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Encouraging Design Excellence.
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Design Excellence

As one of the nation’s wealthiest and most educated areas, Montgomery County deserves to have buildings, public spaces and neighborhoods of the highest quality design. Fostering design excellence is becoming increasingly important as the amount of available land for development in the County is shrinking and building density is increasing. These challenges present a greater need than in the past to create attractive, safe and sustainable places to live, work and play so the County can remain competitive within the region. Design excellence becomes a tool for attracting the best and brightest to our County – residents, businesses and visitors – and ensuring healthy and sustainable communities.

To raise the quality of design throughout the County, the Montgomery County Planning Department is launching a comprehensive Design Excellence (DesignX) initiative focused on the themes of inspiration, collaboration and clarity.  This program includes the following strategies:

  • Build an awareness campaign of those qualities constituting great design.
  • Sharing inspiration and knowledge through this website and The Third Place blog.
  • Talks by staff and outside experts about Design Excellence and recognized precedents.
  • Curated photo library with realistic, inspirational examples for use in community discussions, master plans, design guidelines and regulatory reviews.
  • Recognizing design excellence in the County through an annual Design Award program.
  • Development oversight, support and recommendations from a new  Director’s Design Advisory Panel.
  • Developer support from staff trained in best practices in architectural design, urban design, landscape design and regulatory review.
  • Coordination with public agencies and municipalities to generate a singular voice and messaging on the importance of design excellence throughout the County.
  • Improving zoning incentives to encourage better design and public benefits.
  • Improving design guidelines through clear, predictable and fair goals and objectives, and precedent images and graphics.
  • Improving communication and clarity through increased use of three-dimensional design and modeling tools and graphics.
  • Gallery on website of successful projects within the region.

Lee Quill's Work on CR Zone Points

Lee QuillConsultant Architect Lee Quill, FAIA presented a multi-media analysis and discussed the Commercial/Residential Zone point system and its effectiveness to date in achieving public amenities in relation to the old Optional Method process. He also
discussed the relationship of the CR point system in relation to design review and the Planning Department’s push for greater design excellence. Mr. Quill is a founding principal of
Cunningham Quill Architects in Washington, D.C., has served as
a juror for the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Awards for Smart Growth Achievement, has been on numerous Urban Land Institute advisory panels, serves on the D.C. Mayoral Task Force on Transit Oriented Development, and is Chair of the City of Alexandria Urban Design Advisory Committee. His projects have received design awards from the Congress for New Urbanism and the American Institute of Architects, including recent awards for the affordable senior housing project House of Lebanon in Washington, D.C., and the Branch Avenue Corridor Revitalization Plan in Prince George’s County.

CR GuidelinesMr. Quill’s analysis showed that the current Sketch Plan process seemed to be expensive and frustrating due to a lack of two-way dialogue with Planning Department staff regarding early project concepts. By the time an applicant and staff do discuss a project, the plans are well developed, and significant time and money has already been spent. He stated a need for informal discussion early on in the process. Quill recommended establishing a mandatory Concept Plan review meeting take place prior to the pre-application meeting, not unlike what is being done in other jurisdictions such as Seattle, Alexandria, and Arlington. During this meeting, the applicant could share and discuss early diagram alternatives, sketches, three-dimensional digital models, or physical massing models with staff in an informal, interactive, and collaborative manner. The initial concepts would then be submitted to staff for review and feedback, with staff responding with any additional information within 30 days. The Concept Plan meeting and staff review would come at no charge to the applicant, help ensure that project components conform to area Master or Sector Plan recommendations, and help facilitate early public dialogue on the project.

 Mr. Quill then discussed the Commercial/Residential Mixed-Use (CR) Zones Sketch Plan Optional Method process and the current point system allocations for public benefits in relation to the previous Optional Method negotiated process. He noted that while projects negotiated under the current process allocated more public benefits points than those negotiated under the former Central Business District Optional Method, these points are being awarded for less impactful amenities. He noted that even though the Planning Department has focused on the importance of Design Excellence, Exceptional Design points have the lowest award for any category within the CR point system signaling to the developer that this is most certainly not an important topic within the county.  

Mr. Quill offered recommendations, including:

  • Establishing a hierarchy of benefit points that strengthen architectural and urban design,
  • Allotting more than one page to explain the different point categories in clear, but flexible ways with and abundance of example images to help explain the topic.
  • Making minor adjustments to the current point system in order to reinforce and prioritize design excellence.

He also recommended:

  • Establishing a three to five-member Design Advisory Panel that contains a minimum of two regionally or nationally recognized architects and one Planning Department chief to review projects during the Concept Plan review and Sketch Plan process,
  • Strengthening the Design Excellence Awards program,
  • Using social media to promote design excellence,
  • Promoting education and knowledge of quality design by continuing the bi-yearly Moving Montgomery Forward conference.

Following extensive Board discussion with questions to staff and Mr. Quill, staff proposed the creation of a staff working group to recommend adjustments to the CR Zones Incentive Density Guidelines and the current development review process, and to report those recommendations to the Board in the coming months.

Watch the Planning Board Meeting.


  • Rodolfo Machado of Boston Firm Honored with 2015 Design Excellence Award Will Present Work at Silver Spring Civic Building on May 25
    The architect who designed the award-winning civic building, Rodolfo Machado, FAIA, talked about the logic of its spaces and the design process employed in other projects undertaken by his firm Machado Silvetti at a public presentation on Wednesday, May 25, 2016. The Planning Department-sponsored event was attended by about 60 people and held in the Silver Spring Civic Building.


  • What Makes a Great School? What can we do to provide the best  for our children?  One of the many ways is by providing great schools with great facilities in great locations. This is more and more challenging as the county grows.  We need to use our existing sites creatively and make the most of our investments.  This presentation highlights examples of how this can be done well. It features inspiring examples from across the country – including some from Montgomery County.  The strategies range from creative site and building design to sharing uses and transforming existing buildings into schools.

    Please enjoy “Innovative School Precedents” a presentation given to the “Cross-agency Work Group on School Design Options” meeting on October 12, 2015.  The work group is headed by Montgomery County Public Schools. The presentation was prepared by the Montgomery County Planning Department. For more information contact Paul Mortensen, Senior Urban Designer.

2016 Design Excellence Award

Design Award 2016

Montgomery County is one of the country’s most successful and well run counties, and its stature should be reflected in the excellent architecture, urban design and landscape architecture of its buildings and spaces. Design excellence is becoming increasingly important as the amount of available land for development in the County is shrinking and building density is increasing. The highest quality design is important to sustain a thriving and attractive County with buildings, public spaces and neighborhoods that are worthy of its deserving residents and workers. Following the success of last year's Design Excellence Award program, the Montgomery County Planning Department is seeking submissions for the 2016 Design Excellence Award. Submissions will be accepted between May 12 and July 21, 2016.

The winner of the annual Design Excellence Award will be recognized at an awards celebration co-hosted by the Planning Department and the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Potomac Chapter on October 20, 2016.

The winning project will be celebrated by the Montgomery Planning Department as a premier example of Design Excellence in Montgomery County through a promotional campaign and presented by Department leadership at conferences and public events.

Purchase your ticket to the 2016 Celebrate Design event on October 20 today! Click here for tickets.

Visit the award page to learn more.

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