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.

A solid plan is critical for any construction project. Solid planning will ensure more efficient implementation of your project, limit schedule disturbances and project problems, and control your project’s budget. Proper planning will also reduce the chances of causing irreparable damage to your building.

A good plan for any project on your historical building should begin with research, investigation, and implementation of an appropriate treatment that meets both your building’s needs and your budget. This will ensure that the historical fabric and integrity of your building is not permanently damaged by inappropriate treatments.

Once an appropriate treatment plan has been determined, a plan for execution of the project must be developed. The different systems in your historical building must work together symbiotically to function as a healthy building. Proceeding with a project without considering how it fits into and impacts the entire house can cause serious problems. For example, changes to your HVAC systems impact the airflow in your house and can set the stage for moisture issues. Exterior finishes and landscaping improvements can easily mask foundation concerns that need to be addressed. Both interior and exterior finishes can hide structural issues that threaten your building’s structural stability.

A good plan for execution of any project on your historic building should be developed that includes the following elements:

  • Safety: An important first step to any project is to ensure that the structure is safe for occupants and that any treatments in the project will not jeopardize that safety.
  • Structural: The structural systems of your building should be evaluated to verify that they are stable and can support the building’s usage and any planned treatments.
  • Exterior Envelope: The next step is to access the exterior envelope of your building to determine if it is properly serving the function in was originally designed to serve (keeping the water out) and it is not deteriorating or experiencing problems that will lead to deterioration.
  • Mechanicals: All work on a building can affect how the mechanical systems work (even if the work seems completely unrelated), so an important step in any project planning is an evaluation of your building’s HVAC, electric, and plumbing systems.  It is important to do this work before the interior finishes to minimize impact and expense.
  • Interior Finishes: Even when they look just as they should and have the colors and textures that meet your aesthetic preferences, the walls, trim work, and floors of your building should be evaluated for hidden problems that raise your risk decay.
  • Landscaping: The landscaping design on the outside of your building isn’t just pretty flowers and greenery that enhances the historical significance of your home – it can also significantly threaten your home if it allows invasive plant and insect species to penetrate your exterior envelope or encourages moisture issues in your foundation. 

Proceeding with projects without taking into consideration all of these elements and any specific problems to address or a prioritized list of projects to complete can set the ground for deterioration that can destroy the historical architectural features of your building.