There’s a story behind every historic neighborhood. Building a new home in one of these neighborhoods is like owning a coveted piece of the past, and offers some benefits that you just can’t find anywhere else.
It’s also a great way to preserve land. Since you’re repurposing a property with a long history, it’s likely in an area where any impact to the woods, forests or natural environment has long since been made. Cities and towns with historic areas can also experience steady economic growth and retained property values.
If you visit your local historical society or library, you can see photos of how the neighborhood has changed over time and learn about the previous owners. Where else can you live that offers that much background information? Plus, your home will likely be surrounded by other well-built properties that have survived the test of time and are looked at as a reflection of your area’s history.
The benefits of living in a historic neighborhood are plentiful, but there are important things to understand before you decide to build a new home. Take a look at our list of three considerations below.
1. It will be a process.
Since you’re building in a designated historical area, there will likely be specific building and zoning codes in place to preserve its integrity. Even if you’re renovating an existing home, there will likely be regulations to meet and boards from which you will need to receive approval.
In many cases, your city or town will have a historic district commission or an architectural review board that will require you to submit your new home design before you’re able to build. You should have a reputable architect or builder present your design package to the board. It’s always best to work with someone who specializes in historic areas since they will be fluent in code requirements and regulations.
The presentation may involve a simple meeting, or it could be a full critique that requires in-depth changes. This will vary depending on your location.
Most cities and towns publish building rules and regulations on their websites under the planning department or building inspections section. Often, they will break these down by zones or neighborhoods. If your area doesn’t have this information listed publicly, you can contact your local planning department.
2. You’ll need to consider a lot of design factors.
The design of your home will be instrumental in preserving the historical character of the area, so there are some specific features you’ll need to pay careful attention to. The exact features will depend on your area, but some of the most common ones are below.
- Setback: The distance a home must be located inside the property lines.
- Orientation: This is the direction that the main entrance of a building faces. Most historical homes tend to face toward the street.
- Scale: This refers to the apparent size of a building in relation to the neighbors. Scale can also refer to the relation of the size of building elements like windows and doors.
- Proportion: The relationship of the dimensions of building elements.
- Height: Consider the height of walls, cornices, roof, chimneys, towers, and other defining design elements.
- Rhythm: The spacing and repetition of elements at the front of a building.
- Massing: A building’s façade (the front design) including bays, porches, steps and roof projections.
- Materials: This includes materials used for external visible elements such as walls, windows, sloping roofs, details, etc.
- Roof shapes: In a neighborhood of pent roofs, a flat roof will not keep with the existing character of the street.
- Details and ornamentation: Consider the elaborateness of details on existing buildings in the neighborhood to maintain consistency.
- Landscape: Plants, trees, retaining walls, driveways, etc. will help define the character of your home.
Ultimately, your new home will need to be compatible with the neighborhood. This means respecting the design of existing buildings and historic structures while contributing to the character of the area.
Respecting the historical integrity of an area begins with identifying patterns in the architectural character of the neighborhood. If your neighborhood is full of Victorian-style homes, a Colonial-style home may not be allowed. More specifically, you’ll likely have restrictions as to what type of materials you can use to build your new home or renovate your existing one. These will vary depending on your city or town, but typically things like artificial sidings and roofing materials are not allowed in historic areas. Your landscaping will also be required to follow certain guidelines.
3. It might take a little bit longer.
Building on a historic area can often require more planning and approvals than building in a non-historic area. Since review boards only meet a certain number of times a month, it could possibly take several months to just have your design approved — this will depend on your city or town.
You’ll also need to make sure you’re able to meet any zoning guidelines that are in place for your particular neighborhood. This may include special building processes to ensure that you don’t disturb your neighbors’ properties or other details that could affect the environment.
Also, depending on the style of your home, it might be a more complicated design process. Your architect or builder should be able to provide you with an accurate timeline so you can set your expectations.
As you can see, the process of designing and building a new home in a historical area involves a few more considerations than building elsewhere. However, the benefits you’ll experience will be uniquely suited to a special neighborhood that you are drawn to, so the process will be well worth the investment!
This article was written by Geoff Spitzer, the Vice President of Construction at Chinburg Properties. Geoff joined Chinburg Properties, Inc (CBI) in 1999 as a Project Manager/Site Supervisor. His first project was the conversion of an abandoned industrial mill building located in downtown Dover, NH into a 27 unit apartment building. Since then as the “Mill Guy” for CBI, Geoff has overseen multiple adaptive re-use of historic mill and school projects as well as a variety of multifamily condominium projects. Geoff is a LEED Accredited Professional. Most recently, Geoff has spearheaded an effort to increase the Chinburg Properties presence as a commercial general contracting company. He advises, guides, and coordinates proposals and pricing for outside development projects. Geoff is helping the company to find a niche as a preferred general contractor and essential partner to developers. Additionally Geoff is on the company’s “Green Team” helping build more energy efficient homes and achieve LEED certified projects. Prior to his career at this company Geoff spent over 13 years in the historic preservation field working throughout New England on historic properties as a carpenter, consultant and contractor.