Ask the Author Series
In these posts I address questions that the average person may face in dealing with the Architecture profession.
Question: How do I get my project (addition) to be approved by a historic district commission or review board if I live in a historic district? What do I need to do and what do they need to know about my project?
Answer: This is a complicated question which will require a bit of background and explanation to fully answer. The purpose of a historic commission is to preserve the character and integrity of the buildings in a historic district. Generally speaking buildings that predate the twentieth century (pre-1900s) are deemed historic. The most obvious clue that your home is historic is if you have a built in 1750 sign on the front of the house. Historic homes can be from any style or period from colonial times(1700s), Federal style, homes built in the Adam style, unusual properties such as an Octagon house, plantation homes, Victorian, Queen Anne as well as Shingle style properties. However the style isn’t the primary determinate, it is more the home’s age and its location. Towns designate certain neighborhoods, streets, or blocks as historic districts and the homes in those areas fall under their jurisdiction. What that basically means is that you have to keep your house’s exterior in the style that the house was built in, from the trim details, to color choice, to material choices. In addition to the features on your home, the board may have jurisdiction to approve or reject site elements such as fencing, yard ornaments, signage, location of gardens and beds, driveway type, lighting fixtures, etc. Below are some examples of historic districts in the New England area. You will notice that most of the homes in a historic district tend to be similar to one another. They are either all of same period or style. That similarity creates a sense of cohesion and to some degree a feel or atmosphere for the neighborhood. This feel is what the review board tries to preserve in the face of modern development.
The historic review board itself is filled either by election, appointment or simply consists of volunteers willing to give their time to serving on the board. The best boards tend to have someone with an architectural background serving as the chair or adviser, but that is not always the case. In general it is just people in the town who take an interest in historic matters. There are anywhere from 3-7 members comprising a board (varies by town) and most meet between 1 to 2 times per month to manage the case load of change requests in a historic district. The position is not usually paid, but it can be. These boards have had a history of be highly political and may seem more adversarial then helpful, but that is by no means a universal truth. Your biggest hurdle is making sure you are prepared to answer their questions. If you are thorough, the board will most likely approve your request. However, most if not all people go into these meetings with little to no documentation about their project which makes it difficult for the board to adequately review your proposal. The lack of preparation will cause your project to be held up because the board lacks the necessary info to make a decision.
Q: What are the board’s primary concerns?
A: The board’s primary concerns tend to be line of sight related issues; how visible is your house/addition from the street. The more prominent your house is on the street, the more demanding the board will hold you to maintaining the historic character of the house. For example, if you have a corner lot within a historic district, the board is going to care a lot more about what you do it then say if your house was mainly shielded from the street by high hedges and old trees.
Q: What questions do they ask?
A: They could ask anything, but a primary question is what is the size and style of your addition? Is it proportional to the existing house? What material are you going to clad your house in? More unusual questions might include what color are you painting it? The key is to have answers for all of their questions. Don’t say what ever the board wants. That kind of response creates an environment where you will quickly loose control over your own project.
Q: What elements do they pay the most attention to?
A: Windows, trim profiles, cornice profiles, rake details and generally how the exterior walls meet the roofline of the building are all important details that are often discussed on a project before the board. I will try to discuss each of these topics in detail to get at what they are looking for.
I should raise an important point relative to historic homes and historic restoration, it tends to be expensive (anytime a building product is described as PERIOD you end up paying through the teeth for it) and frankly there is a lot of snobbery around getting architectural fenestration and ornamentation just right. Few people outside of trained architects know how the details should be executed, so if you are considering a renovation to a historic home, consulting with or engaging an architect’s services is definitely a good idea. If you attempt to cut corners with your restoration/addition in the planning stages, the finished product isn’t going to look right and that can be grounds for a project being rejected by the review board before construction even begins.
Areas of Focus
Depending on the type of historic home you have, your house is going to have a specific window style associated with it. The most common window type on a historic home is a double hung window (window with 2 sashes). In early colonial homes, the upper sash was affixed with only the lower sash being operable. The number of divider bars dividing the individual panes of glass (muntin bars) will vary depending on the style of house as well. Other variations might include uneven sized window sashes (these windows are called cottage style windows). You see these on southern colonial homes (tend to be large windows placed in rooms with high ceilings). Other styles include casement windows or specialty windows like a round or oval shaped window. A window has to be the right size and the right style on the facade to look right so I would recommend you leave the aesthetics decisions to your architect/designer. They know best.
Options for Windows
You have 2 options if you are thinking of changing out the windows, either restore your existing windows or replace them with new ones that resemble the existing window. Both options are going to be expensive. I personally recommend going new as an old window even newly refurbished is going to remain energy inefficient. To replace an existing window with one of an identical size you are going to have to order a custom window size. Marvin’s Architectural line has the greatest number of high end customizations to their windows, that include any size window, a variety of muntin bar sizes, jamb extensions, window aprons, sill casings, window materials, colors, etc. However Marvin windows tend to be the most expensive. The review board would like you to make a like for like replacement of any historic window on a historic home. They will reject an off the shelf Anderson vinyl window with removable muntins that you can buy at Home Depot. At a minimum you need to specify a true divided light window (meaning that the muntin bars are glued on both sides of the double paned glass to make it look your windows contain individual panes of glass from the street). Operable shutters may also be necessary depending on your house and its location.
Cornice Details & Cornice Returns
The cornice refers to the trim band located where the exterior wall meets the roof. It is usually a form of crown molding but can be more ornate which is often the case on Boston brownstones. Below are examples of cornices. For a truly historic home you would never use a material made of PVC trim, it has to be wood trim. A cornice return refers to the trim profile being wrapped around the corner of a house and terminated.
The raking details (sometimes called barge board) refer to the trim which runs along the end gable of house. This can be simple or more complex. Older colonial houses tended to have more complex raking details that were either layered or had complex profiles. Some examples are shown below. The historic commission is going to want you to replicate that profile exactly or as close to it as possible. Placing something entirely different on the gable is going to look wrong and will be rejected.
Instances when you can use modern materials on a historic structure
There are a few instances where you can use modern less expensive materials on a historic property. Hardy board siding (fiber cement board) has been accepted as an alternative to wood siding. It lasts longer and wears a bit better. The material is convincing looking enough to pass for wood. This is an example of a material that falls under the Arm’s Length Rule which states that any substitute material must look like the original at arm’s length or less and its performance must be better then the original material to be used on the house below the 2nd floor.
The Eyes Only Rule allows for a substitute material on the 2nd floor but it must be indistinguishable from the original at a distance of 10′. Vinyl siding could fall under this rule. But I would caution against using it as most boards don’t look on it favorably. Following the guidance of these 2 rules will quickly tell you if the modern material in question is a feasible choice compared to what is on your house currently. This will save you from asking the board if something is right or not. If there is any doubt, bring an example piece of the material in question for the board to examine. This is a common practice.
Documents to Bring to the Meeting
Bring copies of the elevations for your house and the addition (ideally in a packet form for each member of the board to look at). Better still provide a visualization or rendering of the to be completed project. (You can get an architect or designer to create these images). Other relevant documents include the site plan showing the house and the addition on the plan. Take photos of your house from the street facing it dead on and from the side as if you were looking up the street. This will give the board some context as to placing your house on the street and its visibility. On the photos pencil in roughly where the addition will be going in relation to the house. It doesn’t have to be exact, but general dimensions should suffice. Make note of the materials you will be using and list them in the project’s description. If you are adding/changing lighting fixtures provide the board with a tear sheet or photo of the fixture you are going to eventually install. Have an alternate in mind as well, should the board reject your initial choice. If the board requires it, bring color chips of the colors you are considering painting your house. Limit your color choices to the historic color palettes available in the paint store. If your local historic commission is really demanding, paying a visit to the local library can pay dividends. Check out the back issues of the local newspaper for supplementary material that can be used to help make your case for your addition. You are looking for photos of your old house/street as it originally appeared years ago. These photos go a long way in convincing the board to your commitment to the restoration and can help you make your case to support your application. The local historian is also a good resource for finding old photos of your house. A very large project in a historic district may require a scaled model of the design to be presented. However that type of project is beyond the scope an individual home owner would be required to present and is more reserved for a project initiated by a developer.
What Happens if my Project is Denied/Rejected?
This may happen, the key is not to withdraw your application but to re-submit a revised version at a later meeting. Withdrawing takes your case out of the queue completely and you have to start from scratch applying for a new certificate of appropriateness. A withdrawn application also takes your project out of consideration for any other local/state boards that may have to render an decision on your project. As I said earlier most cases are postponed or rejected due to lack of info. If you bring all of the documents mentioned for the board to review you should get a verdict in your presence or at the very least by the next meeting.
If you are interested in learning more about traditional construction details check out Traditional Construction Patterns by Stephen Mouzon