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Will Downsizing McMansions Fatten Architects’ Wallets?

March 10, 2008

By Ted Smalley Bowen

In a ruling that could help bolster the enforcement of zoning ordinances that cap house size, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court recently upheld the authority of local communities to restrict overbuilding. Although the case is one of a handful around the nation to take up the issue so far, interest in smart growth and sustainability is increasingly focusing regulators’ attention on house size—and this could ultimately accrue to the benefit of architects.

“It’s a very telling sign that the court is addressing the significance of mansionization,” says Lora Lucero, a staff attorney with the American Planning Association. “The justices focused on the negative impact on the neighborhood.”

The Massachusetts court, ruling in January, sided with the town of Norwell’s zoning board in denying a developer’s application to replace an existing house with a new one more than twice as large. The town had rejected the proposed teardown as a means of preserving the neighborhood’s character, and to maintain its stock of affordable housing. The court affirmed the power of local authorities to restrict land use on the basis of such priorities.

The case dealt with a non-conforming lot, one that predates but does not meet current zoning criteria. As in some other states, Massachusetts law makes provisions for such properties, generally grandfathering the original lot and use but subjecting post-ordinance changes to review. The court considered the degree to which proposed changes on the lot would increase the negative impact of its nonconformity on the surrounding neighborhood.

The ruling has implications for states whose laws don’t directly address non-conforming lots and uses but, among other measures, provide grace periods for bringing properties into conformance or rely on case law. “This case does show that communities could look to their [inherent] police power,” Lucero says.

For their part, property rights groups and many developers argue for a more laissez-faire regulatory approach. “You’ve got to have some balance between what’s reasonable for the community and what the owner of the property could be allowed to do,” says David Crowe, senior staff vice president at the National Association of Home Builders. If there’s demand for larger houses near business districts or public transportation and greenfield development is restricted, for example, he suggests that property owners ought to be granted more latitude in expanding or rebuilding. “Our philosophical position is to let the market do what the market can do.”

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One market that could benefit from curbs on super-sized houses is the design profession. Ordinances that steer developers and individuals away from cookie-cutter McMansions, or that require homebuilders to finesse smaller footprints on oddly shaped lots and expand existing houses more tastefully, could increase demand for the services of an architect.

“I have worked on projects where I’ve been hired because the zoning is too complex for the homeowner to work through and going for a variance is too big a risk to take,” says Frank Shirley, a residential architect based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “There’s no perfect zoning bylaws, but they do more good than bad.”

Other observers caution that it takes more than regulations to encourage quality architecture. “It’s not really about size, it’s about design,” says Jeremiah Eck, FAIA, a partner at Boston-based Eck | MacNeely Architects. “It has to be about artful decisions based in the craft of architecture with full participation by homeowners, designers—I didn’t say just architects—and builders. Until we come to see our homes in that way, they will continue to be nothing more than speculative commodities.”

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