Form Follows Zoning


When Louis Sullivan, purveyor of modern American high-rise architecture, said more than 100 years ago that ‘Form Follows Function’, he perhaps didn’t realize the extent to which building form would not be determined only by building type and the laws of physics, but by zoning laws, building safety codes, real estate developer balance sheets and even vocal neighborhood groups.

For every new building project, an architect’s role is to balance these opposing forces, while also delivering a scheme that is aesthetically pleasing and appropriate for its surroundings. This can be a challenge, but also an opportunity for designers to find creative solutions working within constraints.

Following are just a few of the many parameters an architect must work with when designing this type of project:

Form Follows Zoning

Zoning is a term with broad implications, used to describe the set of regulations put forth by local governments that dictate what type of building can be built where. For each land plot, zoning laws also indicate floor area ratio (FAR, or how much area of building can be constructed), allowable building height, bulk limits, site density, setbacks, and parking requirements, among other constraints.

The FAR number is of paramount importance: it is the magic number used as a multiplier of a site’s area, resulting in the allowable gross floor area. The higher the FAR number, the more area is allowed to be built on a given plot. In most U.S. cities FAR numbers are difficult to amend except through cumbersome political and legal processes. On the other hand, in developing countries such as China, FAR numbers change on an almost daily basis as zoning regulations remain malleable in order to meet of the moment economic growth needs.

For high-density commercial and multi-family residential buildings, real estate developers typically seek to maximize FAR to get the highest return on investment. For tall buildings, that means building to the height limit, and then asking for a variance to exceed the height limit if it does not max out the FAR.

Bulk limits deal with the ascending bulk of skyscrapers, mandating setbacks in the building form as the tower rises up to mitigate shadow impact. That is how you end up with ‘wedding cake’ buildings like the Chrysler Building and the GE Building at Rockefeller Center, both of which were a result of setback mandates in New York City’s 1916 Zoning Resolution. These Art Deco masterpieces are prime examples of how architects cleverly worked within zoning laws to design handsome buildings.

Form Follows Parking Requirements

While parking requirements are indicated in zoning laws, this constraint warrants its own category. It is remarkable how much influence the personal automobile has in shaping the modern city, not only in terms of road infrastructure but also in the space required for parking when cars are stopped. Parking requirements are responsible for urban design situations like the ubiquitous linear strip mall setback a great distant from the street, separated by a sea of parking spaces.

Even in dense urban environments, parking is usually a requirement for new buildings. This means that when designing a multi-story building, the parking layout is what sets the structural column grid that stacks vertically throughout the entire height of the building. A typical 30 ft. column bay (measured from center to center) will accommodate 3 parking spaces, which then results in the building’s entire structure being based on the 30’ column grid.

Parking garages are either below grade or above grade (above lobby level), and usually do not count towards FAR. There are various reasons (including geological/topographical) for placing a parking garage either below or above grade, but in either case, structure is ultimately designed to accommodate the needs of automobiles.

Form Follows Rentable/Saleable Area

In addition to zoning requirements, architects must also meet the needs of their developer clients. This entails realizing in form what real estate bean counters calculate to be the appropriate mix of area for what is to be built.

If it is commercial office space, developers follow the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) standards of measurement to calculate how much ‘rentable area’ can be squeezed out of a building’s floor given a building’s envelope. Of utmost importance in this calculation is the ‘load factor’ or ratio of rentable area to usable area, determining how much building owners can charge their tenants.

Also important is the ‘lease span’, with a 45 ft. clear span from service core to exterior wall being the ideal. This allows flexibility in office layout and also ensures enough natural light penetrates deep enough into the office space.

In residential buildings, saleable are is what developers are after and that determines the mix of unit types (studios, 1 bedrooms, 2 bedrooms, etc…) in a given market. This can frequently change during the design process based on changing market conditions

For towers with a mix of uses, designing a functional building places tremendous onus on the architect to balance competing forces of different building types consolidated into one vertical structure. With financial rewards ultimately more important than aesthetic outcome, architects have to struggle to create a beautiful building within these constraints.

Form Follows NIMBY Demands

In the U.S., and other democratic countries with strong property rights, new building projects are subject to the scrutiny of local neighborhood and vocal environmental groups. Often derided as NIMBYs (Not-In-My-Back-Yard) by those on the pro-development side of a new project, these groups usually have predictable objections, the most common being    increases in traffic. Yet if these NIMBYs, especially in urban settings, have objections to traffic, rather than protest individual projects, they should write their local city councilman suggesting a change in zoning to modify parking requirements.

Even after the approval of extensive traffic and environmental studies, NIMBYs may criticize a building’s appearance in a last ditch effort to prevent construction. Objections include obscure criticisms such as a design does not fit in with ‘neighborhood character’. This criticism reflects a fundamental misunderstanding that even in historic neighborhoods, a well designed counterpoint or contrast can be a suitable proposal. After all, cities are not static museums frozen in time but dynamic and evolving organisms.

Unfortunately, the NIMBY victory can often be a final blow to what would’ve otherwise been a successful, beautiful design.


For architects, designing a building is more like solving a puzzle rather than an exercise in unrestrained creativity. Surprisingly, there is little discussion of the real world constraints in architecture schools. This is perhaps due in part to the fact that regulations vary greatly from place to place, but the fundamental importance of planning and zoning should be emphasized more often.

For all stakeholders involved in new building projects (developers, local officials and planning departments, the design team, concerned neighbors) what is written in the local zoning code provides the basis for every decision made. For those interested in making better, more informed planning decisions, individuals and governments should focus less on singular building projects and more on easing the process of making changes to local zoning codes.

Adam Nathaniel Mayer is an architectural design professional from California. In addition to his job designing buildings he writes the China Urban Development Blog.

Follow him on Twitter: AdamNMayer

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Form Follows Function

Nothing new here for most architects. Sullivan may not have been quite as constrained in his choices as we are today, but the dictum still applies; the "Functions" are more numerous, but so are the options for expression of form.

I get a hint in the article that architects would be better off to think of themselves as little more than factotems of the development industry. It may be useful, however, for everybody to take a step back and remember that architecture is a profession. Its practice requires years of training and a license. The license is to protect the public health, safety, and welfare. It has long been understood that a high aesthetic value for well designed and constructed buildings is a public benefit. Hence, the developer is not the only entity with a legitimate stake in the form and function of their project. The "bottom line" involves considerations that expand the bottom line to include realization of the larger obligation to the environment and community.

The architect has a responsibility to the community as well as the client. What is being lost in the discussion is that the best arbiter of what constitutes good architecture is the architect. No one else has the requisite training, aptitudes, and licensing to do the job nearly as well. It is easy to spout the old saw, "I don't know nothin' about art, but I know what I like". Such comments are more an admission of ignorance than an argument for superior design, building function - or community benefit.

Nicely written article; on a

Nicely written article; on a subject that is all too neglected these days with the overwhelming focus on smart growth, sprawl, and all the rest of the buzz words. It's refreshing to see something here about the most fundamental element of land use control (yes, even today in 2012).

It's almost ironic and out-of-touch to point out the origination of zoning regulation. Current circumstances in most cases seem so far detached from the original intentions of zoning that it's somewhat hard to call it "zoning" anymore. I say we just start calling it what it is: Development Standards. Every community has their own. If you don't see the dollars and cents at the end of the tunnel, naturally, you just don't take on the headache.

At one point, zoning really was a tool to enforce the separation of incompatible land uses, to minimize health risks, and to protect property owners from severe and legitimate economic damages. More often than not, zoning as we know it today seems nothing more than an outlet for the public to carry out SimCity aspirations in the real built environment.

There are some legitimate public benefits that can be garnered by rules that dictate height, density, or bulk restrictions: but these instances are few and far between. A lot of times, such Standards are counter-productive to the actual goals of the city-at-large. Whether a "MX-7" district, or a "DT-2" overlay really doesn't matter. As you point out, zoning today is all about controlling the size and physical configuration of built space on a given parcel of land. This is NOT something that should be decided by involved citizens or public sector planners who claim to be urban "designers." You wouldn't hold a public input meeting, or establish a public steering committee, to design a new jet engine would you?

In my opinion, many of the most successful and unique urban or "developed" areas are those that have evolved organically. They evoke a sense of place that feels natural and somewhat pieced together. Not regulated down to the last setback or piece of brick facade.

I agree wholeheartedly that the over-extension of zoning regulation into the physical design realm does more harm than good.

History of Zoning

Not that I'd expect an architect to be versed in the history of zoning, but zoning and most of the initial APA recommended development standards were based on catering to the auto and auto-rlated development. Zoning was more reactionary in this sense and hasn't really dicated the development of sprawl, only allowed it. Here's one example dealing with shopping malls-​pas/at60/report59.htm

A Vital lesson in "Planning" alternatives

We need to "qualify" what really constitutes "sprawl enabling" planning in urban form and transport.

The real problem with the "automobile dependent" planning we HAVE had, is that it remained monocentric and "radial" in its focus. Transit is also radial and monocentric in its focus.

Peter Gordon has been proved right about urban decentralisation and dispersion. If the urban land market is allowed the freedom, it finds its own balance between agglomeration efficiencies, congestion diseconomies, and land-rent diseconomies. This means MORE DISPERSION, NOT more centralisation. The extent that this dispersion has occurred in so many US cities, is a REASON that the US economy is the world's most productive large economy.

Silicon Valley is the classic example of an agglomeration economy where "dispersal" has not at all eroded the "economies". Matthew Drennan and Charles Brecher in a recent paper, try to find evidence that "the death of distance" still does not apply to "agglomerations" in various industries; they find this evidence ONLY in the "finance industry" AND even then, ONLY in the SIX cities with the biggest finance agglomerations.

Obviously, CBD property owning interests have considerable incentive to try and restrict the process of dispersion, because the economic rent they can extract from the urban economy is very much reduced if economic activity is dispersed rather than centralised. Papers by William Wheaton and also by Alex Anas, show that the difference in land rent between the value of rural land at the fringe, and the highest value land in the urban economy, varies by factors of hundreds of percent depending on the level of centralisation or dispersion in the economy.

The presence or absence of growth boundaries also affect the level of economic land rent. Cheshire and Mills in the Introduction to the "Handbook of Regional and Urban Economics" Volume 3 (1999) say that "retail land" in the most expensive "growth controlled" cities is 100,000 times more expensive than the equivalent land in non-growth-controlled cities. (Yes, that is one hundred thousand times). So obviously there is major incentive for the owners of such land, to support "urban planning" that is both anti-growth, anti-automobility, and anti-dispersion.

In the 1940's and 1950's, a significant debate took place in urban planning and local politics, regarding the form that road investments should take. There was a significant and authoritative faction that understood the efficiency of dispersion, and wanted road networks to support this process. That is, "parkways" and inter-suburban connector roads, not massive elevated radial highways. These people tragically lost to the CBD property owning vested interests. The "failure" of "automobile based development" is a failure of MONOCENTRIC and radial "planning", NOT of "automobility" per se. This planning maximises congestion diseconomies and land rent diseconomies to the extent that they swamp agglomeration economies. Urban dispersion continues regardless, unless planners abuse their powers to proscribe it (eg banning commercial development anywhere other than in the centre, which actually happens in some UK cities).

The mental obstacle that prevents contemporary planners from seeing the efficiency of dispersion, is that they have elevated mass transit mode share to a primary objective, and dispersion is inimical to mass transit. Ironically, "dispersion" is very favourable to walking as a mode. It is likely that intelligent urban "planning" that goes with the flow of the inexorable forces of urban dispersion, rather than tries to stem the tide like King Canute, would achieve bigger "mode shifts" to walking, than their current fruitless endeavours achieve to mass transit. And the mode shift to walking is costless to the taxpayer and costless to the first home buyer and renter who suffer the very severe "unaffordability" consequences of contemporary urban planning fads, not to mention the effects on the whole economy, of property price cyclical volatility.