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As mentioned in the first Rethink event, the blogger panel, FAR (never pronounced far, but each letter: f-a-r, standing for floor area ratio) is one of the more obscure bits of planner patois.

FAR determines a site’s allowed development as a ratio of building area over lot area. For example, an FAR of 1 would allow a one-story building that covers the entire lot or a two story building that covers half the lot or a three-story building that covers a third of the lot. Regardless of a site’s size, it will have the same allotment of building density as its neighbors.

In urban areas, FARs tend to be high, around 6 or 7 in downtown Washington and around 19 or 20 in midtown Manhattan. To planners and developers, FAR is the most fundamental dimensional standard of a zoning code. It determines a lot’s development potential and hence its value. An FAR of 4 is worth twice as much as an FAR of 2.

FAR is a rational tool, but can be coarse in its application. It allows an infinite variety of building designs, but can’t address the details of setbacks, build-to lines, and human-scale like windows, doors, and materials. FAR controls bulk, but the character of a street comes from the fine grain.

In a suburban landscape diffused by roads and sky, with a changing character and large lots, FAR is only one tool to shape building character. The effect of a six-story building versus an eight-story building will be hard to perceive, but what will be evident is the parking lot in front of it or the odd strip of lawn that surrounds it.

2 Responses to “FAR is Your Friend”

  1. GK

    Excellent description of FAR, concise and thorough. My only critique would be

    more cowbell…..

    Seriously, it is important for all to realize that FAR is not a geometric tool, but a financial one. It determines the property’s value, not its shape–as you clearly show.

    At the same time FAR needs to be thoughtfully considered in relation to other parameters–setbacks, height limit, and occupancy. These last three will determine how the undefined distribution of FAR is shaped, e.g., residential floors can only get so deep, a low height limit and a high FAR will produce squat buildings, etc.

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