It sounds modest enough. But in many parts of the country, especially in the Washington area, you may discover that restraints have been imposed on what you can do, either because you’re in a historic district or your local homeowners association has been empowered to pass judgment on residents’ remodeling proposals.
This can come as an unpleasant surprise, especially to those who live in historic districts but assume that their 40-year-old “builder’s special” is not historic. Within most such districts, all houses are considered historic and all modifications are subject to review by the district’s design review board.
What restraints are imposed on homeowners? They’re usually limited to what the public can see, but this can include the elevations facing the back and side yards as well as the one facing the street.
Historic districts generally follow the guidelines for preservation that were established in 1966 and maintained and updated by the National Park Service. A historic district is an entirely local entity, however, created and managed by individual jurisdictions. It may be only a few blocks in area or an entire section of a city such as Georgetown in the District or Old Town in Alexandria.
The purpose of the National Park Service’s guidelines is to maintain the historic character of a neighborhood. To accomplish this, it recommends that the exterior of a proposed addition be designed in a style that is “sympathetic” to the original house, but also clearly “identifiable” by incorporating an “articulation” between the old and the new, so that an observer can easily distinguish between them. The addition should have the same scale, so as not to dwarf the older portion of the house, and it should be built with the same or similar materials. Interestingly, the guidelines support designs for additions that are contemporary in style, and they specifically advise again an exact duplication of the older structure.
Most historic districts have a professional staff that will initially review your design proposal and possibly suggest changes that more closely conform to the district’s regulations. Final approval is determined by a design review board in a public meeting.
It sounds very straightforward, but District architect Norman Smith, who has overseen many renovations in historic districts, likened the process to navigating troubled waters.
“In sailing through historic waters to a safe beach, you may encounter unforeseen obstacles lying just below the surface,” Smith said. “Architects and owners understand the need to be ‘sympathetic to the original design,’ but this has no precise definition. It’s a nonobjective call that’s full of interpretation, and it can lead to disagreements between the homeowners and their architect and the board.”