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Green Building Curmudgeon

What We Have Here Is a Failure to Communicate

Or how I got blindsided by the Historic Commission

One of the best movie lines of all time, "What we have here is a failure to communicate," came to mind as my plans were rejected by my local historic preservation commission. There has got to be a better way.

For my faithful readers who have been waiting anxiously for a report on my new house, I have distressing news. At my hearing before the historic commission in November, my project was soundly rejected by the five-member board. As mentioned in my earlier post , I expected, and was prepared for, a challenge on demolishing my existing house, which they considered historic. What I did not expect was the contempt from both neighbors and board members alike for the design of my new house. After working diligently for months with my architect as well as participating in discussions with the commission staff, I thought I had come up with an acceptable plan, but that was far from the case.

The setup

Early in the design process, I showed the commission staff person my plans and received a generally positive response. Following this meeting, with the understanding that I had to submit final exterior elevations that could not be changed after approval, I committed to both the time and the expense of design development drawings in order to make sure that the plans I delivered for approval would be buildable without changes.

Jumping ahead to the hearing, I was, not surprisingly, shut down on my request to demolish my existing house. It was decided that the house was, in fact, historic, and I would suffer no hardship by being required to retain it. While I disagreed with their decision, I was ready to work around this issue, and moved on to the new house. The fact that the staff report recommended approval of my design as it was presented with no suggested changes gave me confidence, however misguided that might have been on my part.

Unknown to me, several neighbors hired a local architect to critique my plans, pointing out how they did not relate to the neighborhood and were in conflict with the historic district guidelines. A report to this effect, never shown to me, was delivered to the commission, and four different neighbors stepped up to object to my house based on this report.

The biggest complaint was that my house was too narrow for the lot, and that most of the other homes in the area were wide and shallow rather than narrow and deep. They were not swayed even slightly by the fact that I had designed my house around existing mature trees, as well as with an east/west axis for solar tempering. One neighbor suggested that trees come and go, but the house would be there for a long time, and he would prefer that it be wider rather than save a tree.

The knockout punch

My responses to the neighbors’ objections were essentially ignored by the commission. One of them added insult to injury by demeaning the quality of the massing, the scale, the alignment, and the design in general. After about 90 minutes of torture, the commission moved on to discussing details about the finishes, at which point I interrupted them and pointed out that unless they were prepared to approve my project, it seemed useless to discuss minor details of a project that would need a complete redesign, and that I would rather go home than sit there any longer.

This got them to stop their discussion and table the application, allowing me to head home, drink heavily, and lick my wounds.

Process problems

Slightly shell-shocked from my utter failure to prevail on anything at the meeting, I did a mental recap of the past several months and decided that there is a major problem with the preservation commission process. According to their rules, they are not allowed to discuss potential applications before they are submitted, so I was unable to get any criticism on my plans before they were complete and submitted for approval.

My preliminary plans, completed many months and many thousands of dollars ago, would have provided them with everything they needed to give me the same feedback I got at the recent meeting, but apparently that was not an option available to me. The fact that I heard nothing negative from the staff, and their report recommended my project be approved, led me (incorrectly as I discovered) down the garden path to anticipated approval.

It seems to me that a system where interim plans are reviewed and commented on could easily save time, money, and frustration for everyone involved. Except perhaps for the Banana (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything) neighbors, who I seem somehow to have offended mightily.

What next?

I have decided to put the project on the shelf for a while. I don’t feel like investing more money in a redesign right now, certainly not one that doesn’t take advantage of the solar orientation or the natural features of the lot, just to satisfy my neighbors and the preservation commission. I suppose I will revisit the design in the spring when I have more time, and try again or just give up and move. Anyone want to buy a lot in a beautiful historic district?

14 Comments

  1. Allison A. Bailes III | | #1

    A travesty
    Wow! It sure seems that there's a problem with the Decatur approval process here, Carl. Making you jump through their hoops and then shooting you down in the end doesn't seem befitting of a city with Decatur's progressive reputation. And, as for your neighbors, their actions seem pretty underhanded. I can understand your desire to go home and drink after the meeting and even possibly to sell and move away.

  2. Grant Dorris | | #2

    The Oughters
    It seems there are too many oughters trying to tell you what to do. Apparently "preservation" does not apply to anything other than opinion. I'm not so sure I wouldn't make a call to a local investigative reporter and make the case public.

  3. Mike McSweeney | | #3

    Wish you the best of luck
    Carl, I feel for you and your socialist community. I have heard of similar issues with "historic" districts here in NJ and in NY. I happen to live in a historic house, 1870s or so. My district however has no draconian rules. I would not have purchased my house if there were restrictions on how, I could modify my home. We live in America, land of the free. As long as additions, modifications are done tastefully (no 5000 sq-ft monstrosities when the neighborhood is 2000 sq-ft homes) then the neighbors can take a hike.
    I think you should just move, your neighbors don't seem to like you anyway so who cares. Best of luck to you.
    Anythiong written on your "green" improvements in the new design? Heavily insulated, solar hot water, solar electric, windmill, geothermal, mixed cooling (natural and ac). I would just like to see how you are thinking.

    Again, best of luck to you. Mike

  4. John Brooks | | #4

    Banana Concept...been there
    Carl,
    I have been on both sides of this Banana thing.
    It really brings out the worst in people.
    Has anyone been succesful building a new house in your neighborhood since the ordinance?
    Your ordinance seems very brief....yet open to interpretation....

    "New structures should respect the existing setback, massing and building materials of historic properties in adjacent blocks and be compatible in design with surrounding historic properties. "

    Are there any homes in your neighborhood with similar "massing" that you can point to?

  5. Nick Pacella | | #5

    Historic Commission
    Actually it seems more like opportunism than communism. Unfortunately your experience is shared by many. It is the nature of most historic or design commissions to be self serving. Sometimes for the good of the area, but mostly not. To your neighbors I would suggest that just as trees come and go so do housing styles and the implementation of sustainable design should be on the top of their agenda these days. Unless they are using all those trees they cut down to heat their homes.

    You may want to research past decisions similar to yours and see if there were any successful appeals. The ordinance does seem a bit vague and open to opinion (usually a very bad thing) so maybe you need to bring in your own historic consultant and challenge theirs.

    Good luck

  6. James | | #6

    Government knows best
    Welcome to the world of government control. Isn't it exciting to know they want to take over health care, the auto industry, the financial industry and the energy sector? What could possibly go wrong?

    Nothing could be more dangerous and detrimental to the innovation necessary to achieve Green Buildings than government control of the process.

  7. J. Hershey, AIA, LEED AP | | #7

    Government Approval
    Carl,

    You experienced what happens to many homeowners who represent themselves with a request such as yours. Whether right or wrong there is a process in place that needs to be satisfied, which usually requires the assistance of an Architect with experience in these matters. Hopefully you have not burned the bridge to possibly revisit a new home design if you choose to hold on to the property. I do not recommend taking your case to the press or making it a public issue as this will only create more hardship for you. A better approach would be to meet with the neighbors individually to understand their concerns. Express to your neighbors and the governmental staff that you are interested in working with them in a positive direction that will meet their requirements and allow you the home that will fulfill your needs. An experienced Architect should be involved with you in the discussions with the neighbors and should represent you to the government staff and at presentations. Lastly, you can never be too prepared for a meeting or presentation. This mindset will ultimately save you time, money and aggravation.

  8. Richard Taylor, AIA | | #8

    J. Hershey - thank you for
    J. Hershey - thank you for your appropriately level-headed comments. As a veteran of many, many commission meetings from both sides of the table, I can report that most problems similar to this one are a result of an inadequate understanding of the goals and guidelines of the area. What we too often forget is the relative permanence of what we build, hence the great concern with design - good or bad, we're stuck with it for a long time. It's the community that counts in areas like this, not your house in particular. Historic areas are rarely appropriate venues for drama.

  9. Richard Taylor, AIA | | #9

    And I'd like to add that the
    And I'd like to add that the most historic commissions provide a non-binding "concept review" that exists to avoid exactly what you're experienced. It's a woefully underutilized strategy - your architect should have recommended it at the start.

  10. User avater
    Carl Seville | | #10

    First off, I'm confused by
    First off, I'm confused by the socialist/communist accusations in some of the comment. In no way to I think that we shouldn't have rules, regulations, and government. My concern is the way this particular process went. To J Hershey and Richard Taylor, I have represented myself successfully at many historic commissions in the past, and in this particular case there is no concept review process. In fact I was told to contact the commission head regarding some early questions and he informed me that he could not speak to me as he would be hearing my application later. Finally, while the architect was not at the hearing, the house was carefully designed and considered the scale and proportion of the neighborhood. There have been other houses approved on my street that are less appropriate for the area than mine. I suspect that I was not fortunate enough to hire the "right" architect with the proper connections. Lastly, I have neighbors who have benefited from a virtually empty lot next to their home for years and I believe that their primary goal was to stop anything that blocked their side view. I was very polite during the entire process and have not burned any bridges. Due to other commitments, I have put the project on hold until at least the spring when I have more time to give it the thought it deserves. All in all, a very frustrating experience that, had there been a logical process, could have been much smoother, cheaper, and satisfying.

  11. Art Smith - LEED AP | | #11

    FLAWED HOMEOWNERS INVESTMENT STRaTEGY - WE ALL WILL PAY
    Carl-

    First my condolences on your earnest efforts to do the right thing with your home design. Your concerns for good Passive Solar design and saving trees was once again done in by America's false sales/marketing Real Estate strategy about "Affecting my Home's value" neighborhood thinking. The wide Vs deep & narrow argument is typical of why we have this mortage mess and a glut inventory of Mc Mansions and oversized, impractical homes, that our kids and grandkids will pay back for years (somewhere about $8000 per family). But they "look good" from the street ...right? Just keep doing the right thing, Carl !

    Art Smith - LEED AP

  12. Geoff Graham | | #12

    Status Quo Prevails
    Carl, very sorry to hear it, but not at all surprised. Here's our similar story, though ours has a happier ending: http://bit.ly/o0JCd

    This is neither socialism, communism, or capitalism. This is the inevitable and unfortunate result of democratization of land use.

  13. Adrienne Burt | | #13

    For what it's worth...
    We looked on Google Earth at your neighborhood and the proposed plans. I think the house is absolutely in keeping with the neighborhood. Hipped roofs, entry porch... it's an updated take on the houses already there. If I was the one in charge, I would have approved the plans and the only discussion would be the finishes.

    It's a great house and I hope you get to build it.

  14. RitaF | | #14

    Tony Soprano Approach
    Maybe accidentally having the house burn down might be more expedient.

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