Work With Local Historic Commissions When Remodeling

Knowing the rules of preservation groups will smooth the path for future renovation projects.


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By: Chuck Ross

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Location may be the key word in a real estate agent's vocabulary, but it can play just as big a part in a contractor's life when it comes to working with historic houses. Exterior modifications to homes located within locally designated historic districts will require local historic commission approval. And if the house itself is historic, commissioners may be even more demanding with regard to design and materials.

Designation as to what is considered historic can vary from town to town, according to Drane Wilkinson of the National Alliance of Preservation Commissions. While the National Register for Historic Places requires a structure to be at least 50 years old before it can be included on the national registry, links to more recent history can motivate local commissions to declare younger buildings equally significant.

A number of factors can play a role in a commission's decision to declare a structure historic, regardless of age, including:

  • Architectural significance or quality. The structure is a good example of a particular architectural movement or style.
  • Association with a historically important person
  • Association with a historically important event

Additionally, Wilkinson notes, many local commissions are beginning to consider the potential of a structure or site to yield historically important information in the future through archeological findings.

Historic or Not?

Learning whether a structure falls under a local historic commission's jurisdiction is up to the contractor, says David Carpenter who founded a remodeling firm with a specialty in historic restoration. This education begins with a trip to town hall.

Plans to change major exterior design elements will attract especially close scrutiny, Wilkinson notes. Because original windows are both major architectural-style indicators and frequent targets for energy-conscious renovators, they can be a point of contention between contractors and commissions, he says. Commissioners may require contractors take another look at renovating existing windows before approving new-window plans.

"Windows are a big element, because the tendency is to want to rip out old wooden windows, when the truth is you can often rehabilitate the original windows," Wilkinson says.

Using Modern Materials

Moves to incorporate modern materials also can raise commission concern, both Wilkinson and Carpenter say.

"The general rule of thumb is, does it look like the material it's replacing and is it at least as durable as the material it's replacing?" Wilkinson says. "And is it reversible without damaging the building?"

Cement-fiber siding is one synthetic alternative that many commissions are beginning to accept, according to Wilkinson. The question, he says, is how the material is intended to be used such as a spot replacement or to finish an entire addition wall. In many cases, he notes, an entire wall installation would be favored over a spot-replacement job, Wilkinson says.

In all cases, though, he urges contractors to begin conversations with commissioners early in the design and specification process. Such an approach also can help builders catch potential conflicts between a town's historic guidelines and any building codes that may be in force. Building inspectors may be willing to accept some sort of compromise or to make an exception for historic buildings, Carpenter says. But again, the best chance for reaching such an agreement is if you begin having those conversations before you even pull out a crowbar.

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