5 Things You May Not Realize about the Historic Review Process
If you’ve invested in a home in one of Portland’s 21 Historic and Conservation Districts, you have probably heard about the impact that the Historic Review process can have on the costs and design flexibility of any renovation you decide to do on the home.
The process, designed to ensure that any exterior changes made to a property in the district will be consistent with the character of the neighborhood, can feel daunting.
Don’t worry. A good designer will help you identify solutions that will meet your project goals and be compatible with Historic Review standards. Keep in mind that Historic Review is required only for projects affecting the exterior of your home.
Here are 5 things you may not know about the process that your designer will help you navigate:
1. Not all buildings in a historic district are created equal.
When property owners successfully apply to create a historic or conservation district, the nominator inventories all of the structures in that neighborhood and identifies each structure as either “contributing” to the historic character or “non-contributing.” Typically a non-contributing structure was built later than the period being preserved in the district. For example, if the neighborhood is labeled historic because of the ’20s and ’30s homes, a garage built in the ’60’s would be considered “non-contributing.”
Non-contributing structures have more flexible rules about how they can be modified. It is still a best practice to modify them in ways that are consistent with the character of the neighborhood.
Expert tip: If your structure is designated non-contributing and you are modifying less than 150 ft of a non-street facing side your renovation will be exempt from Historic Review.
2. Not all sides of your home are created equal.
(This home in Portland’s Historic Alphabet district is in the process of having the kitchen renovated by Arciform. Because the exterior changes will impact the rear of the home (like new french doors and exterior stair landing), the Historic Review process was simplified.)
Just as different homes might be labeled “contributing” or “non-contributing,” different parts of your house might have different designations. An addition built in the ’70s, before the district was designated historic, will typically not be considered a “significant” or “character defining” part of the architecture and can be modified more easily. Often the non-street facing facades of a home are considered to not be character defining, as long as your neighbors don’t have to look at them. This means that renovation projects that modify the back side of your home in ways that are not visible to the neighbors or passerby can sometimes have an easier path to meet the necessary standards during the Historic Review process.
Expert tip: The fewer people that can see the portion of the exterior being affected by your renovation plan, the more flexibility you may have on design choices. Your designer will still advocate for choices consistent with the architectural style and period of your home, but you may be able to select materials with higher energy performance standards, as an example.
3. Preserving the historic material is just as important as preserving the architectural design.
(This image shows a classic double hung window, shown with and without an added storm window. Storm windows can add energy performance without sacrificing original historic material, as long as that historic material is rot-free. If your window material is rotted, replacement with window parts that match the material and style of existing windows will be your best option.)
Preservation standards place a premium on preserving the original historic material in the home in addition to the architectural designs. So if your porch has some wood in good condition and some that needs replacement, it will be preferred that you not replace the whole porch, even if you plan to match the design details exactly with new wood. Instead, your designer will look for ways to conserve as much of the original wood, hardware and etc. as possible and replace only the elements that have rot or damage.
This is particularly important for windows: Usually the review process will prioritize solutions that keep any existing wood material that is in good condition. Often the preferred solution will be to repair damaged window elements and add storm windows rather than replacing the whole window. This is true even if the new window will exactly replicate the design and material of the originals.
Expert tip: Restoration and the addition of storm windows are rarely less expensive than replacing with new windows due to the fact that restoration requires more expert time to implement than a new window installation. You will also need to consider the added costs of potential lead paint and asbestos abatement if the windows are to be re-furbished on site. In most cases, it will benefit your home’s long term value to retain the existing windows in good condition rather than replace them, even though the investment may be a bit greater.
The key factor here is condition: Wood and material in good condition should be conserved, rotting material should be replaced. Significant rot will lead to a recommendation of replacing the whole unit with a new unit that uses historically appropriate material.
4. If its new, it has to look different.
(This rendering of Arciform’s design for the second story master bathroom and balcony addition to the Historic Coleman-Scott House in Irvington shows the balancing act between fitting the new addition into the surrounding structure and making it distinct enough to not look “fake historic.”)
Surprisingly, the guidelines for additions to historic structures specify that the new structure NOT exactly mimic the existing architectural details of the historic portion of the home. Given how important preserving the original “character” of a building is to the historic review process, this can come as a surprise. After all, wouldn’t you want everything to look like it has always been there?
In fact, the principle at work here is that you should be able to tell at a glance what was a part of the original design and what was a later addition in order to prevent “fake historicity” or creating the illusion that something is historic that is not.
This creates a tricky design puzzle: How to design new elements to be visually distinct from, but complementary to the existing historic elements of your home so that the finished look will be harmonious but not “fake historic?”
5. Your neighbors are an important part of the Historic Review process.
When plans are submitted for Historic Review, your local neighborhood association gets a fair amount of input into whether the plans will pass muster. Your immediate next door neighbors will also be consulted (anyone who will be able to see the completed renovation from their home). Something to consider: If you live in a relatively hilly district, that can also include people above you who can see into your backyard or onto your roof.
Expert tip: When considering a renovation that will impact the exterior of your home, invest some energy in connecting with your neighbors and the neighborhood association to identify any potential worries or concerns they have. You’ll be better positioned to address those concerns through thoughtful design if you have included them in the process early. Many neighborhood associations can provide advice prior to the process.
Want to know more about how the historic review process might affect your renovation plans?
Join us July 16th at Old Portland Hardware and Architectural for a Historic How To Workshop.