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Navigating Updates to Historic Homes

Are you curious about updating your landmarked home, or your home within a historic district? What kinds of considerations do you need to keep in mind? Is there anything you can’t do? What about things you have to do? These questions might seem overwhelming, but don't worry! We’re here to help.

February 8, 2024

Board & Vellum is situated right on the doorstep of one of Seattle’s beautiful National Register Historic Districts: Millionaire’s Row. As with the other twelve districts in the area, the Millionaire’s Row Historic District provides a wealth of information (pun intended) on the history and development of the City of Seattle. If you own one of these homes or another home within one of the other districts within the area, what do you need to know about navigating updates to your historic home?

What do I need to know about navigating updates to a historic home?

Previous posts in this series have discussed the differences between home and district designations. In this post, we’ll talk about navigating updates to historic homes within registered districts, as our approach with these rarified homes varies greatly from homes of a certain age that do not carry a recognition.

If you remember, local districts come with the rules and regulations that you may be familiar with, while National Register Historic Districts do not. National Register Historic Districts, or NRHDs, are purely honorary and owners of buildings in these areas have the freedom to change the size, color, and style of the house, and even the ability tear down the house if they wish without needing any permission from the National Parks Service. Typical building permits still apply, though the latter may draw the ire of your neighbors.

Are there any guidelines I need to follow when updating my historic home?

The National Parks Service provides a set of guidelines called Standards for any work in a federally recognized historic property or district. These are just guidelines, though, not rules. And we use these guidelines to help consider and evaluate our design interventions for federally recognized historic properties or districts.

Most cities, however, have codified these standards into their historic preservation ordinances. In these cases, the guidelines become important rules to follow for local districts.

Standard #9

One of the most important of these rules is the ubiquitous Standard #9. This standard states, “New additions, exterior alterations, or related new construction will not destroy historic materials, features, and spatial relationships that characterize the property. The new work will be differentiated from the old and will be compatible with the historic materials, features, size, scale and proportion, and massing.”

If you have read our previous blog on how to add onto historic properties, you’ll know there are several ways to approach design. (And if you haven’t, check it out!) However, the interpretation of “differentiated and compatible” narrows in the case of landmarked or historic district homes. Landmark Review Boards typically want to see more weight placed on “differentiation” than “compatibility.” And a Replication approach will generally not be accepted for an addition. To complicate matters more, in the case of repaired or replaced materials, Replication is usually preferred.

Standard #10

Standard #10 also addresses additions or updates, stating any new addition must be removable or, at least, not significantly impair the original structure. This results in what many architects call a “gasket.”

Rather than blowing out the side of a house to add a new wing, your designer might suggest that a modest passageway – like a contemporary, glassy addition – be used as a connection to a new structure, then expanding from that new addition, rather than the house itself.

What do these standards mean for a design project for my historic home?

When updating a registered historic home, protecting as much of the original historical fabric as possible, as well as being clear about the goal of the new additions, is important. Additions should take thoughtful consideration both in terms of design and structure. Function and form very much play equal roles when considering an addition to a landmarked home.

In a new addition, while it cannot replicate the existing or similar materials, features, and elements, it can be used and expertly crafted in a way that is complementary and compatible to the old. Or it can be entirely different!

Preserved vs. Unpreserved Areas

This may be surprising to you, but what is and isn’t preserved in a home or on a property isn’t always the same. Most jurisdictions will be very clear about the areas of the house or district that are to be preserved.

For an individual landmark, it usually encompasses the entire exterior of the home. And sometimes it can include rooms or features inside the house like an entry or staircase. It’s not usually the full interior, full grounds, or garages and outbuilding that are preserved. In a historic district, the rules tend to be less strict, sometimes only requiring that the parts of the house that can be seen from the street be protected. Talk to a designer to understand what applies to your specific situation.

Review Boards

If your home is registered and must follow a set of design guidelines or standards for any modifications, you’ll likely need to get permission from a review board to move forward with the update. It might sound daunting, but designer can help you navigate this process!

Most review boards would like to see an indication of similar proportions and massing in the new design, or at least a deference to the main structure. This shows that the design is complying with the standards, like those mentioned above. But how we achieve these standards can look different and be taken in many directions. Most boards are open to a variety respectful, but creative interventions.

Landmark Board Meetings

For areas that are preserved, those elements must be reviewed by a Landmarks Board if they are to be touched during the course of any design or construction work. For areas not preserved, those elements can be remodeled as you might any other home not registered.

If your home is a landmark or in a local historic district, prepare to have two to three conversations and presentation meetings with the review board and their staff. They’re there to help you! At Board & Vellum, if your home requires review from the Board, we will prepare and present the proposed work to the Board with your building permit.

If you’re unsure of where to start, talk to a designer.

A designer is a great place to start when navigating updates to a historic home. Even before you know exactly what your project might entail, they can help you consider the many specific and special circumstances of your unique situation, like these.

  • Restoration after damage from water or fire.
  • Managing or removing previous remodels or additions.
  • Understanding what part of your home is protected and what isn’t, and how this might impact what you’re able to achieve. (For example, if you want to remodel one floor, but you have protected elements another.)
  • What to know before you buy a landmarked home. A designer can help you understand upkeep, designations, and more! We even offer feasibility studies with pre-purchase walkthroughs!
  • If you’re considering purchasing a landmarked or historic home, or own one already that you’re thinking of updating, we’d love to chat with you about your project!

    This post is part of a series about what you should know when updating an historic (or just an old) home.

    More From This Series on Historic Homes

    Landmarks vs. Historic Districts vs. Historic Homes

    Have you ever wondered if your old home is also a historic home. What does that even mean? What how could it impact your remodel or addition? We answer these pressing questions in Landmarks vs. Historic Districts vs. Historic Homes.

    Updating Historic Properties Through Compatibility and Differentiation

    There's no one-size-fits-all approach to updating or adding to a historic home. But there are two concepts that play a big role in understanding how modern designers sometimes think about updates to historic properties. Find out more about these concepts in Updating Historic Homes Through Compatibility and Differentiation.

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