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Architect About Town

Prudent designs enhance an area

Architect About Town - Special to the Fort Myers News-Press

“Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” is one of the most well-known phrases in the Declaration of Independence. Its origins lie in the concept of “life, liberty, and estate (or property)” expressed by John Locke, the English philosopher, in the late 1600s.

Recently, I spent the day as architectural expert witness at a hearing of the Sanibel Planning Committee. Cody Vaughn-Birch, land use attorney with Henderson Franklin, and I represented a group of residents from the neighborhood of Chateaux Sur Mer who united to prevent a homeowner from building too excessively in their quaint and established neighborhood. 

The goal was to convey to the Planning Committee that the Sanibel Code Development Standards give the city the facility to prevent the construction of super-sized homes, referred to by some as Hummer Homes or McMansions — or, at least in this instance, in an established neighborhood amid smaller homes which would be adversely affected by an inappropriately large house.

My role as expert witness raised the issue of John Locke’s proposal. Do property owners have the right to build whatever they want on their property within the maximum size limitations established by local governments? Or, does the community have a role in influencing the size and character of a house on someone else’s property?

As an architect, I have been trained to understand that we have a responsibility to build appropriately for the environment. Based on that knowledge, it is clear why the community needed to exercise its responsibility regarding compliance with the city’s codes (Section 86.43, Appearance of structures; size and mass of structures).

Regardless of my design convictions, the issue was about scale and mass. The proposed design dwarfed the surrounding homes. Still, it is difficult to tell someone that his or her dream home simply didn’t fit in the neighborhood.

The Sanibel Code implies a developer or homeowner has a responsibility to add to and not distract from a harmonious and established neighborhood. The code also uses terms like “general atmosphere and character” to establish visual guidelines for new developments.

With money comes the opportunity to purchase extraordinary sites. The temptation is to build big and maximize the allowable footprint on the site. Perhaps it is time for a rethink and instead consider appropriate — not big. 

Appropriate design will address the client’s needs together with the specifics of the location.

Frank Lloyd Wright, the distinguished American architect, noted in his autobiography, “I knew well that no house should ever be on a hill or on anything. It should be of the hill. Belonging to it. Hill and house should live together each the happier for the other.”

A piece of property is more than a platform for construction. A house and the property should become one and if a building is integrated with the land instead of sitting on top, it will address and exploit the beauty of its location.

Qualified architects are uniquely skilled to create this balance. Experience and education allows an architect to understand how to design buildings tailored to the client and the site as well as complement the surrounding neighborhood.

Employing strategies like minimizing neighbors sight lines but maximizing the natural features, whether it be ocean views or retaining existing vegetation or topography, will enhance a building’s appearance and its function. Very few appreciate this holistic approach that architects are capable of exercising. 

Buildings that satisfy the three criteria — the client’s needs, the land and the community — will also create real value, both monetary and aesthetic. 

It was not the intent to limit any individual’s happiness. However, by raising expectations and standards, and, designing appropriately for the environment instead of overbuilding — we do not limit the individual’s rights or the right to pursue happiness.

Employing a skillful designer who can offer the client a solution that is in tune with the needs of the individual, the location and the surroundings will collectively benefit the community and the building owner. 

We should expect nothing less.

Joyce Owens AIA RIBA