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Neighborhood Context

In addition to the people living in them, neighborhoods have distinct character. When you compare the "flavor" of a city block in old Charleston, SC, with that of a suburban cul-de-sac in Denver, it is clear that certain design choices and constraints are at play in each case. This article will examine some of the major factors contributing to a neighborhood’s architectural character. As a home owner planning a remodel, you should be aware that changes you make inevitably have some effect on your neighborhood and surroundings and are affected by the surroundings as well.

The distinct look and feel of communities in different parts of the world are largely formed by influences of the geographic region itself--especially the climate and available resources. Choices made historically in response to these factors contribute to design consistency. Thus, in Seattle, a region of abundant rain and formerly abundant timber, wood houses with prominently overhanging roofs are common; brick houses and flat roofs are rare. In Tucson, where timber is scarce and temperatures are extreme, readily available and thermally consistent adobe is frequently used. In Charleston, side porches running the length of houses provide much-needed ventilation.

People tend to enjoy the distinct identifiable features of design in their region. Regionalism gives a sense of place.


The advent of higher technology has wrought changes in regional character. We now have the choice to go against the prevalent stylistic grain, replacing climate-responsive design features with air conditioning and central heating. For instance, a desert house’s thick adobe walls are not essential if there is an adequate and affordable supply of power for cooling. Whether or not this is a good approach is open to debate.


On the other hand, we may choose to follow the historical local style even though technology has rendered its distinctive features unnecessary. Obsolete features may be provided for correct "flavor," rather than for practical use-- for instance, non-functioning shutters are found on many Colonial style houses in the Northeast. The value of this choice is also open to debate.

There are several ways communities control homeowners’ design choices, and thus shape the neighborhood context.

Zoning laws set limits for density and spell out allowable uses. They dictate setbacks, allowable lot coverage, and allowable height, as well as type and amount of required parking. There may be limits on resource use, such as quantity of bathroom fixtures in a dwelling. Most communities can enforce compliance with zoning laws.

Design covenants are restraints imposed by a community and attached as terms of the deed. They may significantly limit your choices in such things as style, materials, color, and placement on the lot. Be aware of these limitations before purchasing property.


Communities wishing to encourage or discourage certain types of development may designate special districts with unique constraints. These may be historical districts, pedestrian zones, urban villages, or other "overlays" which carry special design requirements. It is best to check with your local construction permitting agency prior to undertaking a remodel project.

Some highly valued things are not perfectly protected by zoning laws, design covenants and the like. Their preservation depends, instead on each contributing neighbor’s sense of community and respect.

For instance, views can be obscured by new construction which may be well within the letter of the law. Solar access can be obscured by a neighbor whose project casts shade on yours. Trees, prized by some, may be considered nuisances or view-blockers by others. They are controlled by the owner of the property on which they stand. Privacy sometimes depends primarily on new projects respecting the locations and orientations of structures already in place. In some communities, there is nothing dictating or controlling the style of houses. This may lead to exciting visual variety and diversity, and to an occasional drastically out of place creation.

As a homeowner considering a remodel, you have great freedom of choice in many aspects of your project. You must comply with community requirements, and you may choose your approach to things at the mercy of neighborliness.

You may wish to make your project reinforce the prevalent context. In this scenario, decisions about how it looks, functions, and sits on the lot will be based on precedents. If your neighbors have large front lawns with the house set way back, you might choose to do the same. This approach generally allows your project to blend in and not draw too much attention.


There are many occasions and reasons for wanting to break with the context. Perhaps a particular functional need requires an unusual architectural solution. Perhaps you have a strong sense of originality, a desire to buck trends. Perhaps there is an economic opportunity--for instance fixing up a house in a modest neighborhood to a level of detail and quality above that of the existing homes. Perhaps your taste is different from the dominant taste in your area.

When remodeling, know your options for conforming or not conforming to the existing character of the neighborhood. Exercise and enjoy your freedom, but remember the golden rule--treat your neighbor as you would have your neighbor treat you.

                                                                         © 2001 Laura Kraft - All Rights Reserved

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