When your historical home was originally built, the process was simple. You bought some land, hired some contractors, and raised the building that met your budget and design needs. Work on an existing building was simple: you hired someone to do the work.
Today the process is a bit more complex. Work of any kind on a historical home can involve multiple government agencies who grant and oversee construction and occupancy permits and sometimes even a historical board or commission who guides the restoration process and approves any changes, the materials, and methods used to make those changes.
(Not to mention the various building codes your project is subject to and the exceptions and regulations that govern construction projects involving historical buildings!)
Of course, there are plenty of horror stories about the HYSTERICAL Review/Commission/Boards. Knowing how to navigate the process helps to eliminate the potential aggravations (having a preservation contractor or design professional does not hurt either).
Typically, any property within a historic district or conservation area must be reviewed by a Historic Architectural Review Board (HARB) or historic commission (there are over 439 historic districts just in Pennsylvania).
Usually the work the historic review boards are concerned with is the exterior (visible from the street) (included but not limited to):
• Replacement of doors and windows;
• Removal, enclosure or repair of porch;
• Replacement of roof;
• Cleaning and pointing of masonry;
• Addition of a roof deck; and
• Addition to the property.
The board also reviews demolition and any new infill construction within the historic district. Contact your local municipality to see if your property is in a historic district.
Usually you need the historic commission approval before a building permit can be granted.
If you are proposing a radical change that would alter the building significantly it is recommended to consult with the Historical Commission staff before you get to far into the design process.
Simple projects (requiring repairs and replacement in kind) using the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards as guidance and usually be approved at the staff level (without the necessity to go before the entire board for an approval hearing).
More complex projects that require building plans (blueprints, specifications – usually prepared by a design professional) can also be submitted for approval at the staff level provided the proposed changes use the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards as guidance.
Projects that are less sensitive to the historic nature of the property are reviewed by the entire board (with recommendations by the staff using the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards to explain their reasoning). The entire board then debates, hears input from the community, and then votes to approve or deny the proposed changes.
If the plans are denied they can be revised based on the input from the board (and then resubmitted for approval) or the decision can be appealed to a higher level (in Lancaster City, it is the City Council).
Hopefully this demystifies the historic commission review process.