate color to create shadow lines when installed to avoid the appearance of a flat field on top of the house,” the handbook says. By contrast, in one mixed-use section of Burlingame, architects are advised to “draw inspiration from the style of utilitarian buildings such as sheds and Quonset huts.” Either way, the involvement of architects is assumed.

GreenPoints and Energy Audits

California requires that every new house and commercial building be audited by a GreenPoint Rater, who follows a state-mandated checklist. But each town decides how many points a project needs to receive in order to be approved. Most municipalities require houses to achieve 50 or 60 points, but in San Mateo County, 70 is common. The GreenPoint Rater must pay close attention to whether the builder put flyash in the concrete, used Forest Stewardship Council–certified wood, and recycled construction debris. Meanwhile, California’s Title 24 requires that every proposed house and every new commercial building have an energy audit—calculations, based on factors such as the amount of glazing, have to be submitted with the building permit application. Some architects perform the audits themselves. Stewart says that he brings in an energy-calculation consultant, but says that “it takes an architect to coordinate all these other professionals. The average contractor who draws up plans can’t do that.”