02B: Site — Legal Restrictions

restrictRestriction…the mere mention of the word suggests a litany of negative meanings. Words such as can’t, limited, restrained and confined come to mind. From a child’s perspective it’s more severe and can mean banished. To most rational minds it’s an obstruction or setback, but to an architect it means opportunity.

The state, county, city and local homeowner’s association (if you have one) create restrictions because they do not like you and want to legally exclude or personally discourage you from entering their domain. Segregation advocates create friendly sounding blockades called covenants marketed as community preservation initiatives, but could be construed as methods to discourage architectural and lifestyle diversity. My advice to those wanting to avoid discrimination is to buy rural or hire a very good attorney — if there is such a thing. I recommend the former. Ok, maybe restrictions have their place in society, but one can admit overall they seem silly.

When I review restrictions and covenents, I look for anything that would get me in trouble or compromises the client’s goals and I brainstorm solutions to deal with it. This requires dissecting the original intent buried among the legalese so I can balance legality with reality. Sometimes this means pushing the envelope. Reviewing these restrictions before designing the house saves time. After you’ve fallen in love with your home design is the wrong time to find out your house is too small, too tall, violates setbacks or is the wrong material. To learn what I’m up against, I study site access, survey the available utilities, check site capacity and review state and local codes.

  • Access / Circulation: The first thing I observe is site access and natural circulation. I explore the opportunities for residential vehicular approach, service vehicle approach and pedestrian traffic. Wherever possible, I use natural paths to preserve the original site features and reduce disturbance. The image below shows observations and conclusions for my site survey.


  • Utilities: First, I inventory the available utilities and ask the client if they want to be on or off the grid. Then I brainstorm ways to reduce the cost of supplying electricity, water, sewer, gas, TV, telephone and internet to the home while maintaining the required separation distances between them. For example, on our site, only electric and telephone were available. For water, we had to dig a well. For sewer, we had to install a septic system and for TV we only have satellite available. The diagram below shows my utility thought process.


  • Footprint: This is the Cinderella exercise. I check to confirm the shoe fits. The idea is the site has a certain capacity after reducing it to the buildable area (subtracting easements and setbacks) and the homeowner has a certain home size in mind. If these contradict one another, it means building up, down or somewhere else. Our site offered excess capacity. We chose the middle clearing which allowed a 4,800 SF area (removing a few mostly dead trees) for a 2,300 SF home. No problem.


  • Code / Covenant: This is the most creative part and the part that frustates me the most. Elitist developers and homeowners use a document called a covenant to taint the architectural diversity that makes neighborhoods interesting by limiting aesthetic taste. Their goal is to screen what they deem undesirable which in most instances is any house that deviates from theirs. Our covenant retains the right to refuse any home of unusual design or ban certain materials. I’ve noticed they administer that authority discriminately. If the home is expensive relative to the average neighborhood home, they grant it approval. However, they may scrutinize or even reject a perfectly beautiful home of modest proportions with cost preservation techniques. Perhaps most astonishing is the belief that these volunteers think they are improving the visual environment when in truth, by limiting materials or design diversity, they inadvertently brand their neighborhood as a production building look-alike. Obviously you can tell from my tone, I was one of the undesirables. For an architect, this is baffling, but that’s where we excel because we interpret the covenant intent and design a home that meets it — even if balanced precariously on legality’s edge.


When you are designing your dream home, you don’t want to be limited by restrictions and you certainly don’t want to taint your dream by violating restrictions that will plague you for years to come. While the mere mention of the word may seem oppressive, to your architect, it means cultivate the creativity to search, dig and find alternative solutions to make the homeowner’s dream possible. It’s not always easy, but it’s always worth it.