As a plugged-in reader wrote four months ago:

“The planning code is a nightmare to navigate. The so called “design guidelines” are tools used arbitrarily by any of the planners to approve or disapprove a design. They are already speculating about adding Historic Districts throughout neighborhoods such as Noe Valley and Glen Park, making it virtually impossible to add on or do any exterior renovations to any house older than 50 years. Much of the planning department is provincial, narrow minded and bureaucratic beyond reason.”

As Lili Weigert writes last weekend:

“As San Francisco takes an increasingly conservative approach to historic preservation, rejected [remodeling] proposals are piling up in the City Planning office. The delays have hurt homeowners, architects and the building industry. Today most everyone – even some preservationists – has started to question the city’s permit process and what needs to change.

Michael Antonini, president of the San Francisco Planning Commission, agrees that things need to change. “There were a lot of people in the preservation community in the past who thought things were too liberal,” he said, “but the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. Now, you have to know whether some kind of historic event happened in your house, and if your house is potentially historic, you have to do a survey of your neighborhood.

Even if your house isn’t historically significant, you need to know whether the neighborhood is. All our regulations are making it really unappealing for property owners to fix up their buildings.

Antonini, who along with the other commissioners has the final say on controversial or complicated permit applications, also agrees that the current interpretation of the preservation standards is resulting in subpar architecture.”

As we write today: No kidding. And once again, perhaps it’s (past) time to move forward rather than remain stuck in the past.

39 thoughts on “Damn All Those Untalented Architects To Hell! Oh, Wait A Minute…”
  1. Apparently changes have already been put in place. There is an international code that has been adopted? Apologies if I don’t know it’s exact name. I understand one change is that with vertical additions building/planning is no longer going to require that 500 feet be the cap for additions without two modes of egress.

  2. This was the part that just made my head spin,

    Of the 10 principles, perhaps the most controversial is the ninth: “New additions, exterior alterations, or related new construction shall not destroy historic materials that characterize the property. The new work shall be differentiated from the old and shall be compatible with the massing, size and architectural features to protect the historic integrity of the property and its environment.”

    I guess this is how we get rotting facades that no one seems willing to update or repair because we cannot destroy “historic materials” (I think someone needs to explain the concept of entropy to the planing commission) . But what’s even better is that if they do approve an addition it has to be “differentiated” from the existing structure while at the same time looking like it.
    I wish SF would wake up to the fact that it is a living breathing city and not some quaint tourist trap in the Berkshire Mountains trying to preserve it’s colonial charm.

  3. you can blame bureacracy all you want, but in the end, it’s simply not the problem with bad design in SF. Over 90% of all the projects in SF are “designed” by hacks. In fact, a large majority of the new buildings are not even designed by architects, but by engineers and production architects who just churn out one project after another. the architectural world refuses to criticize itself and you’ll never see an architect show up at a Planning Commission mtg and say about someone else’s project, “this proposal is trash and this architect is a hack.” The architectural field loves to hand out awards to the better among them, but they never lambast their own and search within. There are too many faux-“architects” and engineers who get too much work in this town. Planners don’t design the buildings — they can’t make a bad designer design a good building. If you were in their shoes, you’d get a sense of what it’s like to have 1 decent proposal come across your desk for every 99 pieces of crap, all by the same 10 firms.

  4. i had no idea that there’s an official policy that architectural additions must be clashing in style. that’s just bizarre. why would the city enforce something like that? it must be in response to some past rash of poorly executed attempts at stylistically-congruent additions to victorians.
    i can see the reasoning for historic preservation, given all the sad mid-century attempts to modernize victorians (stucco, removing all the trim, etc.). it just seems like trying to enforce aesthetics with legalistic regulation still results in aesthetic mess.

  5. For those “intheknow” (per the previous commenter), who do you feel are some of the architects/architectural firms that produce superior work? I’m not in the market for one now but could potentially be in the future.

  6. some excellent comments above. many I agree with. I agree that the architectural community here should begin to criticize and challenge other architects who simply “design poorly”. We need to stop protecting the hacks and other untalented designers. Keep in mind there are good and talented architects and firms.
    Yes, the SF planning dept. at this point is lacking direction and clarity. They don’t know how to regulate the planning process..the design guidelines..and the historical standards. it’s a mess for homeowners, architects and builders.
    fluj- a couple of comments: you are confusing the Building Code with the Planning code. They are two distinctly different elements.NO, there is no “international” code that’s been adopted. The current Building Code is the 2007 California Building Code with San Francisco amendments.

  7. noeach,
    Apologies if I confused my nomenclature. Do you happen to know about a change regarding vertical additions, tho? I was told of this by a developer client last week.

  8. All i know is that i had my private residence built back in 2006 and just getting through the permit process took 19 months, so i cant even imagine if i was actually building in a area that could be deemed as historical. I cant commment about the notion of projects being designed by hacks, because for cost cutting measures i designed my house myself, and could do so because building code establishes that you dont even need any kind of credential to design a structure as long as it is no larger than two stories and complies with all the rest of the individual code requirements for electrical, and plumbing. I did however “consult” with an architect, and did hire a structural to create structural plans. Either way I can only imagine the frustration anyone would have to deal with considering the very slow nature of the process in addition to having to conform to a seemingly very undefined set of design guidelines.

  9. fluj- it’s noearch..not noeach. thanks.
    The new 2007 building code allows for only ONE means of egress from a third floor level even when the area is over 500 sf. This doesn’t apply to a 4th floor or higher, nor does it apply to a multi unit building. I’m referring here to a single family house only.
    There are many new aspects of the building code to consider. Keep in mind that SF has its’ own “amendments” to the code, which they continually adopt and change. Even as an architect, it is very difficult to navigate thru the code to understand it.

  10. this really baffles me. SF is less than 200 yrs old as a city. Everything is virtually modern compared to Rest of world cities and even most US cities. These preservationists really need to get off their high horses and realize that we don’t actually have a history, we are making it (or should I say not making it) now.

  11. @intheknow
    I do take your point. However, the city cannot expect every homeowner in SF to be able to afford a “superior” architect to design their renovation/addition and let’s remember that architectural icons (such as the transamerica pyramid and eiffel tower) were roundly lambasted when first revealed so my faith in the planning commission to be able to differentiate between superior/inferior is pretty low.
    Homeowners are caught in a trap where they have to be concerned not only with their homes “potential” historic significance but that of the entire neighborhoods. I would argue that EVERY SF neighborhood is potentially historically significant thus the problem.
    No one can make an change in any neighborhood without jumping through a series of bureaucratic hoops to determine the highly subjective aesthetic quality and potential historic significance of the home, neighborhood, city, county, state, nation (yeah I am being hyperbolic).
    There has to be a clear set of guidelines and the planning commission needs to learn how to work with owners/architects, IMHO.

  12. Noearch, The 2007 California Building Code (CBC) is based on the 2006 International Building Code (IBC). (it says so on the cover).
    San Francisco Takes the 2007 CBC and makes admendments to it and adds administrative bulletins to it (due to SF’s regional conditions).
    Fluj, new single family and two family buildings AND vertical additions to single family and two family buildings no longer require a 2nd means of egress.

  13. @flaneur
    “Are you really suggesting these Victorians aren’t worth preserving?”
    I can’t speak for Spencer, but personally I believe that something is not worth saving just because it is Victorian. There were both great houses and crap houses built in the Victorian age.

  14. of course the 2007 CBC is based on an international building code. didn’t say it wasnt. happy?
    Yes, homeowners are allowed to “design” their own single family dwelling, per requirements of the code. But…should they? most houses “self-designed” look just that. proportions are off. balance is gone. they just look home-made. you can spot them in any given block.
    And yes, while there is NO guarantee that an architect designed residence is more successful, chances are it will be..and it will result in a better living space for the homeowner.
    now..let the flames begin.

  15. Antonini is not President of the Planning Commission – he’s actually in the minority here in terms of Commissioner opinion (and on many such matters as he’s the lone Republican). The Planning Department is responding to various neighborhood groups that are seeking stricter historic related controls, many of which want stricter controls than the Department is proposing (which does allow repairs).

  16. noearch,
    If you look at page iii of the 2007 CBC it says, “this part is know as the California building code and incoporates, by adoption, the 2006 edition of the International Building Code of the ICC with the California Admendments”
    So the IBC had been “adopted” and this runs in contrary to your previous comment.
    “there is no “international” code that’s been adopted.”
    As Socketsite always says let’s get back to the topic of this post. =P

  17. whatever jeemster. you’re as bad as fluj when it comes to correcting someone.
    some advice: FOCUS!

  18. I strongly believe that SF continues to be a city despite the best attempts of its citizenry.
    What passes for Democracy in this town is an increasingly broken process… We have an incredibly small number of people with mind numbingly narrow views enforcing policy for the entire city – to the detriment of all.
    This is not a banner time period for SF – maybe in 30 years people will look back at this time and refer to it as the dark ages when every change had to be ok’d by the Official Museum of the city of SF board of trustees.
    Change nothing anywhere ever!

  19. “Spencer,
    Are you really suggesting these Victorians aren’t worth preserving?”
    No, not what i’m saying at all. I’m saying that we shouldn’t be throwing historical flags on every freaking building in the city, including some vicotrians just because they are 90yrs old. the whole city is very young and it is silly to stop development or additions or even resorations in whole neightborhoods because of so called historical significance. of course, some very special building can be preserved, but the majority no, IMHO, unless it makes economic sense

  20. intheknow,
    the planning department forces design on architects. I have designed a Noe Valley teardown/new construction where my design was not approved because it was not “victorian”. Despite the fact it was already approved for demolition. They wanted a cheap replica of victorian, and nothing else. They didn’t care that it was new construction either way. We had designed a craftman style that fit with many homes on the street, but it was fake victorian or nothing. The final product is something none of us are proud of but my clients weren’t going to fight the city forever. At least they still finished it out nicely, because in reality the planners can’t determine the victorian-ness of a home on the line drawings anyway. They can only see the angled bay and material notes. At that point a builder can put up garbage if they want.

  21. “whatever jeemster. you’re as bad as fluj when it comes to correcting someone.
    some advice: FOCUS!”
    LOL. Never mind that you incorrectly corrected me in the first place, or that I have seen you on here, and elsewhere, correcting grammar.

  22. good point Sparky-
    I’ve had similar experience as well in designing and renovating properties in Noe as well as other parts of the city. The Planning Dept. is fixated on basically just Victorian architecture, or approving cheap imitations thereof. They need some new leadership, some new design guidelines and they need to work very hard to streamline the planning process for both the homeowner and the professional.

  23. Seems to me the pendulum has swung to far toward preservation with the process itself becoming a tool for no growers but recall that everywhere you see an Richmond Special shitbox around town there was likely once a beautiful old building in its place. Some of the blocks now in this city are down right detressing
    I agree that things are way to regulated now but this is a conservative town because of the past. The planning dept. mostly reflects this.

  24. There was an example a few months ago about the cost associated with building a new house in SF and why it had to sell for $1.8 to cover costs. The fees for the planning and architect were over $300K. That’s supposed to be the target price for a home given the average income in this City.
    This just goes to show how easily these issues get out of hand and have no context or perspective to the “affordability” of housing.

  25. 300K for planning and architect fees is just insane.
    A suggestion to planning officials and/or architects: come up with 10 standard pre-approved designs with a plain vanilla victorian style for various terrain configurations. Sell the plans for 10K and get it over with already.

  26. Preservation of places someone famous may have stayed on the other hand seems verrrrrrrrrrrry reasonable. I have already submitted a list of all the places that I have lived in, had friends, girlfriends, and partied at to the Planning Department as I plan to become famous soon. History has already lost all my well spent time at the Drunktank.

  27. I will agree in theory to the concept of new construction must be different than the original, and this is largely due to the fact that construction detailing and quality has perhaps declined (clearly open for interpretation!)
    If we attempt to make new construction look like the old, I can pretty much guarantee that it will look like a cheap knock-off in comparison. Like trying to paint just a small patch on a wall, it will inevitably stand out.
    As to why there is bad design, could it be that bland design is less controversial than innovative design? Good design is often initially shocking, and only after time do some structures actually earn the respect for innovative design.

  28. The requirement that new additions be obviously that, a latter addition that doesn’t match the “historic fabric” of the structure, dates back to the US Dept. of the Interior Standards for Historic Restoration.
    I remember using that guide on old “remodels” and “flips” like “Sheraton Palace Hotel”, “US 9th District Court of Appeals” and “The Legion of Honor Museum”. All those were indeed historic structures, the carefully made additions follow those rules, and the results seem(ed) good.
    Somewhere along the line, city goverments have cut and pasted those rules to apply to virtually anything. This is wrong and needs to be corrected. But it can be worse; In Berkeley, the empty lots where something old once was, are landmarked and you cannot build on them.

  29. redseca2: are you referring to People’s Park?
    Berkeley seems like the ultimate result of over-involvement of city government creating a total mess. all of it is well-intentioned, or at least ideologically motivated.
    the ironic thing is that most of SF’s charm and character dates back to an era where there was probably almost no city oversight of building/development, just 19th century city planning (grids and narrow lots) and practical considerations (horses and feet for transportation). granted, if the city was open space being developed today, it would likely have little charm at all… it would be a 7×7 version of what’s going to occupy hunters point and the 3rd street corridor.
    but i think every new tragic building feeds the protectionist sentiment for the old.

  30. hugh,
    I do not want to hijack this thread to another cities silliness, but:
    There are actually some empty lots in the Berkeley flats where building were torn down, fell down, or burned down in the past 20 years or so that have ben landmarked with permit moratoriums on them to not let any capitalists benefit.
    Here is a list of landmark buildings in Berkeley, I count 356:,_Structures_of_Merit,_and_Historic_Districts
    Is it just me, but does the city dwesignated list seem a little long for a city of that size and history?
    Here is the San Francisco list. About 420 items (hard to count because they list many twice and/or with different street frontage addresses):
    Berkeley has almost caught up with us!

  31. Cities are living breathing animals. They change…always. Trying to say that something is “historic” in SF is often simply a means to fight change. People hate change, even if it is positive change, simply because they can’t imagine it. It is easier to criticize something that is “nebulous” and proposed, than to criticize the present and want or accept proposed change. From my perspective, especially in SF, “historic preservation” is just one of the many ways others use to try or limit your property rights. Only in SF would someone try to get a building less than 50 years old declared historic.

  32. “Only in SF would someone try to get a building less than 50 years old declared historic.”
    Kindly check your facts. The Chrysler Building in New York was built in 1931 and designated an official landmark in 1976. Lever House was built in 1952 and designated an official landmark in 1992.

  33. PS: Pennsylvania Sation was built in 1910. Protest over its protest demolition began as soon it was announced, in 1961. Granted, the building was then more than 50 years old, but just barely.

  34. I’m sorry View Lover, but planning fees did not amount to anywhere close to $300K. I can’t speak to how much they paid in architect’s fees, but the fees they’re referring to as “Planning” fees, are more likely Building Permit fees, which are levied by the Dept of Building Inspection. The Planning Dept only gets a small slice of those fees. The entire budget for the Planning Dept is less than $25million/year, of which less than $20million comes from fees. I can assure you that one piddly small building did not bring $300K into the Dept. and give it 2% of its entire budget. I don’t know where you get your info, but you should check again.

  35. Here’s a link to the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation:
    Initially they were used to determine if work on grant-in-aid preservation projects was appropriate. Makes sense if you’re getting a grant to have the work fit certain standards. Then they were used to determine if rehabbed properties should qualify for preservation tax credits. Also makes sense. Now they are used by most jurisdictions that have preservation ordinances to determine whether a project that involves a historic resource should be allowed to proceed. Talk about mission creep.
    On a different topic: architects not critical of one another’s work? You’ve got to be kidding. Hyper critical is more like it. The problem is that we have habituated to it and most of us, including the hacks, have skin like rhinoceros hide. So telling us a project is trash just doesn’t have the effect it would on a normal, sane person. Besides, if our work is any good someone is guaranteed to hate it. So we might just take it as a sign of greatness.

  36. Crummy architects, oafish, rich clients without a brain in their heads, and endless historic homes which once sported at least interesting, and often distinguished interiors by the great names in OLD San Francisco now gutted to the walls (studs!) to create ultra modern interiors by designers whose work is indistinguishable from their competitors. You need a guide to tell them apart….
    It is long past ‘about time’ that San Francisco began to evaluate the designs these thugs create. If you want an ultra modern home, why not purchase an undistinguished shell and rebuild it.
    Why would anyone allow someone to brutalize a design by Ernest Coxhead, Joseph Esherick or Bernard Maybeck? If you want a living space 75 feet long, why buy a Victorian or Edwardian and destroy everything but the facade to create your wide-open suburban corral?

  37. Interesting how the most ultra liberal city in America is arch-conservative when it comes to such issues as land use and architecture.

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