Local Design Guidelines for Your Historic Building Project | Wisconsin Historical Society

General Information

Applying Local Design Guidelines to Your Historic Building Rehabilitation Project

Local Design Guidelines for Your Historic Building Project | Wisconsin Historical Society

If your older house or commercial building is located within the boundaries of a historic district, your community may have design guidelines that will apply to any rehabilitation project you undertake. The design guidelines are meant to help you and other property owners determine if your project will complement or not detract from the existing historic character of the area.

Zoning regulations will also govern the use of your property. Therefore, you should consult both your zoning ordinance and your design guidelines before you start any rehabilitation work that might affect your building. If you are seeking state or federal historic tax credits for your project, you should contact the Wisconsin Historical Society for more information on that application and review process.

Local Design Guidelines

It is important for you to understand how your design guidelines apply to your property before you start any exterior rehabilitation project. If you undertake exterior changes to your building or construct a new building, you will need to go through your design review process. Contact your local planning department and ask if the design guidelines for your building’s historic district are available online. If the guidelines are not available online, ask where you can get a complete copy. Keep in mind that some communities could have multiple historic districts, each with its own set of particular guidelines.

Most local design guidelines incorporate the principles set forth in the Secretary of the Interior Standards for Rehabilitation. These standards, prepared by the National Park Service, were developed to encourage the long-term preservation of historic properties through the preservation of historic materials and features. Most state and local municipalities use these standards for reviewing preservation projects.

Purpose of Design Guidelines

Design guidelines serve different purposes for the different groups of people who use them:

  • Design guidelines provide guidance to property owners who are undertaking changes or planning additions to their historic property.
  • Design guidelines assist your local historic preservation commission (HPC) in determining appropriate changes that will reinforce the distinctive character of a historic district.
  • Design guidelines can assist the local building industry (architects, contractors and suppliers) as well as city officials (building inspectors and public works officials) to understand the nature of these historic areas and how to reinforce their special character.

Your design guidelines will not require you to do a rehabilitation or restoration of your building. They also do not regulate the amount or location of growth and development within a historic district. The guidelines apply only to the exterior of your building, so they do not regulate changes to your interior. However, if you seek state or federal historic tax credits, those programs will include a review of interior work as well as exterior work.

Common Theme of Design Guidelines

As you read the design guidelines that apply to your historic building, you may find the language technical and repetitive. There’s an important reason for this repetition. All the guidelines are based in a common principle that encourages preservation of original materials and architectural features, and discourages their removal. Therefore, whether you are reading about windows, doors or exterior siding materials, you will find a common theme that will help you to address the appropriate treatment of your building’s components.

Your design guidelines will encourage you to preserve and retain architectural features that contribute to your building’s historic character. However, design guidelines are written with the understanding that buildings evolve with changing needs. As you read through your city’s design guidelines, keep in mind that their intent is to preserve your building’s historic character, not to freeze your building in time. Preserving your building’s historic character will benefit you through increased property and resale values. It will also benefit the overall appearance of your district by maintaining the unique historic character of your district.

Language of Design Guidelines

Your design guidelines will provide instruction for repairing wood, brick, stone and other materials and elements of your building. Guidelines also recommend maintenance practices that will help prevent deterioration of existing components. If your building has severely damaged or missing features, your design guidelines will provide specific information for replacing these features using similar materials.

In your design guidelines you can expect to see words such as: repair, retain, maintain and replace in kind. Your design guidelines will typically include the following provisions and language:

1. Identify, Retain and Preserve. Determine historic building materials and design features that define the character of the property and should be kept in the process of rehabilitation work.

2. Protect and Maintain. Extending the life of the historic building materials through timely and appropriate maintenance is always a priority. Protecting the historic materials typically helps reduce the need for more extensive repairs in the future. It is also important to consider the protection of historic features during a rehabilitation project. For example, if your project involves cleaning your masonry, choose a gentle cleaning method that does not damage the brick or mortar.

3. Repair. When character-defining features and materials have deteriorated, repair is the first option to consider. Repair also includes the limited replacement of deteriorated or missing parts when there are surviving prototypes. For example, if shingles are missing from a roof, new shingles that match the originals should be installed to fill the gaps.

4. Replacement. When a character-defining feature is too deteriorated or damaged to repair, "in-kind" replacement (using the same design and materials) is the preferred option. If replacement in-kind is not technically or economically feasible, use of a compatible substitute material may be considered. For example, a roof originally clad with large cedar shingles might be re-roofed with a product of similar appearance since high quality cedar products are no longer readily available.

5. Design for Missing Historic Features. When an important architectural feature is missing, reconstruction of the element (based on sound documentation of the original design) is preferred. However, if documentation is unavailable, a second option for the replacement feature is a new design that is compatible with the remaining historic features of the property.

6. Additions/Alterations to Historic Buildings. Construction of a new addition to a historic building or within the boundaries of a historic district should be undertaken only after carefully considering how best to accommodate the need for additional space. If an addition or new construction adjacent to a historic building is required, it should be designed to minimize alterations and/or visual impacts to the primary elevations and features of significance.