Being Effective

Design Review

Design Review

In evaluating applications for a certificate of appropriateness, an HDC or HPC must determine whether the proposed action or alterations are “not incongruous” with the visual and historic character of the specific district.  Rather than relying on individual taste or preference, members should base their deliberations on a set of general design guidelines and evaluate their applicability to the specific property.  Legitimate decisions by the HDC or HPC are based on fair consideration of the individual application and consistent reference to established standards.  While every application is weighed on its own merits, the deliberations and decisions of the body should not be arbitrary or capricious.

A.    Design Guidelines

It is a HDC’s or HPC’s responsibility to demonstrate that its decisions are grounded in preservation principles that support the appropriate treatment and continued use of the community architectural heritage. In order to ensure that decisions are based on reasoned and researched principles, the Connecticut Commission on Culture & Tourism (CCT), along with preservation organizations across the country, recommend that HDCs and HPCs adoptdesign guidelines or design criteria that clearly articulate general standards for the treatment of historic buildings and structures within the body’s jurisdiction.

1.      The Benefits of Design Guidelines

CGS, Section 7-147c(e) allows HDCs and HPCs to adopt regulations or guidelines to “provide guidance to property owners as to factors to be considered in preparing an application for a certificate of appropriateness.” Such regulations give the HDC or HPC common and clearly articulated standard against which to evaluate the application.  Does the application meet the stated criteria for approval? If not, what changes might need to be made? Are such changes judged to be prudent and feasible? Would they unduly impair the ownership or use of the property?

By providing a general standard for the review of all applications, design guidelines strengthen the legitimacy and fairness of an HDC’s or HPC’s decisions. Specific design guidelines should be referenced in every decision, particularly in cases where an application has been denied or a claim of hardship has been accepted. Before adopting any design guidelines, an HDC or HPC should consult with its municipal attorney and with the CCT to ensure that the guidelines are appropriate for the specific LHD or LHP.

While design guidelines facilitate the work of HDCs and HPCs, they also assist property owners within the LHD or LHP. By knowing ahead of time what criteria the HDC or HPC will use to evaluate an application, property owners can discuss possible building treatments with their architect or contractor. By working through potential design issues before submitting an application, property owners will be spared the frustration and expense of having to go “back to the drawing board” with their consultants. The HDC or HPC should make regular efforts to publicize and distribute the design guidelines to property owners as well as to architects and contractors who work frequently in the LHD or LHP.

2.      The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties

All state and federal review programs utilize a general set of historic preservation standards known as the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties (Code of Federal Regulations, Title 36, Part 68; cited as 36 CFR 68). Since the last revision in 1992, the Secretary’s Standards have been adopted and tested nationwide. They form a logical basis for the LHD’s or LHP’s own design guidelines. The standards are used across the country in preservation projects by public and private entities alike, and therefore provide HDCs and HPCs with a measure of legitimacy and offer clear examples of appropriate and inappropriate treatments.           

The Secretary’s Standards are non-technical, non-prescriptive statements that promote the responsible preservation of historic buildings and structures. The Department of the Interior, through the National Park Service, has also published Guidelines for Preserving, Rehabilitating, Restoring and Reconstructing Historic Buildings to assist in the implementation of the Secretary’s Standards. The Guidelines offer examples of preferred treatments and non-preferred treatments for building materials and architectural elements in a variety of different situations

The Secretary’s Standards and the related Guidelines define four specific preservation treatments: preservation, rehabilitation, restoration, and reconstruction.  The appropriate treatment for a specific building depends on a variety of factors including:

The building’s relative historical and architectural significance The physical condition of the building The proposed use of the structure The mandated code requirements in the community

The Secretary’s Standards and the Guidelines are available in electronic form on the website of the National Park Service. Printed and bound copies are available through the Government Printing Office (GPO).

3.      Local Design Guidelines

The Secretary’s Standards are deliberately quite general so that they are applicable and relevant to diverse historic resources throughout the United States. In addition to adopting the Secretary’s Standards, HDCs or HPCs may wish to add more detailed criteria and guidelines that reference the traditional materials, building types, or architectural styles of the local community.

The regulatory authority of HDCs and HPCs is limited solely to the exterior physicalappearance of buildings, sites and structures within the LHD or LHP.  The HDC or HPC has no authority to restrict the use of a property beyond what is allowed by local planning and zoning regulations.  As HDCs and HPCs develop their own evaluation criteria, they should confirm that the design criteria do not run counter to the regulations of the state building code or the municipal planning and zoning commissions.

a.      The Report of the Study Committee

The original report of the Historic District or Historic Property Study Committee identifies the particular historic and architectural features that merited protection and designation when the LHD or LHP was first proposed. It can be a valuable guide in prioritizing the features, elements, and materials that ought to be given special consideration in the design review process. (To obtain a copy of this report, contact CCT.)

b.     Elements of Design Guidelines

Composing a list of character-defining features that are specific to the LHD or LHP is a good way of drawing property owners’ attention to qualities the body wishes to preserve. Design guidelines should be developed in concert with this list of significant or character-defining features in the district.

According to the enabling statute, the elements of design that can and HDCs and HPCs should consider in reviewing applications for certificates of appropriateness include “the type and style of exterior windows, doors, light fixtures, signs, above-ground utility structures, mechanical appurtenances and the type and texture of building materials,” as well as the “historical and architectural value and significance, architectural style, scale, general design, arrangement, texture and material of the architectural features involved and the relationship thereof to the exterior architectural style and pertinent features of other buildings and structures in the immediate neighborhood.” (CGS, Section 7-147f(a))

A list of important design criteria that may be considered in the development and application of design guidelines may include:

i.            Height: the overall height of the building and its height in relation to surrounding buildings

ii.          Scale: the size of units and architectural details as perceived from the public way and the size of units and details in relation to adjacent buildings and open spaces

iii.         Massing: the configuration and arrangement of building masses or units of construction, frequently described as balanced (symmetrical) or unbalanced (asymmetrical)

iv.         Proportion: the relationship between the width and height of a building’s elevation, or of its architectural features, such as windows or doors

v.           Roof shape: the form of the roof including eaves, overhangs, ridgelines, dormers, or other ornaments

vi.         Arrangement: the pattern and positioning of architectural features such as windows, doors, and other details on the elevation of a building

vii.       Setbacks: the open area between the building and the sidewalk, street, or adjacent structures

viii.      Rhythm and Spacing: the pattern of recurrent building masses in relation to the spaces between them

ix.         Materials: the composition and appearance of exterior architectural elements

x.           Texture: the tactile quality produced by particular building techniques or materials

xi.         Surface Treatment: the condition of exterior surfaces (for example, painted or unpainted, finished or unfinished)

xii.       Architectural Details: any exterior element which visually identifies the building as belonging to a particular historical or architectural period

xiii.      Relationship of Dependencies: the size, location, and detailing of outbuildings in relation to the main structure

xiv.      Projections: the relationship of additions, porches, and other visible extensions to the main building

xv.        Other Issues

(a)   Parking

(b)   Fences and Walls

(c)    Light Fixtures

(d)   Signs

(e)    Renewable Energy Sources Such as Wind Turbines or Solar Panels

(f)    Satellite Dishes and Antennae

(g)   Monuments and Sculptures

c.      Design and Implementation

The process of adopting design guidelines follows a logical sequence:

i.            Research the history and character of properties in the LHD or LHP

ii.          Consult the original Study Committee Report for the LHD or LHP

iii.         Compile a list of “character-defining features” that the guidelines might address

iv.         Examine model design guidelines for other LHDs or LHPs around the state

v.           Provide an opportunity for public discussion

vi.         Consult with municipal counsel

vii.       Consult with the local planning and zoning commissions

viii.      Consult with CCT

ix.         Adopt the guidelines by majority vote of the HDC or HPC members

B.     The Design Review Process

The LHD or LHP was created by a democratic process in which the affected property owners voted to establish the regulatory controls of the specified area for their own benefit and for the common good.  Property owners who have moved in since the LHD or LHP was established have benefited from the continued efforts to preserve the historic and architectural character of the neighborhood. 

HDCs and HPCs have an obligation to ensure that the regulatory review process is fair and efficient, By posting all meetings, adhering to the agenda, following the rules of procedure, and recording all deliberations and decisions, the HDC or HPC can build a reputation for fairness and efficiency in service to the community.