First, we need to understand what features define the character of a neighborhood to know how new developments can be made to fit into an existing one. Walking in one neighborhood can feel very different from walking in another. What accounts for this difference? The building façades, the scale, height, setbacks and other features have a real effect on the feel and character of a neighborhood. While the absolute measurements of these features may vary from one building to the next, cohesiveness can be achieved through good design.
*The following examples, schematics, and photos have been borrowed from other sources—See references at bottom of page.
Façade refers to the front face or public face of a building. The red-shaded sides are the façade of buildings below. Façade plays an important role in determining the experience of a passing pedestrian or driver because it is the most visually prominent feature of a building.
In the schematic above, the buildings along the street are quite diverse in size. Yet, the similarly scaled façade help them mingle together. Compare this to the schematic on the upper right hand corner. The extent to which the street is built out is similar in both of these images; yet having a building with a very wide façade that is out of proportion with the rest and creates an unpleasant effect. Even if we introduce a building that is larger than what is typical in a neighborhood, we can make it fit better by breaking up its façade.
This naturally leads us to the discussion of scale. Building scale is one of the most obvious character feature in a neighborhood; a building that is out of whack in scale is easy to notice. While we tend to talk about the absolute scale of a building to determine its compatibility, what’s truly important is the scale we perceive.
Setback is the distance a building is set back from a street or road. Here we focus our discussion on the front setback as it affects the public space the most. It is difficult to say that a setback of X-feet is appropriate in every context. However, there are few things to consider in choosing your setback.
Setbacks affect the streetscape
The experience of people and drivers along a public street is effected by how the adjacent buildings and developments are setback - or not - from the sidewalks and roads. This experience of the streetscape can vary by the size of setbacks. A smaller front setback creates a streetscape where buildings become the dominant feature; it also generates a greater sense of enclosure. While setbacks of houses may vary slightly, stark differences in setbacks can make the neighborhood look inconsistent or chaotic.
Setbacks affect sociability
Jane Jacobs, the author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, was one of the most influential critics of urban design and planning. Jacobs argued the trivial social interactions with our neighbors, when accumulated, have a non-trivial impact on public trust.
“…the sum of such casual, public contact at a local level—most of it fortuitous, most of it associated with errands, all of it metered by the person concerned and not thrust upon him by anyone—is a feeling for the public identity of people, a web of public respect and trust, and a resource in time of personal or neighbourhood need” (p. 56)
Ask yourself these questions: if your neighbor walks down the street, would you be able to greet them from your front door and strike a brief conversation? Can you see what your children are doing in the front yard and call them into the house for dinner? If the answer is no or a hesitant yes, consider whether the setback is creating an environment conducive to these brief, daily social interactions. A smaller setback tends to encourage these social interactions.
On some streets, porches are a common feature. Unfortunately, some porches have become an aesthetic rather than a functional space. A porch is a social space for the residents, as well as neighbors and guests to visit outdoors. Here are some recommendations that will help you create a porch that is readily used.
While the importance of windows is already obvious for the tenants inside, their importance to the public space is often overlooked. Windows can promote public safety. Think about Billings’ downtown during an art walk. Even in the evening, people feel safe being downtown because there are other people bustling in the streets and there are stores still open and lit up. Other people on the streets and those looking out into the street through storefront windows are the eyes that guard the street. If something were to happen to you there will be people who can quickly intervene to help you. It is the same with residential neighborhoods. When there are more eyes looking out onto the street, it is safer.
A neighbor passing by your house should be able to easily locate the entryway to the house. One of the major culprits of obscuring the entryway is the garage. The entryway becomes obscure when the garage is set forward from it. This design caters to the convenience of automobiles, rather than to humans. If you want the garage to be at the front of the house, then make sure that it is set back from the entryway. Even better, locate the garage in the alley. The blank wall of a garage does not add to the aesthetics of a house; keep the uninteresting out of sight.
In Billings you will notice that a lot of residential buildings lie low to the ground and are wide to the side. That is, they have a horizontal emphasis. On the other hand, houses that look tall and narrow are said to have a vertical emphasis. While the absolute height and width of a building partially determine its directional emphasis, other architectural features can affect it too.
Take for example, the two houses shown above. The two-story house on the left has a vertical emphasis. This vertical emphasis is reinforced by the high-pitch roof, the long narrow windows, and columns on the entryway. The house on the right, which is also two-story high but has a very different massing, has a horizontal emphasis. More than anything, the wooden porch railings reinforce the horizontal emphasis. If you are adding an extra floor or building a house that is taller than other houses in the neighborhood, think about how you can design windows, entryways, roofs, other features to give a more horizontal emphasis.
Craighead, Paula M. The Hidden Design in Land Use Ordinances. USM New England Studies Program, 1991.
The Infill Design Toolkit. City of Portland Bureau of Planning, 2008.
McAlester, Virginia S. A Field Guide to American Houses: The Definitive Guide to Identifying and Understanding America's Domestic
Architecture. New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2013
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