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.
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.
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.
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?