Montessori: Too Ugly for Pantops?

Being told that your building plans are too ugly for Pantops is like being too drunk to fish: sure, it’s plausible in the abstract, but it’s not gonna happen. Or so you’d think. But the Montessori Community School’s building plans have been rejected by the Architectural Review Board for that very reason, Will Goldsmith reported in last week’s C-Ville Weekly. The LEED-compliant structure is designed to be low-energy and sustainable, employing such touches as passive solar heating and a rainwater-collecting gray water system. The ARB is put off by the shed roof, which is necessary to collect rainwater. One ARB member, apparently unfamiliar with passive solar design, suggests facing the building in the opposite direction, a hint akin to telling a farmer he should try harvesting his corn in February. As things stand, the school will have to substantially strip the structure of its sustainable features in order to more closely hew to the design standards of…uh…Giant.

17 thoughts on “Montessori: Too Ugly for Pantops?”

  1. But … if they put a brick façade and columns … now that would be acceptable.

    My favorite quote was this (aside from the opening line of the story) –

    …How energy efficient a building is isn’t in our (the ARB) criteria. It’s unfortunate, but we’ve been charged by the supervisors to deal with the aesthetics of the entrance corridor.

  2. (a) It’s not like the school is all that attractive now.

    (b) You can’t even see it from the highway!!

    (c) No matter how ugly it is, you aren’t going to notice it because you’ll be so distracted by the lovely and elegant Eckards…Rite Aid…Eckards.

  3. At least — and unlike so much other development in the county — MCS folks are trying to do something that’s architecturally interesting AND environmentally friendly.

  4. Elizabeth, you and i can’t see it from the highway, BUT Monticello or the folks who run it, can see it and that is who is dictating the development of Pantops. Everything, I mean everything in the “viewshed” of TJ’s house is subject to reveiw. That’s why Giant looks like it does. Monticello and UVA have more power in this town than the Gov. himself. Monticello has told the BOS to protect the viewshed and that is where the ARB gets their directive.

  5. Go to Google Earth and look at the design ON the roof of the Pantops Giant – it was dictated by a desire to maintain Monticello’s view shed.

  6. So, the gas stations, fast food places, and SUVs crawling on 250 look charming and historical from Monticello? Please. The buildings may be a bit more attractive than most – I come from Virginia Beach, ugly building capital of the U.S. – but they’re not that nice. And how big is this school going to be anyway? Would it look like anything more than a speck from Monticello?

  7. Thanks Waldo for posting something on this.

    I think this summarizes one of my big issues with development in the County and City. Local government doesn’t seem to have any problem approving projects that violate all the values and aesthetics of our communities, but then someone who tries to do something sustainable has all kinds of road blocks thrown in their way. What message does that send to developers? To truely be a more sustainable community we need to not only make it easier for people to do innovative designs, but should even provide incentives, to do so.

    Another piece of this issue that didn’t make it into the article was that part of the ARB’s issue was with their decision to use native plants in the design. Apparently, the ARB has no problem with a hillside covered with invasive exotics like Honeysuckle and Ailanthus, but has big issues with native wildflowers…

    Incidentally, this is still an issue with the City as well. They still haven’t reformed their weed ordinance, which defines a weed as anything above a certain height and not contained on an “approved” list of cultivated plants. You can read more about that issue, and see my proposed changes to the ordinance on my blog.

  8. As things stand, the school will have to substantially strip the structure of its sustainable features in order to more closely hew to the design standards of…uh…Giant.\

    This is not accurate Waldo, changing the roof design does nothing to reduce water collection (in fact some roof structures would increase the water collected). Most of the recommendations from the ARB will not significantly reduce sustainability. I think LEED design can also be attractive. As one of five members of Albemarle County’s ARB I’m looking forward to getting feedback and guidance from the Supervisors.

    This will be one of the few buildings that the ARB will have any control over at Montessori. Most of the new school will be designed without ARB oversight and can therefore be as sustainable as the school would like to make them. The design we considered will be quite visible as you enter the city, as the picture in the C-ville article will attest. The view shed from Monticello, considering the buildings size, has never been part of the conversation.

    The Guadalajara, the CarMax, and the new Virginia National bank were approved during my tenure on the board. I can understand that not everyone is happy with what has been built in the past. I hope people will understand the need to balance the owner of the land’s desired design with Albemarle County’s guidelines. One need only see the first several drawings of the CarMax to better understand how the current building’s evolution occurred. The results will never be perfect but the process will hopefully be transparent and fair.

    Since the board has 4 other members, I hope everyone here will understand these comments are my view and I am not speaking for the board as a whole.

  9. In response to the comments about the view from Monticello: Years ago, I was a guide at Monticello, and I remember when the Westminster Canterbury complex was constructed. That is essentially what began the ruin of the sacred view. I’ve been back to Monticello many times, including not that long ago, and I can assure everyone that MCS’s proposed construction will hardly be visible, especially as compared to other nearby development. It certainly would not worsen the view any further.

  10. Paul has a couple of good points. One is that just because ugly things in the past have been approved doesn’t mean an ARB can’t wake up and start paying attention. Better late than never. That’s all assuming they’re taking both aesthetics and function into account. I’ve been on a neighborhood ARB in this area and that was always an issue: “how can you say no to something when that ugly monstrosity is right up the street”. Of course true, and of course not fair, but it’s also good to try to make things better.

    I don’t buy the response someone quoted that the ARB can’t take energy efficiency, etc. into account. An ARB’s purpose is exactly to deal with both aesthetics and functionality. They sort of go hand in hand. And in this case energy efficiency is fundamental to the design and functionality of the place (from the designers point of view) and should be taken into account.

    And another thing (while I’m on a soapbox), a pretty but non functional facade doesn’t fool anyone and is a big mistake for ARB’s to let that pass for something real. My experience with ARB’s is they only work well when there are good architects involved throughout the process (both for the ARB and for the builder). And besides, it’s really kind of fun and educational to see two architects argue over such issues. Just say no to obviously fake crap. It looks stupid architecturally and you can tell from a mile away.

  11. Waldo Jaquith wrote:

    As things stand, the school will have to substantially strip the structure of its sustainable features in order to more closely hew to the design standards of…uh…Giant.

    Paul Wright wrote:

    This is not accurate Waldo, changing the roof design does nothing to reduce water collection (in fact some roof structures would increase the water collected).

    It certainly does. For every additional angle added, that’s one more graywater collection process that’s required. If all of the rain washes down to one side of the structure, all of the water can be collected in 1-2 cisterns. If the roof has a single peak, now you need twice as many. For every new angle added, you have a new direction for water to wash and additional infrastructure required to collect and store that water.

    Shed roofs have many more environmental advantages, too. They provide a single ceiling high point, where hot air can be collected (above people’s heads) and pushed out during the summer. They require substantially less materials to construct, including the timer structure, the covering (i.e., plywood), and the shingling. They are much less demanding, in terms of labor, requiring much less work to build. And the design is much easier, since it’s just a slab.

    Artisan Construction proposed a design for my wife & my planned house that was based on a shed roof. It required us to learn quite a bit about the benefits of them, and they are quite substantial.

  12. I want to follow up that post by making obvious something that I only inferred. There’s absolutely no reason why water can’t be collected from the most crazily-designed roof. In every case, water must come off of the roof and be channelled away from the structure. It’s entirely possible under all circumstances. It simply becomes increasingly demanding on natural resources with every new level of complexity added to a roof. The shed roof is the simplest, and thus places the least demand on those resources.

  13. Oh great, more food I shouldn’t eat around the corner. Why all the hating on Pantops’ appearance? As if 29 North is pretty? Fashion Square is gorgeous? What’s the comparison here?

  14. Paul,

    My persepctive here is that few people seem to have any clue what the ARB will approve and what they will not. That provides a real disincentive to do anything innovative. After all, a delay in a project or a redesign can add up to a significant amount of money.

    I absolutely understand being protective of our entry corridors, and holding them to a certain standard; however, we also need to make it very clear what criteria will be used to determine what passes or what doesn’t. Also, given that the county has affirmed it’s commitment to sustainability in its vision and master planning, it would make a lot of sense for environmentally friendly design to be a significant part of that criteria.

    I kind of wonder if a point system might work better. In other words, the ARB could enumerates features that represent the best of Charlottesville architecture in specific categories and then buildings would need to have a total score over a certain number. Some buildings would rank lower in certain categories (For example, I can’t imagine McDonalds being very sustainable), but they could then place more emphasis on the other categories representing qualities the ARB would like to see in the entry corridor. I think a system like this would provide more objectivity and transparency.

  15. What’s a “timer structure”?

    McDonalds supposedly has its own inspectors in slaughterhouses, so you might be better eating its hamburgers than cheap frozen patties from the store. It’s sorta like kosher or halal! Or I bought the propaganda, don’t know.

  16. In the city, our design criteria specifics are almost non-existent for our ever-growing number of design control districts, including entrance corridors. It’s interesting that a slanted roof is fine for the historic district around the Mall but not, apparently, for the road to get there. Lonnie, it is the lack of definition that indeed adds greatly to the expense of construction. Back and forth, back and forth. And I have yet to set anything constructed that I would cry if they tore it down. ARB has been given its charge and should fulfill it; however, the County should take the time to spell out the specifics of acceptable design.

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