First established in 1931, Charleston’s Board of Architectural Review (BAR) reviews new construction in our historic districts in an effort to preserve the Holy City’s celebrated character. However, many people are confused by some of the BAR’s choices. In fact, I’m often asked, “So how did that new building get approved?” The answer is unclear to those who are unfamiliar with the unwritten rules of design in Charleston. Keeping in mind that there are always exceptions to every rule, I have compiled a modest set of guidelines for new buildings in Charleston based on designs that have recently been approved and the resulting structures that have arisen.
1. Build as big as possible. The building shall be a three-dimensional representation of the maximum size permissible under current zoning ordinances, plus a variance bonus of about 20 percent. “Otherwise, it’s just not financially feasible.”
2. Fill the entire lot. The building shall use every possible square foot of the lot allowed. Ask for more if desired. A minimal setback along public streets shall only be required where palmettos can be planted in order to provide the least possible amount of shade.
3. Pretend it’s not just one building. Now that you have a building that is as big as possible, make-believe that it is actually seven different buildings. Vary the materials on the façade or perhaps set portions of the façade alternately back or forward six or eight inches. Using differing types of windows may help in this regard (see rule No. 5).
4. Make the building as plain as possible. There shall be no evidence that any part of the building was made with human hands. All parts of the building shall be machine made. This ensures that factory quality control standards are met.
5. Vary the window types. The windows shall be of varying sizes, if only to satisfy rule No. 3. There shouldn’t be any consistency to the building as a whole. “Window systems” catalogs have numerous options that can be easily plugged into AutoCAD if the BAR unexpectedly frowns on one particular style or another.
6. The roof shall be flat, no exceptions. Roof gables waste valuable square footage and squander the best views. It’s also difficult to put all of the HVAC systems on top of a gable roof, which violates rule No. 7. In many cases, the buildings themselves are so big that the resulting gables would be as tall as a mountain.
7. Crown the building with HVAC. A flat roof is the perfect place to put these systems. If necessary, cover them with a gabled, wooden cabana.
8. Include a rooftop amenity. It has taken several hundred years, but we have finally figured out that piazzas are yesterday and rooftops are today. Outdoor bars, seating areas, and pools are essential amenities for residents to use once every few months. These amenities are perfect for flat roofs and look good in the marketing brochures.
9. Construct levitating projections. A portion of the building must levitate, preferably projecting from the building. It can be something over an entrance way, over a sidewalk, or even on the fifth floor. Some part of the building must project outward with no obvious means of support.
10. Construct something at an angle. All buildings shall include something constructed at an angle. Mix it up. Go wild. It can be a fun canopy over the door, a playful ceiling over the entrance courtyard, an exciting plane of the building (preferably levitating), or a dramatic roof form (butterfly only). There are a number of examples of how to do this in various international architectural magazines or by taking a tour of suburban gas stations.
11. One corner must be glass. No building shall have four corners constructed of a solid material. At least one corner must be made of glass. This is very interesting for people walking by who are tired of four-cornered buildings, and who may also want to check the fall of their cuff over their shoe.
12. Include a corner “element.” One corner of the building shall also include some sort of constructed contraption also known as an “element.” This can be an upward-projecting piece of metal, a tower thing in the form of a parsons table, a cupola, or anything similar. This element anchors the building and can be useful as a logo or as a place to include the name brand of the building.
13. Mix the materials. Building façades shall include multiple materials and even multiple colors. Use red brick on the ground floor, and perhaps brown brick on the second and third floors. Consider metal panels elsewhere. Stucco may fill the other blank spaces (see rule No. 15). Be sure to prominently note to the BAR your use of cast stone “elements” as applicable. This is a mark of true distinction, now that we have run out of stone and marble on Earth.
14. Install metal panels on the public façade. This is a wonderful innovation and will be maintenance free. Use them to accentuate a bank of windows or on one of the levitating or angled elements of the façade. Mix up the color.
15. Limits on the use of stucco. Stucco shall only be used if the expansion joints are visible.
16. Brick veneer shall be unimaginative. Brick veneer will satisfy all of the traditionalists who question metal panels; they shall be laid in the most ordinary way possible — stretcher, stretcher, stretcher, stretcher, stretcher. The brick can be light, dark, newish, oldish, as long as it is somewhere.
17. Install horizontal stained wooden slats. There shall be horizontal stained wooden boards — preferably in a ruddy hue — that serve as some sort of privacy screen or wall material. A current issue of Dwell magazine can offer a number of examples.
18. Shade windows with “luggage racks”. Metal luggage racks shall be installed over windows to create “shade” and an “interesting moment.” These shall take the form of some sort of grid.
19. Create the illusion of a front door. There shall be a front door on the sidewalk, but it shall not be used. This will make up for the lack of charm associated with the primary entrance accessed from the covered under-building parking area.
20. Make dryer vents prominent and visible. Once the buildings are carefully designed, install dryer vents at random intervals, particularly on street façades.
21. No shutters. These are just superfluous.
22. No porches, balconies, or arcades. Porches, balconies, and arcades are yesterday’s Charleston. Tiny “Juliet” balconies are preferred, if at all. They are the perfect place to let potted plants die and to store folding chairs and Igloo coolers for the long term.
23. All bad, bland ideas shall be endlessly copied. If a building doesn’t look right, design a new one, only bigger, and build it a block away.
24. Include photographs of wrought iron brick walls, sweetgrass baskets, and Georgian-era buildings as evidence of the inspiration for the new building. This will help the BAR understand that you respect the historic building patterns and traditions of Charleston, despite the total disconnect of the new building from those traditional forms and patterns.
25. Please break all these rules. Build smaller, more interesting buildings with handmade details and traditional elements that reinforce the wonderful human scale and historic character of Charleston. Design gable roofs and dormers and balconies and porches and operable shutters and windows. Surround them with live oaks and gardens and wrought iron fences of interesting designs. The evidence of how to do it well surrounds us in the old buildings that the BAR has indeed done so well to preserve and protect since 1931.
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