Can I build a new house in a historic district?

What to expect if you hope to build a new home in an area where conformity to historical style may be expected or required by zoning rules.

Question

My wife likes old buildings that have a historic flavor. I like old buildings that are new inside – central air conditioning, hard wiring for electronic devices, and the like. My wife would like to be in a historic district, which I suspect will come with requirements for conformity with existing style and architectural character, assuming we’re allowed to build at all. Can we build an entirely new house there, and have it look old, but actually be modern?

Answer

States and municipalities create historic districts – geographic areas that contain structures like houses, bridges, dams, or churches – that are worthy of restoration and preservation. But even the most congested historic districts, like the neighborhoods that surround a picturesque New England town green, have vacant building lots.

Vacant lots are most often created when an existing structure, historically significant or not, decays beyond the economic utility of renovating it. Other vacant lots come into existence when existing house lots, containing an existing structure, can be further subdivided: The resulting unoccupied lot can be sold as a site for a new home.

Regardless of how a vacant building lot becomes available, new construction in a historic district is typically possible, but governed by the types of design guidelines that control the renovation or remodeling of an existing building within the same historic district.

Guidelines are often detailed and comprehensive, especially if the district contains well-preserved and consistent architecture. They tend to focus on exterior design issues like height and breadth, roof pitches, window treatments, color, use of materials, setbacks, impacts on street life, and general compatibility with the neighborhood.

However, the local historical commission or planning board tasked with enforcing design regulations in a historic district will usually be less demanding about interior treatments, where you will therefore have much greater latitude.

Because you want to build an entirely new structure, not a more limited project like replacing all of your windows, you’ll bear the cost of including modern electrical, plumbing, health, and other building elements – in fact, you’ll be legally required to meet modern code standards -- while paying to conform your new construction to demanding design requirements.

This is not an undertaking for anyone for whom a limited construction budget is a major consideration. Here, properly qualified professionals – architects, engineers, and contractors, preferably with prior experience with building or renovating historic structures – are a necessity.

Once you’ve developed plans for your new home, a meeting or two with the local historical commission and the local planning or zoning board, accompanied by your experts, will offer the best assurance that your project won’t be rejected out of hand or end up costing far more than you had planned on.

Most planning boards and historic commissions are eager to encourage new construction that will increase the economic viability and appeal of historic districts. You can usually count on their support.

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