ARBs, HARBs, and a bit of carbs, (presenting to local review commissions)

before and after, enough said…

Clarity, that’s the goal. If I could end it right there, I would.

If you’re thinking I am going to address architectural presentations to clients or to professors (if you’re a student), I’m sorry, but I might disappoint you today. That doesn’t mean you won’t come away with something useful, but my mind is on presenting to local municipal boards, historic review commissions (HRC) and other architectural review boards (ARB or HARB).

originally a lovely building…where were the history advocates years ago?
a proposition that may never be built, but it made for good conversation

If you don’t know much about me, I have been a member of my city’s Historic and Architectural Review Board from its inception in 2007. I helped craft the design guidelines in 2006 when we were just a design committee. Since that time, we’ve seen countless number of applicants appear monthly before the board with their proposals for façade improvements, new signs, new awnings and in some cases completely new infill projects. Yet, it seems that being able to clearly present a proposal is a skill limited to only a few. This need not be the case.

front elevation straight context.jpg
this one is still in progress

For the sake of conversation, we need to dismiss the applicants who merely don’t care or who take offense at the obligation to submit to anyone. That’s drama that I refuse to address.

I have been fortunate to present before my own board many times; this year I presented three projects, three months in a row. My obsessive nature motivates preparation that commands respect and showcases my client in the best light with their intentions. Others have equally provided clear and thoughtful presentations as well. Unfortunately, one of the hardest parts of serving on a board is finding the tact and diplomacy to assist those who haven’t done their homework or who haven’t hired a professional.

If you live in or are presenting to a historic review commission in a notably historic city or region, it’s likely the amount of design, research and presentation will need to be commensurate to the degree of expectation of the board. Guidelines can range from highly strict with a quest for authentic to overly vague and lenient. I’d like to think our board falls fairly in the middle balancing history, design, economics and neighborhood character.

Here are my tips: (all images are projects from my office – sorry, but I didn’t wish to ask permission of others)

Hire a professional – If one is making changes, revisions, or improvements to a building or building façade, they need an architect – simple. Finding the right architect is a separate issue, but assuming one has a good architect, they will be capable of not only creating the presentation, but designing an appropriate, but exciting project that will not only be approved, but should garner community support rather than acrimony. If the changes are modest and limited to signage, then choosing a talented graphic designer and professional sign company is equally as critical. If your region has a strict HRC, then it’s even more imperative to hire competent professionals who not only can present but know the design, history and technical solutions appropriate for the project.

Welty House Colors Before_After_Page_1.jpg

Give context
– More than once, I’ve sat on my board, listening to an applicant begin a presentation as if they are on chapter four of a story, when I didn’t hear the first three chapters. Remember those listening have never seen your project, so give a (very) brief background and provide imagery that shows an overall context. Only showing a close-up image of the affected area is hard to process, therefore hard to approve.

Beeghly HARB Presentation REV_Page_02.jpg

1521 212 E Pgh St HARB Presentation_Page_02.jpg
it was obvious work needed to be done
Beeghly HARB Presentation REV_Page_03.jpg
here’s the site…btw, the demo is complete

Get to the point – In my case of a HARB or ARB or something similar, ONLY present elements that the board has jurisdiction over and nothing else. In other words, if the board is there to review the façade, don’t tell them technical details about stormwater or the interior layout. These are volunteers and they want to go home. Wrap it up.

33 East Pittsburgh.jpg

Before and After – This is more accurately described as existing and proposed. It is very helpful as a board member to quickly see the change from the current conditions to how the applicant is proposing to change it – in the same view if possible. However, keep it simple – did you read the first three points? There are several examples shown in this post besides the one below.

1624 dO Wood Fired Facade.jpg
Not much else is required here but a few color samples.

Limited Annotations
– Notes are acceptable, but even in my case, too many can be too many. It’s unlikely that one can read the text from their seat, but it’s often necessary to add notes judiciously to augment the graphics. Leave the rest to the Q+A time. On a side note, DO NOT submit construction drawings or poorly rendered CAD elevations with myriads of notes and details. Know the different audience for different drawings – I covered that in 2013 in this post.

1633 100 S PA Ave Facade HARB_Page_4.jpg
not much historical value, but a big impact expected…under construction


Samples – Material swatches or samples cannot supersede the graphics, but nothing can illustrate the color or texture more than an actual sample. Don’t eliminate color from the presentation hoping the swatches will carry the idea. These must be used to support the graphics or imagery mentioned above. They’re also fun.

real materials, actual colors

Cooper Eaton Lumiere Cambria 922 01.jpg

Clarity – This cannot be emphasized enough. Tell the story remembering the audience has never heard it before. However, the images should be able to stand alone or with very little verbal explanation. A single image that captures the entire project is the goal. Do not – and I repeat – do not prepare an incomplete presentation that requires the board members to use their imagination. Too often we’ve been asked to mentally compile a series of separate (and unrelated) images into a composite mental picture – and then approve it. The best one can hope for in this case is to have their application tabled, let alone denied. For most projects, the primary image should reveal the design proposal in a single glance. The verbal explanation should fill in the gaps not immediately evident from the images or drawings.

Beeghly corner.jpg
this is currently under construction!

1521 212 E Pgh St HARB Presentation_Page_07.jpg

Attitude – We’ve heard the adage, one catches more flies with honey than vinegar. I prefer the way Mr. Franklin put it “tart words make no friends; a spoonful of honey will catch more flies than a gallon of vinegar.” In other words, even with a sharp presentation, a hostile or quarrelsome attitude solves nothing. No one is there to debate the rules of the municipality. If they exist, then we all must follow them. Focus on HOW to comply rather than WHY we must comply.

Are you working on a presentation for a local HRC, ARB, planning commission, zoning hearing board? Did you hire a design professional and need a way to communicate your concerns with their presentation ability or plan? Are you an architect or design professional that is in the process of developing a proposal to present to your local municipal board?

Beeghly HARB Presentation REV_Page_08.jpg
a broader context could be helpful

After seeing applicants monthly for almost eleven years, I’ll say it again, keep it simple, make it succinct, but more than anything, make it clear. If you are not sure if your proposal is clear, show it to your kids, your aunt or someone not in a design field or construction and see if they can truly follow it with few or no questions. Otherwise, you might be bounced and must return with a better presentation.

Nobody wants that.

ARBs, HARBs, and a bit of carbs, (presenting to local review commissions)

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