A Community by Design

About two weeks ago I started addressing some of the concerns I’ve heard about this blog and some of the efforts of its contributors. In one post I talked about how nonofficial venues are not threats but complements to the formal work of the civic association and its committees. In another post I addressed the misconception that advocates for stricter enforcement of the Guidelines are die-hard preservationists who want to freeze the neighborhood as it was fifty years ago. To the contrary, we think the guidelines, not individuals’ own particular views, should be the standard. Now I take up two other concerns I heard early on — that we value design over community and that we somehow are denigrating the work of volunteers.

In a reply a while back to a post, one person wrote that she moved here for the community, not the design. Yet so many of the elements of the design are just what makes this communtiy so open, and all of us a bit vulnerable. We can’t hole up behind eight-foot fences. The borrowed vistas, the open floor plans, the walls of glass keep us connected to each other. This design isn’t for everyone. Let those who love their colonials live in them. Those who like openness, simplicity, and connections to nature do well here, and I think they find themselves in the company of others of a similar bent. So, I think, many of us may have found our way here because we loved the houses, but then found out once we were here that the design created one of the most incredible communities in the country.

Of course, design isn’t an abstract notion. Davenport, Goodman, Kiley, and all laid out the physical design. Generations of Hollin Hillers have created and volunteered in the organizations that preserve and enhance it. What other place supports two swim clubs, lots of cultural clubs, parks committees, websites, design review, and ongoing committees to review by-laws, guidelines, etc.? The best way to honor generations of this kind of service and commitment to the community is to continue to serve and honor those institutions and traditions. To advocate for the design review process, for openness and transparency, is to honor generations of such volunteer work.


Notes from an observer at the June 6, 2007 DRC meeting

by Paige Conner Totaro

There were six proposals on the agenda for the June 6, 2007, meeting of the Design Review Committee. But because three of the sessions were closed to observers, I was only able to observe three sessions plus the status review of other issues before the Committee.

After discussion with some other meeting observers, I’m experimenting with a new way to report on DRC meetings. We want to talk more about the issues that arise in the meetings than we do about specific home projects. I would love to hear your responses to these changes.

At the June 6 DRC meeting, these are the some of the issues that arose.

Several issues were brought to the forefront with a neighbor’s proposal to replace a shed with a prefabricated one, as well as a brief discussion of another neighbor’s construction of a shed without prior approval from the DRC.

First, I think it’s important for the community to know that with a very few minor adjustments, a prefab shed from the mega home improvement store might be approved by the DRC. The DRC can look at a prefab shed and suggest several design changes, such as removing trim from around the door to make the door flush, painting it the same color as the house, and making sure that any windows are in conformity. This will vary from shed to shed, so people should always consult with the DRC before installing one.

Several of the issues brought before the DRC involved construction that began without DRC approval. This is a tough situation for the DRC and for the neighborhood as a whole. How should neighbors address this problem when it arises? How should the DRC address this? A non-conforming shed can appear overnight. What should happen next? The DRC noted that temporary structures are often given more leeway than permanent ones. But what if a structure is technically “temporary” — say that it doesn’t have a foundation — but likely to remain in place for a decade or so?

What if the construction in question goes far beyond the import of a shed and involves new construction on three or four sides of a house visible to neighbors and the street? How far can or should the DRC and civic association go in halting such construction and pressing the homeowner to go through the DRC process ? We do all buy our Hollin Hills homes subject to design covenants.

A couple of other issues came up at the meeting, and I do not by any means want to imply any any fault on the part of the current DRC members, because these issues involve more procedural questions that have likely been in place for years. I’ll be sending my comments to the SDRC, too, so they can possibly consider them as they work on their report.

First, there’s a question of how clear the DRC’s decision might be to the applicant. In one session I observed, the committee discussed at length how a proposal for replacing a shed could be done in a way that would make the replacement more in harmony and conformity; these included details such as using T1-11 board, making the trim around a door flush, and painting the shed all one color. At the end the Committee approved the replacement, pending neighbor notification. My question, as an observer, was this: had they approved the replacement only if the requested changes were made? Or did the homeowner just need to make her best effort to make those changes if possible? Should there perhaps be a written approval notice given to the homeowner to clarify exactly what has been approved? This language could then also be used in the neighbor notification, and could also be noted in the DRC’s spreadsheet (see below). I wasn’t able to ask the question at the meeting because the next group had arrived for their closed session, but I hope the homeowner had a clearer idea than I did of what had been approved .

Second is a question about DRC recordkeeping. At the meeting, I saw (from afar and without seeing any detail) a large spreadsheet of cases pending with and decided by the DRC. The DRC Chair noted that he had given administrative approval to a few things between meetings, and that those things did not need to be noted on the spreadsheet. So this brought to mind a few questions: first — what is administrative approval and when and by whom can it be granted? Second — why not note it in the spreadsheet? I am all for institutional memory, especially in volunteer decision-making groups, to ensure consistency in decision-making, and to strengthen the DRC’s case in certain situations. (E.g. “we’ve declined approval for these types of gutters x number of times, so we can’t approve them now unless there’s been a change in their design” or “we’ve approved this type of prefab shed x number of times so we can grant administrative approval if the same changes are made and the location is okay.”)

Last is the issue of closed sessions. Personally, I can understand and appreciate the desire for homeowners to have closed sessions early in the process, but I think the earlier the meetings can be opened to the neighborhood, the better. How the DRC interprets the Guidelines in any given case has consequences for all of us, especially in so far as any given decision becomes a precedent for decisions down the road. For this reason, I think, especially for cases of first impression (new technologies, new materials, new design issues) or cases of major renovations, the community should be invited to comment to the DRC before the DRC makes its final decisions.

I must say that I enjoy attending DRC meetings, and I am always impressed with the work that the DRC members do. They have great respect for the homeowners who come before them and they clearly put a lot of time into these volunteer positions. I may come away with a lot of questions, but I always learn something when I attend.

(Editor’s note: The DRC’s report of the June 6 meeting has just been posted and can be found at http://www.hollinhills.org/drc/drcReport.php?period=062007  )

Die-Hard Preservationists?

This week I’ve been trying to allay concerns in the community that have circulated during the past year. In my previous post I talked about how nonofficial venues are not threats but complements to the formal work of the civic association and its committees. Here I want to address the misconception that advocates for stricter enforcement of the Guidelines are die-hard preservationists who want to freeze the neighborhood as it was fifty years ago. Here’s my take on this.

After we’d lived here a short while, I figured I understood Hollin Hills — as a certain kind of modernism, a particular slice of time, that moment shortly after the steel and concrete of the Bauhaus melted into the organic forms of Neutra, Schindler, and, yes, Goodman. Then on the Fourth of July two summers ago, Mary Normile invited Kelly Valceanu and me to come visit her house around the corner from the picnic. We hiked over and walked up to the second floor of her split level and I was astonished. Here was this Carribean paradise, complete with a side room full of exotic birds chirping, open cabinets revealing rustic dishes, windows that looked out on to lushness. Mary’s house had the soul of Jamaica and it was firmly planted in Hollin Hills. That’s when I realized these houses could do so many different and unexpected things. …. The Damitz’s perfect square house that now evokes Frank Lloyd Wright… The Cox’s house with a potter’s spirit, with every space a tableau of special objects. … The Cohen’s house with its icons of high modern design… The Carr’s house full of colorful contemporary art… The Polo’s house with a wall of glass in the back looking out on to an incredible vista.

But what ties these houses together are the elements, a certain proportion in the windows, a particular kind of siding, rescued brick, a rhythm of elements and proportions that repeat from one house to the other. And of course there’s the landscaping that makes Hollin Hills so utterly different from most any neighborhood anywhere else. I’ve meditated on these elements on many long morning walks.

What makes Hollin Hills Hollin Hills? Not fixed notions of 1950s modernism, but the elements of the design itself, elements that are extremely well put in the Design Review Guidelines and the little landscaping book published by the Civic Association in 1989, A House in the Woods: A Landscape Aesthetic for Hollin Hills written by Dennis Carmichael. While only the former are enforceable, both can be recommended as aesthetic, community ideals. My hope is that those are the design ideals that guide this neighborhood into the future.


In my last post I promised to address some of the concerns I’ve heard about this blog and the efforts of some of its contributors, including what we used to call the House in the Woods Club. I mentioned these criticisms: (1) that we are subverting the usual committees and structures of the community; (2) that we are die-hard preservationists who can’t tolerate design innovation; (3) that we value design over community and neighborliness; (4) that we are denigrating the good work of volunteers; and (5) that none of this is any of our business, things were wonderful before we showed up, and now we are tearing apart the community.

Here I take up the first one, that we are supposedly subverting the usual committees and structures of the community.  Note that no one is trying to delegitimize those bodies or take over their functions. Perhaps critics are worried that having additional venues for discussing neighborhood matters somehow undermines the official venues. But how does having extra spaces for discussing issues undermine the process? Can’t it be seen as a complement, not a threat, to neighborhood commonweal?

I hope we can get over the sense that there has to be antagonism between “unofficial” public expression, no matter how contentious and lively, and the official venues. In fact some who have been involved in these other discussions are also past or present members of these committees. Those of us who are raising these issues are strong supporters of the processes that have been established over the years. We’d just like them to be more open and consistent.

Unofficial spaces for public discussion are not threats to official processes — they can be vital complements to them. In informal spaces — like the open forum e-mail list, the 4th of July picnic, on morning walks, in comments to this blog — we can take up and think through the community’s business, which is, after all, all of our business. There will be disagreements, but these can be very productive if we discuss things civilly. In these informal spaces we start to get a sense of what we collectivley think about issues. These informal spaces help to create public will; they don’t make policy. Formal bodies are for making formal decisions. There’s a lot to think through, and a lot to do. And there’s plenty of room for all of us.

One Year In

I started this blog a year ago with the rather naïve idea that this could be a space for informal, public discussion of some of the issues facing the Hollin Hills community, a space that would supplement the formal work of the civic association bodies. My idea of “informal” public deliberation was informed by many years of research into nongovernmental public deliberation, the idea being that it is not just elected governmental bodies that decide “what should be” in a community but the citizenry itself in its ongoing mullings and deliberations over matters of common concern. I tried to find free software that would allow for multiple and manifold ownership of the website. But I didn’t find any. So I tried to set up the site as a site generically owned by the informal group calling itself the House in the Woods Club. But still, ultimately, only one person could “own” the blog, even though I wanted everyone interested to feel ownership in it. Hence, I listed the byline as Hollin Hills. Later, when it was clear that it was mostly me putting things up, even if authored by other people, I switched the tag line to my own name.

I didn’t intend this site to be an experiment. But it has been one, and not an altogether successful one. The main reason for this is that the issues discussed here — involving our homes, our community, our sense of what is beautiful — touch a lot of nerves. And it’s all too easy to blog or comment when unnerved. So things can be said too forcefully, or unthinkingly. I made some mistakes along these lines – though infinitely less than others have done in recent comments to the site. (I am thinking of Rick Ward’s and David Shultz’s recent, incredibly uncivil comments, which I decided not to delete simply because they stand in testimony of how not to behave in public.) It’s best to discuss difficult things in person, when we see the face of the person being questioned or interrogated. The face of the other person is a great sobering and civilizing factor. One-on-one communication is infinitely better than electronic communication. Civility reigns in person much more than online. Yet the benefit of online communication is that it allows for much wider communication; more of us can meet online than we can in person at specified times and places. To the extent that we can engage in discussing touchy issues in an unprickly way, online communication is a plus. But when it gets touchy and personal, it’s high time to step back. That’s what I’ve learned. Never blog when perturbed.

I’ve been checking in with people to see whether this site is worth continuing, including people who don’t share all my views on things. I am still unsure what is best. Many think it’s worthwhile to have a forum where different issues can be considered and points of view can be expressed. This is a nice counter to all the criticisms I’ve heard over the past year. The criticisms, which I think are all serious misunderstandings, are these: (1) that we are subverting the usual committees and structures of the community; (2) that we are die-hard preservationists who can’t tolerate design innovation; (3) that we value design over community and neighborliness; (4) that we are denigrating the good work of volunteers; and (5) that none of this is any of our business, things were wonderful before we showed up, and now we are tearing apart the community.

In the days ahead, I am going to address these misunderstandings one by one. So please check back in. In the meantime, I continue to welcome lively and vigorous debate on the issues. (And be sure to come to the civic association and SDRC meetings June 14.) I may (or may not) continue to accept uncivil posts to the website, which, again, testify to how not to behave. But please don’t be mean-spirited about my gardening or I don’t know what I’ll do. There’s only so much a gal can take.

your neighbor,

Mies Society Tours Hollin Hills

If you saw a tour bus ambling through Hollin Hills yesterday you might have wondered what on earth was going on. In that bus were 24 members of the Chicago-based Mies van der Rohe Society in town for the weekend to visit the modern show at the Corcoran and see other modern sites in the D.C. area. Their guide was the architect Howard Decker, the former chief curator of the National Building Museum. My neighbor Ken Wilson put Howard in touch with me, and then Howard and I made plans for the Mies Society to visit the neighborhood starting with a visit to our house. It was still a bit of a shock when a tour bus pulled up in front and all these people poured out and walked up to the door. They were wonderful guests, asked lots of great questions, and seemed truly enamored. After a short visit at my house, I gave them a Hollin Hills map and some pointers, and off they went.

May DRC Meeting Notes

by Lee Ann Kinzer

2109 Paul Spring Road — Window replacement given
administrative approval.

7221 Beechwood Road — Alterations to approved addition plan: (a) The air conditioning units are substantially larger than the space originally
allowed, requiring a different placement. Applicants were given
approval to extend the screening fence located near their carport and
place units behind this screen; applicants and DRC members agreed
that this location is not ideal (for noise reasons, not design
problems) and all agreed also to continue a search for a better
solution. (b) Applicants were given approval to add an additional
panel of screening to the screen porch, rounding the corner of the

2403 Daphne Lane — DRC members agreed that plans were in agreement with the concept previously reviewed and gave approval for
construction. The applicant noted that the deck is slightly larger
and reported that neighbor notification had taken place Monday and
Tuesday of this week.

1805 Drury Lane and 1929 Martha’s Road — Both involve prefab sheds
already in place; neither homeowner had applied for DRC approval.
The committee will ask both owners to come before the committee.

Additional business: The next DRC meeting will be on June 6, followed
by August 1. July needs, if any, will be covered by special

John Burns has been named the new DRC member.