Tips for Working with Historical Districts

Houses labeled “historic” present unique challenges. Here’s how one remodeler handles the landmines

May 23, 2000
Rod Sutton's Editorial Archives

According to a recent news item in the local paper, an angry homeowner was fighting his municipality because he wanted vinyl siding on his house. Sorry, it''s historic and vinyl''s not an option.

Remodelers who work on houses that have "historic" designations face these challenges regularly. Mike Mason, third-generation owner of Michael M. Mason Design-Build Remodeling Inc. in Cranford, N.J., certainly does. Historic restoration makes up about half of Mason''s business, and he says product selection is probably the biggest battle to be fought. Mason has developed product options--such as asphalt/fiberglass shingles that look like slate--and construction solutions--wood siding on the front, vinyl on the back and sides--that enable him to keep the historical districts happy.

He''s made his share of appeals to historical district oversight committees, usually with an eye toward matching the look of the house with a product or method that is less expensive than the original. The district''s overriding concern is, of course, ensuring that the house retains its historic appearance. "I look for a man-made material that''s a nice replication," Mason says. "[Historical districts call for] near 100 percent [compliance] to the front of the house; the rear is forgiven, so you could substitute."

Beyond that, though, Mason says working successfully with these organizations is simply a matter of courtesy and respect. "Our father taught us to respect people, to be politically minded, and culturally minded," he said. "It''s a way of life. Stop by and see the mayor, the members of the historical committees, the building inspectors."

Two successful strategies that Mason says work in convincing districts to allow the substitution are "next best" and "good reasons."

"If I make a substitution, I say it''s the next best thing," he says. "Here I am, trying to make it look like a slate roof. [Using the next best] is going to cost me 25 percent less than [slate]." He makes sure the district, then, has good reasons to listen to him. "They need something to put into their file," he says. "The more reasons, the better. Boards need to be able to defend their decisions."

Mason says a positive, non-confrontational approach allows the board to do its job and give the remodeler the benefit of the doubt. "If you put somebody in a bad position, it''s going to come back and haunt you," he says. "Try to be as accommodating as possible."

Finally, Mason plays up his company''s reputation for doing this kind of work. The company has won awards and been recognized by historical societies for its work. From a marketing standpoint, Mason promotes this niche through truck and jobsite signage.

"Doing a front porch is great exposure," he says. "Doing a kitchen doesn''t give near as much exposure. You see the fact that I exist when I have a jobsite sign, but when you''re out there with scaffolding or have a roof supported, you have a lot of exposure."

His exposure has paid off. When an appointed position on his local historical organization came up, he was chosen to fill it. "I was appointed because of my background in doing this work," he says.

Rod Sutton is the Editor-in-Chief for Professional Remodler. Please email him with any comments or questions regarding his column.

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