Advice from an architect on HOA architectural committees

02/18/2014 1:44 PM

02/18/2014 9:42 PM

Note: This week’s column was written by J. Richard Alsop, AIA. Alsop is a partner in Charette Architects, PLLC. He advises more than a dozen HOA architectural review committees in the Carolinas and Florida.

The Architectural Review Committee, or ARC, is typically charged by a community’s covenants, conditions and restrictions, the CCRs, with the exclusive task of promulgating guidelines in order to maintain aesthetic standards within the community and to preserve values.

By design, ARC guidelines often leave a significant amount of room for interpretation by both an owner’s architect/designer and the ARC itself. Because the guidelines are open to interpretation, enforcement of its provisions by the ARC is sometimes perceived to be, and may in fact be, inconsistent, creating potential liability for the homeowners’ association (HOA).

When making appointments to the committee, boards should fully understand the extent of the ARC’s authority and the extent of liability the ARC can create for the HOA. Persons selected should have the leadership and personal skills needed to manage the process without bias, and be willing to commit a significant amount of time to this work.

Members should be fully aware that they must be consistent in the application of the architectural guidelines. Guidelines can and do change over time. As long as the guidelines are consistent with the CCRs and the current edition of the guidelines is the basis for its determinations, the HOA is generally protected from liability.

Making changes

A professional architect is often engaged as a consultant to help members evaluate a design with respect to aesthetics and to assist the ARC in remaining consistent in applying or enforcing the guidelines. ARCs which have not re-evaluated their guidelines within the past three or four years should consider doing so.

Here is one approach:

1. The re-evaluation would start with the committee developing a shared understanding of the aesthetic principles within the community, including architectural elements, placement of homes on lots, and landscape. In a self-directed exercise, each committee member takes photos of features on homes which he or she feels are the most aesthetically pleasing or best represent that member’s vision for the community.

When sharing, members gain the perspective of their community as seen through the eyes of the others. The architect will record the comments and apply the proper terminology to the committee’s new standards.

2. The committee should confirm the guidelines include all architectural requirements stated in the CCRs.

3. The ARC should identify where a clarification is needed in the current language. The ARC is not restricted by precedent and may place a moratorium on a particular style or feature of a home, or open the community to more themes than originally allowed.

4. The ARC should rework the language of the guidelines, making it consistent with the shared understanding the committee has developed. The consulting architect will help put the concepts into usable language understood by the design and building professions. Other members of the committee may want to create a flowchart or checklist to assist owners.

5. Once published and in use, the committee as a group should visit each home and evaluate whether the guidelines were effective in improving the aesthetics of the home or the community.

Additional point to be aware, the ARC is not required to obtain HOA board approval for its revisions, but should advise the board of changes as soon as they are published.

HOA boards interested in engaging an architect experienced in working with ARC’s can contact Kate Shelton, executive director of the Charlotte Section of the American Institute of Architects, at kate.shelton@aiacharlotte.org or call 704-369-2302.

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