Every home has a story—and nowhere is that truer than in the storied enclaves and neighborhoods that make up Colorado’s rich heritage. Denver alone has 56 historic districts and 352 individual historic landmarks, and more and more home buyers are looking to be part of that cultural fabric with a home that reflects our vibrant regional history from a design and/or cultural perspective. Indeed, there’s something romantic about owning a historic property. Maybe it’s the chance to be part of a bigger narrative, or to immerse yourself in the character of a block or a neighborhood, or to take on the challenge of preserving the integrity that makes a place special.
Whatever the reason, buying a historic home is an exciting opportunity, not only to uphold the very soul of a house and neighborhood, but also to become part of that home’s story. In other words, like many new homeowners, you probably want to make that home your own. Enter: The large-scale remodel. Perhaps your vision includes a porch redesign, or an addition for that sunroom you’ve always wanted, or a garage expansion for an ADU (accessory dwelling unit). As residential architects with deep experience in whole-home remodeling and an understanding of traditional design, KGA is here to help you achieve these dreams.
But first, it’s important to know what you’re getting into with design guidelines, parameters, review processes, and requisite approvals to make changes to a designated historic structure. We caught up with our own Travis Hendrix, KGA senior architect, for a rundown on what to consider.
Know Your History and Understand Your Home
So you just bought a 100-year-old house that sits on a street with a “historic district” sign. What does that mean? Good question. “It’s always best to begin with understanding and defining your property’s designation,” Hendrix says.
There are multiple types of historic designations based on certain criteria. Some properties are individually designated historic landmarks. For example, a home that serves as a preserved example of a significant architect’s work, or a building that is associated with a prominent historical figure of great influence on society. On the other hand, some homes are contributing structures within designated historic districts.
In Denver, for instance, there are districts such as Alamo Placita, Seventh Avenue, Potter Highlands, Baker, and Country Club that are designated historic districts because their structures—such as homes, churches, and schools—are intact examples of period architecture (think: Queen Anne style, Victorian, or Denver Square revival built at the turn of the century). Notably, La Alma Lincoln Park recently became the city’s second historic cultural district (behind Five Points) based on its role as a local hub for the national Chicano movement reflecting social and political reform of unequal treatment in labor and education.
Your property may fall into one of those categories, or it may be listed on the historic state or national registers through a separate process, which often overlaps with local designations. Check with your realtor, search for your property specs online, and consult your city’s information portals, like this map and Denver’s “Resources For Property Owners,” to collect information.
Assemble a Team to Craft a Vision
Now that you know exactly what you’re working with, it’s wise to get a team on board to help you navigate the process of remodeling your historic home. In other words, if your home has any historical label attached to it, you may encounter guidelines, requirements, and restrictions for making external structural changes. This type of work may be subject to a design review process involving various committees, and the best way to minimize complications and delays down the road is to connect with the appropriate consultants, authorities, and contractors from the get-go.
Consultants and Authorities
Municipalities often have entities such as Denver’s Landmark Preservation Commission that can help you determine the best path forward if you want to initiate changes to a historic home, or apply for a historic designation for your property. Nonprofit organizations and state agencies—History Colorado, for example—can also be a wealth of information and resources for honing in on historic information and exploring possibilities for renovations and modifications, such as this statewide grant program with funds allocated to preservation projects.
“You’ll want someone who specializes in this type of work and who is honest with you about it,” Hendrix says. “If you want to make a big change that’s subject to review, you want someone who can think through what that means. Our architects are accustomed to working with design review commissions. They can help you understand the extent of what you can do, provide examples and visualizations, and be an intermediary between you, as the property owner, and the historic commission or council.”
Besides an architect, you’ll want a trusted contractor to help shepherd the process through from initial consultations to executing your vision. “Look for a builder or contractor who has a depth of past and present work with remodels and historic properties,” Hendrix says. “They understand the greater picture and responsibility of their work and will give proper advice and attention to detail that will keep you out of potential pitfalls.”
Bonus: did you know that preservation and rehabilitation work on your designated historic property—as long as it’s at least 50 years old—may qualify for financial incentives through the Colorado Historic Preservation Income Tax Credit Program? (Plus, if your property is income-generating and your renovations/improvements meet certain rehabilitation criteria, it may qualify for a 20 percent federal tax credit.) A qualified tax professional can help guide you through the details and application process.
Tweak Your Design to Meet the Standards
Once you’ve got a good grasp of your property’s historic designation and have opened the necessary lines of communication to help determine what’s possible for modifications, you can start hashing out the design. Any property with a historic landmark or district designation may be subject to a design review undertaken by the Landmark Preservation Commission. In general, the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards of Rehabilitation for the Treatment of Historic Properties provide strong guidance for historic preservation projects and inform the Commission’s design review process, though precise adherence to these standards is only required for federal tax incentive purposes. But for homeowners seeking an informed approach to historic exterior remodeling projects, from additions to garages to window and door replacements, these are the gold standards.
Regardless of what your vision entails for remodeling your historic home, hitting these three touchpoints as you begin the process will make for as seamless an experience as possible. For a more detailed look at how KGA can help you navigate the Standards of Rehabilitation to design a remodel that preserves your home’s historic character, check out our post, “The Golden Rules of Historic Home Renovation, Explained,” where Hendrix shares some insight on what these guidelines really mean.