The Little City’s Design Guidelines

Falls Church Times Staff

June 17, 2010

Almost ten years ago, the City published the Falls Church Design Guidelines. The Design Guidelines are the community appearance component of the Comprehensive Plan.  This resource document is predominantly used in two instances:  review of commercial structures by the Architectural Advisory Board and review of historic properties (primarily residential) by the Historic Architectural Review Board (HARB).  A small section of the document covers residential design and provides suggestions on achieving visual compatibility within the City’s neighborhoods.

The City’s suggestions on residential design state that the footprint, mass, forms, height and width of new construction should relate to the majority of surrounding houses.  Opting for a roof type (pitch and materials), architectural details and exterior materials similar to houses in the immediate neighborhood are suggested, as well.  Like design guidelines used by other municipalities, the City’s recommendations point toward residential designs that unobtrusively add to a pleasant visual rhythm and flow of our neighborhood streets.

Those desiring more traditional design to fit in among the City’s established neighborhoods should find the Design Guide useful.  Additionally, it is possible that a modern or contemporary design could also achieve a degree of visual compatibility amongst older houses in an established neighborhood if these suggestions were followed.  As for the actual text of the document, linked below, more specificity would be useful in defining what is meant by the terms “neighborhood” or “neighboring buildings” or “surrounding buildings.”  For instance, how far does my neighborhood extend?  And, is the house six doors down the street a neighboring building, a surrounding building, or does that term just refer to the houses on either side of mine?   If the document is updated in the future, these clarifications should be added.

Recent remarks in the Falls Church Times concerning infill houses and the future of the Woodland House and property indicate a concern with the changing appearance of our neighborhoods.  Zoning can address some aesthetic issues and does to a small extent.  For instance, the code prohibits satellite or radio antennas from being placed in front yards.  Another section of the code requires that air conditioning units be screened from pedestrian view.  And, houses on standard lots cannot be taller than 35 feet or two and a half stories whichever is less. Yet, zoning is a clunky apparatus for achieving good design respectful of neighborhood context and the Dillon rule prevents jurisdictions from heavily regulating aesthetics.

Other cities have their own design guidelines – some are much more detailed.  These cities also have the resources and staff to promote their use.  (See the guidelines used by Lake Forest, IL, for example.)  The City of Falls Church places greater emphasis and resources on how commercial buildings look and the preservation of historic buildings.  Given the need for other city services, the priorities of city resources and staffing with respect to residential design are unlikely to change.

Building a new house or renovating an old one takes considerable thought and planning. The suggestions in the Design Guidelines will not fit every situation, but they are a solid resource for city residents in the early stages of building or renovating.  The Design Guidelines can be found here.

June 17, 2010 


2 Responses to “The Little City’s Design Guidelines”

  1. Louis T.Olom, Falls Church, VA. on June 17th, 2010 9:56 pm

    Good piece. Over the years ( decades is a better word) many of us have opposed the gradual en croachments iof commercial structures into or abiding residential areas. A recent example is the efforts on the corner of Lee Highway and East Jefferson Street at the northern en d of the city. Ask the residents of East Jefferson Street about the latest proposed incursion. (latest means for more than a year) that practically adjoins their homes.The intense desire tto convert this litle city into a commercial one, givenTysons corner on the west and 7corners on the east is a misconception of what we have been all aabout for the past 50 years. The answer is to follow the quality of our successful education city and entice more businesses that bear the standards of similar of quality. We hav e a goodly number of them.We c an always use more especially professions of verying kinds including b usiness associations..Appropriate design is a subject for different treatmen t.Many thanks.

  2. j bowman on June 21st, 2010 3:49 pm

    Thanks for the information and reference link to the Design Guidelines. Very interesting… especially with the redevelopment plans being proposed for the “Northgate,” the “Gateway” and most recently, the “Waterfront.”
    There are extensive redevelopment plans by Arlington County for the East Falls Church Metro area. Rezoning will allow for taller buildings (5 to 9 stories.)
    Falls Church (the Little City) could continue to strive to create the appearance of a small to mid-scale urban streetfront (p28) on the main corridors. The character of our community can be preserved with thoughtful planning and appropriate design guidelines.

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