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Adding On: Tips for Successful Additions to Historic Buildings

Published by Jennifer Dockery on Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Journal cover December 2010   Download PDF

When a developer uses historic tax credits (HTCs) to renovate a building, the National Park Service (NPS) has the final say on all site improvements. This includes any changes to the building itself, as well as those to the surrounding grounds. Exterior additions to historic buildings can include floors added to the top of a building, a new structure connected to the side or rear of the building, or even a new free standing structure or parking lot. Although exterior additions do not count as qualified rehabilitation expenses for HTC-purposes, a poorly designed addition can cost a developer his or her credits.

The following article, the second in an occasional series, offers tips for how developers can work with the NPS to create a building addition that serves a modern purpose without disrupting the site’s historic character.

Although the NPS reviews proposed additions on a case by case basis, the park service does provide basic guidelines for developers. In August, the NPS issued a revised version of Preservation Brief 14 New Exterior Additions to Historic Buildings: Preservation Concerns. The 16-page brief serves as a general guide for developers interested in adding to a historic building’s exterior. The brief stresses that developers should first try to meet new or adaptive requirements by altering non-significant interior spaces. If this is not feasible, NPS will work with the developer to add an exterior addition to the building or grounds that preserves the historic character of the building.

As the NPS views exterior additions as a last resort, it is important to meet with the agency as early in the design process as possible to ensure that it will approve the addition. Late consultation, even for additions not attached to the historic structure, could cost the developer the entire project’s HTCs.

Developers should be prepared to negotiate, said Albert Rex, director of MacRostie Historic Advisors LLC’s northeast office. He advises clients to engage with the park service as early as possible in the design process. Hiring an architect who understands how to design a building in context will also accelerate the process. The new construction should be of a size and scale that make it secondary to the existing building.

 “It all comes down to size,” said Cindy Hamilton, Heritage Consulting Group’s vice president.

Although the approval process is subjective and building specific, the park service is much more likely to approve an addition that is outside of the view of the general public. NPS typically approves rooftop additions only for buildings with at least three stories, and typically allows the addition to be only one story. The addition must be set back a minimum of one structural bay. If a developer wants to connect a new building to the historic building, the park service prefers the addition to be on the side or rear of the existing building.

“They generally will not allow an addition to be on the face of the building,” said John Tess, president of Heritage Consulting Group.

Nor will it allow an addition that is so similar to the original building that it appears to be one building. The park service recommends that developers set the new construction on a slightly different plane than the existing building or connect the two buildings via a smaller corridor or enclosed walkway. NPS also prefers that developers use materials that complement the historic structure, but do not mimic it.

“They don’t want you to unify the two volumes … into a single architectural composition,” Tess said.
Developer Hans Lampart of Eastern Pacific LLC encountered this when he submitted a design for an enclosed stairway that he wanted to add to the outside of a 1930s movie theater and car dealership that he was renovating in Vineland, N.J. The Landis Theater project involved renovating the buildings into a performing arts center and banquet hall. Lampart proposed an addition that sat on the same plane as the existing buildings and was a close match to their brick art deco design. The NPS reviewed the proposed addition and felt that it matched the existing buildings too closely. It granted a conditional approval contingent on Lampart making a few changes.

“They wanted us to mix the materials a little bit. It’s such a fine line of compliance on the historic credits,” Lampart said. Lampart tweaked the addition, setting the new building back six inches, varying the brick used and adding stucco to a portion of the addition.

“They really want an addition that’s seen as secondary,” said Rex, who worked as a consultant on the Landis Theater project. He referred to the addition’s design as a modern interpretation of the existing buildings.

The easiest way to avoid jeopardizing HTCs is to complete a historic building renovation in phases. Tess suggested renovating the existing building and waiting until the recapture period expires before undertaking additional construction.

“Since there’s the five-year recapture period … you may want to phase your project,” Tess said. Because renovations outside of the building’s footprint do not count as qualified rehabilitation expenses, this will not affect the number of credits that a project receives.

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