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  NEW TOWNS
JULY/AUGUST 2006
 

The Town Architect: Circuit-Riding

The objectives and methods of the town architect have changed significantly since Teofilo Victoria's backpack was thrown off the bus at Seaside, Fla. nearly a quarter-century ago, making him Seaside's first town architect -- because he was the one left behind.

Interestingly, Teo's method, which is that of the resident town architect, has changed the least. It is useful for the most heroic projects, because they can afford to staff a full-time architect. Because it tends to be an all-consuming position, resident town architects tend to burn out in a couple years. Gary Justiss recently founded the tongue-in-cheek Society of Recovering Town Architects (SORTA.)

The architectural committee should be considered a dinosaur because it is not only financially unsustainable, but also is highly inefficient: Imagine trying to get a half-dozen architects to agree on a long list of detail issues! The remote town architect is currently the most commonly used method. However, this has several problems, the foremost of which is time: It can take many weeks to get comments back. And if there are problems, the resulting dialogue can stretch out over months.

A new method solves these and other issues. The circuit-riding town architect flies to developments once a month or as necessary. Designers know the schedule and have their work complete at the appointed time. The town architect sits across the table from the designer, the builder and the client (if it's a pre-sale). The development team has a representative who attends the review.

The eight seconds required to unroll a set of plans is the response time. The town architect marks the drawings in front of his or her audience, but rather than simply telling them what's wrong, the town architect discusses the principles behind the problem. Learning the underlying principles helps the designers improve the quality of their work significantly over time.

Because the town architect is marking the drawings on the fly, the designer and builder feel they're being included in the discussion. Because the setting is collaborative and principle-based, if a designer or builder has serious issues with a proposed solution, they can find another right way to do it on the spot. Because the designers get markedly better over time as they learn architectural principles, subsequent reviews are often shorter, making the day more profitable for the town architect.

The financial model is sustainable. In most developments, builders pay design review fees that vary between $600 and $1,000 per house. The town architect charges a fee that allows for at least three reviews. For example, charging $165/review totals $495 for three reviews, $660 for four, and $825 for five, making it in the developer's interest to see that the designers are responsive so that the plan moves crisply through the process. At 15 to 25 reviews per day, most people only need to work a few days per month as a circuit-riding town architect.

Steve Mouzon is a principal of the New Urban Guild in Miami, Fla., and the town architect of Providence, Gorham's Bluff, The Waters, and the Moss Rock Preserve, all in Alabama.