Form-Based Codes Institute at Smart Growth America

Community Development

An Architect’s New Media

An Architect’s New Media

for Designers + Builders

A new book by Steve Mouzon, New Media for Designers + Builders, is a must read for entrepreneurs working in any part of community development. Mouzon is author of The Original Green and writes a popular blog of the same name. In this new book he tells his own story, as an architect seeking to build his business in the tough post-crisis economy.

He says plainly, the old way of finding clients won’t work anymore, and that can be a good thing. Because it leads us to fully embrace new ways of building a business with the new “social media.” And step by step he explains how to bring all of its parts or “nodes” together in a powerful strategy.

New Media

New Media for Designers & Builders
By Steve Mouzon

Mouzon writes for designers, planners, builders, developers, even realtors, who need the new media to work differently than it does for most internet marketers. As he says of us, “We’re not selling widgets online; our business is more bricks and mortar than clicks and orders.” His advice is useful and comprehensive, helping to make sense of the dizzying array of options on-line.

This book’s strength comes from the author telling his own story, his process of learning to use the new media, his choices and why he made them. This keeps it interesting, as a story about himself and others, rather than a bland review of a bunch of technologies. He assembles the ”nodes” together to create a rich web of communication (rather than self-promotion). He is not a technical expert. Still he is able to utilize every facet of the social media in one way or another, relating micro-blogging (i.e., tweeting) to blogging, website and e-mail strategies. And throw in public speaking! Mouzon also covers the ancillary techniques, such as image use and storage, which are so vital to architects and planners.

At the heart of his approach – the underlying reason for using the networks – is value creation that opens opportunities and collaborations. To make the social media work, the practitioner needs to put some real value out there, giving knowledge away even for free. The author acknowledges that building up a web presence with deep connections takes time, but he affirms the effort will render rich rewards to those who provide real value.

And here is where form-based coders can make sense of it all. Our work provides the regulatory underpinnings of New Urbanism, the DNA of well-designed communities. It’s a good idea upon which the whole structure stands, relying on the power of persuasion. And that requires networking and media of every kind, old and new.

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Why Design Guidelines, On Their Own, Don’t Work

Why Design Guidelines, On Their Own, Don’t Work

Originally published in Better! Cities & Towns, 22 December 2010.

While lifting federal funding restrictions on stem cell research President Obama said, “we will develop strict guidelines, which we will rigorously enforce, because we cannot ever tolerate misuse or abuse.” Notwithstanding the political rhetoric, are standards different than strict guidelines? Can guidelines be rigorously enforced? In common usage, the terms “guidelines” and “standards” are frequently used interchangeably. However, within the development regulatory framework, a guideline is a helpful suggestion — you don’t have to follow it, but it is recommended. On the other hand, standards are legal and mandatory requirements.

Design Guidelines

Zone Parcel

Conventional Zoning
Density use, FAR (floor area ratio), setbacks, parking requirements, maximum building heights specified

Guidelines are explanatory and interpretive recommendations that encourage, not require, its use.  Administered through appointed design review committee, commission, or advisory board, guidelines are created to fit a wide range of situations, but not all. Guidelines are typically attractive to cities that are not politically ready to enforce design standards. Guidelines are also preferred by designers who have little tolerance for any standard that tends to limit their creative expression. Good judgment is needed in deciding where and how to apply design guidelines.

Guidelines Parcel

Zoning Design Guidelines
Conventional zoning requirements, plus frequency of openings and surface articulation specified

The problem with design guidelines is that their application is skin deep and fails to breathe life and soul into a place. The diagram (to the right) illustrates the differences between conventional zoning, design guidelines, and form-based codes. The building block (top image) complies with typical zoning controls such as land use, FAR, and height. This block is not likely to create walkable urbanism. At best, design guidelines  (middle image) can recommend articulation and openings to the building’s facade. In contrast, Form-Based Codes (bottom image) conceptualize a public realm by pulling together the individual elements: the diverse street types, variety of public and private open spaces, and contextual building types into a complete, cohesive, and memorable place.

FBC Parcel

Form-Based Codes
Street and building types (or mix of types), build-to lines, number of floors, and percentage of built site frontage specified.

A key barrier to protecting and creating distinctive places is lack of clear and precise place-based standards and a predictable review process. Design guidelines are difficult to apply consistently.  They offer too much room for subjective interpretation. Design guidelines are difficult to enforce. A developer can legally refuse to comply putting at risk the larger collective investments of neighboring properties. Design Guidelines require oversight by discretionary review bodies, leading to a protracted and politicized planning process that can cost time and money.

Form-Based Codes

Form-Based Codes (FBCs) are clear and precise standards that offers predictability. The FBCs are developed to create a specific place that the citizens desire. Both the vision and FBCs are developed with citizen input. The citizens have a higher comfort level with the end result the standards is likely to produce. City staff gets a streamlined and easy to administer review process. FBCs also create more choices, more opportunities and options for the property owner.  Typically, developers borrow money to pursue pre-construction work. For developers, time is money. The biggest incentive that cities can offer is not money, but clear and predictable development standards. Most developers are willing to build to higher standards if the rules are clear and the process is predictable. By offering adjacent predictable environment FBCs reduce risks where banks in this credit-starved economy may be more willing to loan construction money.


Design Guidelines can be added to complement Form-Based standards to address certain discretionary items such as architectural style and historic preservation. The Denver Commons Form-Based Code, recognized with the 2009 Form-Based Codes Institute’s Driehaus Award, includes both standards and guidelines. The mandatory standards address the critical form related aspects that shape the public realm, while the guidelines provide further suggestive recommendations for enhancing the public realm experience by encouraging creativity in a flexible manner.

Louis Kahn called a street “a room by agreement.” The agreement, in the form of  binding standards, is an implicit consent between the architects and their buildings to not ignore the street but to bring forth a collective etiquette and a minimum capability to pull together buildings to shape and enhance the public realm.

By itself, the guidelines simply fail to deliver great places. The terms “strict guidelines” fail to inspire compliance. The “abuse and misuse” continues with discretionary review and unpredictable outcome fueling NIMBY sentiments and discouraging economic development. Design guidelines work best only when they are paired with form-based codes.

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