Things to consider before building a home in a historic neighborhood

You know you want to build your dream home, but don’t know how to begin? It seems like a daunting task to build a custom home. And admittedly, it is complicated. We are here to help you!

You know you want to build your dream home, but don’t know how to begin? It seems like a daunting task to build a custom home. And admittedly, it is complicated. We are here to help you!

If you’re like most builders we work with when it comes to building a new house you need to know all the rules it should be like the back of your hand. From start to finish, you’re ready to select a great house plan and make sure that everything is built according to code to reflect your quality of workmanship.


But when it comes to building a new house in historic neighborhoods, the rulebook completely changes. In addition to everything else that you’d normally do, you will need to be well versed in the preservation process. You will also have to know how to evaluate the neighborhood and site conditions according to historic guidelines to fully maximize your scale and height.

Someone also said that “when you are building a home right next to several other houses, you don’t want to disrupt the rhythm of the block. It’s that definition of rhythm that really captures the philosophy of what preservation looks like and why there’s a preservation process in place”.

The story behind the historic neighborhood

There’s a story behind every historic neighborhood. Building a new home in one of these neighborhoods is like owning a coveted piece of the past, and offers some benefits that you just can’t find anywhere else.

It’s also a great way to preserve land. Since you’re repurposing a property with a long history, it’s likely in an area where any impact to the woods, forests or natural environment has long since been made. Cities and towns with historic areas can also experience steady economic growth and retained property values.

Benefits behind historic neighborhood

If you visit your local historical society or library, you can see photos of how the neighborhood has changed over time and learn about the previous owners. Where else can you live that offers that much background information? Plus, your home will likely be surrounded by other well-built residential and commercial properties that have survived the test of time and are looked at as a reflection of your area’s history.

The benefits of living in a historic neighborhood are plentiful, but there are important things to understand before you decide to build a new home. Take a look at our list of three considerations below.

  • It will be a process

Since you’re building in a designated historic area, there will likely be specific building and zoning codes in place to preserve its integrity. Even if you’re renovating an existing home, there will likely be regulations to meet and boards from which you will need to receive approval.

In many cases, your city or town will have a historic district commission or an architectural review board that will require you to submit your new home design before you’re able to build. You should have a reputable architect or builder to present your design package to the board. It’s always best to work with someone who specializes in historic areas since they will be fluent in code requirements and regulations.

  • You’ll need to consider a lot of design factors

The design of your home will be instrumental in preserving the historical character of the area, there are some of the specific features you’ll need to pay careful attention to. The exact features will depend on your area, but some of the most common ones are below.

  • Setback: The distance a home must be located inside the property lines.
  • Orientation: This is the direction that the main entrance of a building faces. Most historical homes tend to face the street.
  •  Scale: This refers to the apparent size of a building in relation to the neighbors. Scale can also refer to the relation of the size of building elements like windows and doors.
  • Proportion: The relationship between the dimensions of building elements.
  • Height: One of the important things you need to consider the height of walls, cornices, roof, chimneys, towers, and other defining design elements.
  • Rhythm: The spacing and repetition of elements at the front of a building.
  • Massing: A building’s façade (the front design) including bays, porches, steps and roof projections.
  • Materials: This includes materials used for external visible elements such as walls, windows, sloping roofs, details, etc.
  • Roof shapes: In a neighborhood of pent roofs, a flat roof will not keep with the existing character of the street.
  • Details and ornamentation: Consider the elaborateness of details on existing buildings in the neighborhood to maintain consistency, so these things also you need to keep in mind.
  • Landscape: Plants, trees, retaining walls, driveways, etc. will help define the character of your home.

All of the above things you have to consider for both residential and commercial property.

  • It might take a little bit longer

Building on a historic area often requires more planning and approvals than building in a non-historic area. Since review boards only meet a certain number of times in a month, it could possibly take several months to just have your design approved- this will depend on your city or town.

 You’ll also need to make sure that you’re able to meet any zoning guidelines that are in place for your particular neighborhood. This may include special building processes to ensure that you don’t disturb neighborhood properties or other details that could affect the environment.