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Design Guidelines and Pattern Books

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More local governments are using design guidelines and pattern books as methods for creating, preserving, or reinforcing the distinctive architectural character of an area.  Design guidelines typically regulate building scale, façade, and landscaping to ensure new development fits in with the surrounding area and preserves a sense of place.  They include more detail than a general plan, but allow more flexibility than zoning regulations. 

Design guidelines usually take one of two forms: prescriptive or descriptive.  Prescriptive guidelines are more regulatory and rigid and usually require that certain design elements are included or excluded in a project’s plans.  These guidelines are less open to interpretation, restricting creativity but ensuring design control.  Descriptive guidelines are adaptable to site conditions and allow for more creativity by encouraging or discouraging certain design elements.  These guidelines are more open to interpretation, making enforcement more difficult but providing flexibility for developers.

Design guidelines regulate new development through a set of standards for site design, landscape design, architecture, materials, colors, lighting, and signs that maintain a certain level of quality for architectural or historic features.  They may apply to single-family, multi-family, commercial, retail, neighborhood, downtown, transportation corridor, historic, or special district development. 

Similarly, pattern books can be used to document and create a vision for the architectural character of an area as enforced by design guidelines.  Pattern books are organized similar to design guidelines, but focus more on the historic architecture and value of a community by documenting traditional design and building materials.

Design guidelines usually include an introduction of the community’s character and history, a goal or vision statement, a guide for following the regulations, private and public guidelines, and a discussion of the administrative process for implementing the guidelines.  The guidelines are characterized by a clear structure moving from strategic to more detailed regulations and illustrations that display preferred or prohibited development types.  The guidelines may regulate settlement patterns, urban or rural form, urban or rural space, land use, right of way treatment, site development, building form, building placement, landscaping, architectural vocabulary, and signage themes. 

The first step in creating design guidelines or pattern books is to create a team or task force that will initiate the process, dictate the work program, schedule, and leadership, coordinate input into the process, and assist in assessing community context and developing policy goals.  The appointed oversight body should then begin appraising local context, including: the existing policy framework, such as general plan and zoning designations, design characteristics and materials, and historical design elements.  A neighborhood audit or street inventory is an important part of this practice, allowing local governments to record data on the physical features of a neighborhood or community, compare those features to historic conditions, and identify existing issues and opportunities.  Once the background information has been collected, the task force may begin to outline the design guidelines or pattern books by deciding on the nature of the guidelines, the types of development affected, and the desired goals or outcomes.  Public outreach is an important part of this process and local governments should solicit the input of stakeholders, developers, and residents through community meetings or town charrettes where the group may identify benefits, problems, and solutions together.  After formalizing and adopting the design guidelines or pattern book, local governments should implement the regulations when approving development applications.  Local governments should continuously enforce design guideline compliance and manage future regulation evaluation and refinements.

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