In a May 31 decision that some saw as limiting solar power in the District, the Historic Preservation Review Board, after initially deadlocking on the issue, voted 4-3 against approving the Chandler-Wingate proposal. Although the board had no objection to the panels that were placed on the rear addition, those who voted against the proposal disapproved of the eight panels on the west side of the house because of their visibility from the street.
As solar power becomes more affordable and more homeowners aim to reduce energy use, this case may be the first of many in which historic preservation and environmental sustainability collide.
The guidelines for solar panels on roofs of historic buildings were adopted by the HPRB in 1997. They state: “On a flat roof, solar panels should be located so they are not visible from the public street. If located on a sloping roof building, they should only be installed on rear slopes that are not visible from a public street.”
“The effect of that is that any house that is south or west facing would not be able to use solar,” Chandler said. “By definition, that’s half the houses” in D.C.
The board members who opposed the proposal agreed with a report written by Anne Brockett, an architectural historian in the Historic Preservation Office, that said the panels “create a visual intrusion on the house and into an intact historic streetscape. The panels are highly reflective and visually distracting from the form and finish of the house’s roof.”
“It’s not as simple as saying, ‘Oh, the board doesn’t want anything visible from the street,’ ” said Steve Callcott, an HPO deputy director. “It’s the relative prominence of the visibility and whether or not they are being put on the primary roof form in a way that altered the character of that roof form.”
More than 230 solar-panel projects have been approved by the HPO, and almost none of them have gone before the review board. That’s because most of the solar installations have been on row houses, which have flat roofs.
Chandler said that if the panels were placed on the south side of his house, the one that faces the street, he and his wife would be able to replace 70 percent of their Pepco power. “We didn’t propose any on the south side because we felt that there would be sensitivity to putting it on the side facing the street, even though they would be very high up and less visible,” Chandler said.
Instead, their first proposal was for 25 panels on the rear and west sides of the home, which would replace 42 percent of their power. The HPO suggested they remove four panels on the west side, which took it down to about 30 percent. Removing all the panels on the west side would reduce their power savings below a threshold that would make sense given the cost of installation.