Creating Design Guidelines

Some Things to Consider in Publishing Design Guidelines for Your Community

Here are some things to consider in developing and publishing historic preservation design guidelines for your community:

The publication, including the guidelines, should be written on a level that is easy for a layperson to understand and interpret. Most popular publications-magazines, for example-are written on about an eighth grade level.

The publication should explain what buildings or district(s) are subject to the guidelines, why they are historic, and why they should be preserved.

If the guidelines are for properties in a historic district or districts, there should be a map of the area or areas which are subject to the guidelines.

If a historic preservation commission or design review board in your community must review proposed alterations to historic properties and grant a permit for the work to proceed, your publication should explain why there is a commission, what the commission does, how to submit an application for a certificate of appropriateness, and walk through the review process. It should explain what happens when an application is approved and what happens when an application is rejected, and there should be a sample application form.

Guidelines are essentially specifications for work to be done to properties. They should not dictate a single solution, but allow for various possibilities within clearly defined parameters. Still, to be truly helpful and useful, they should be specific enough to give clear direction to the property owner who is contemplating work and to the commission which is charged with reviewing and approving it. Well-written guidelines can ease the process for both the property owner and the commission. They give the property owner a clear idea of what the commission is likely to approve, so that he or she can plan a project from the outset which is likely to meet the commission's approval (or, if the property owner chooses to propose work that doesn't conform to the guidelines, they give him or her a fair idea in advance that what he or she is proposing is likely to run into problems when it reaches the commission). They give the commission a set of specifications against which to compare any proposed work and make a decision about it without appearing arbitrary.

Sometimes guidelines describe what not to do but offer little guidance about what to do. For example, "Adding new elements to a roof such as dormer windows, vents, or skylight (sic) in a manner that diminishes the historic character of the building is not recommended." This allows for dormers, vents and skylights as long as they don't diminish the historic character of the building (which is fine), but offers no specifics about what a new dormer or skylight that doesn't diminish historic character would look like.

By way of comparison, well-written guidelines would be more specific in describing design parameters for dormers or skylights that won't diminish historic character. For example. "Skylights should be placed to minimize visibility from the street, not on the main roof slope, back as far as possible from the front of the building, preferably on the rear elevation, be flat in design, and not clustered side by side in a row." Although these guidelines don't dictate a single solution, they do give the commission parameters within which to make its decision that are more specific than the generality that the skylight shouldn't diminish the historic character of the building. They also give the property owner who knows the guidelines in advance a better chance of coming up with a proposal that the commission will find appropriate and acceptable (or at least advance knowledge that he or she is probably going to encounter a problem).

Recommendations should conform to the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation as well as any local standards or guidelines established in the local law which provides for the design review process.

The guidelines should recommend preservation of existing historic fabric as the preferred first course of action in every instance.

The guidelines should recommend local historical research as the starting point for decision-making. To facilitate this, the guidelines should suggest sources of local historical references, community or county histories, photo and postcard collections, archival materials, etc.

The guidelines should include a bibliography of preservation reference materials (e.g. Old-Building Owner's Manual, Respectful Rehabilitation, Caring for Your Old House, Preservation Briefs, Old-House Journal, etc.). Don't overlook newer sources of information, like videos and web sites. There should be a plan in place to ensure that references suggested in the guidelines are available locally, preferably in a public library or other public place which is accessible evenings and weekends. If necessary, the budget for the guidelines project should include funds to purchase references recommended in the guidelines and place them in a public library or other repository.

  • To make the guidelines easier for property owners and commission members to reference, include an index.
  • To lend credibility to the historic preservation commission or design review board as a source of advice on design, the publication itself should be well-designed.

Topics to Consider Including in Your Design Guidelines

  • Access for the Disabled
  • Additions
  • Asphalt
  • Awnings
  • Chimneys
  • Color
  • Cornices and Friezes
  • Cresting
  • Dormers
  • Entrances and Doors
  • Entry Vestibules
  • Fences and Walls
  • Filling in Windows
  • Finials
  • Foundations
  • Gardens and Landscaping
  • Gazebos
  • Graphics and Signage
  • Gutters and Downspouts
  • Lighting
  • Masonry
  • New Buildings
  • Old Garages and Outbuildings
  • Ornamentation (Trim, Brackets, Hoodmolds, Shutters)
  • Parking Lots
  • Patios and Decks
  • Pools and Fountains
  • Porch Enclosures
  • Porches and Stoops
  • Replacement Windows
  • Ridge Caps (Ornamental and Other)
  • Roofing Materials
  • Roofs
  • Sheet Metal
  • Siding
  • Skylights
  • Slate
  • Storefronts
  • Storm Windows
  • Street Furniture
  • Tile
  • Walks, Sidewalks, Driveways
  • Windows