Tuesday, July 15, 2014

New Construction in Historic Districts

Building in Historic Districts can be a challenging, yet rewarding undertaking.  The following is a quote from the National Parks System from 1967, but still remains true:

 “… a modern addition should be readily distinguishable from the older work; however, the new work should be harmonious with the old in scale, proportion, materials, and color (Dilsaver,1994).”

In other words, a new building should be discernible as a new construction, but it should be designed using ratios, patterns, and materiality that allow it to become a harmonious part of its context.  Done right, contemporary urban infill projects can fill voids and provide a unique contrast within historic city blocks.    

The following are some considerations to designing new construction in historic districts.  As an example, we will use our recently completed Jersey City project at 93 Bright Street.

Site, Setting, and Height 

Although there are some voids in the streetscape, there remains a fairly consistent street wall.  A proposed building should be set at the front property line to maintain this condition.  Design decisions can be lead and subsequently justified by using lines and proportions from neighboring buildings.  In the diagram below, the brick massing is flush with the property line in plan.  In elevation, the top of the brick form matches with the neighboring building’s cornice.  The taller, recessed aluminum façade then adds an additional floor to the building while bridging the height gap between its immediate neighbor and the height of the tallest neighbor on the opposite side.

Façade Openings

Openings and fenestrations are a simple way to make a new building congruent with the historic context.  Again, it is important to look at proportions and patterns from the immediate surroundings to help guide the design.  The heights and sizes of the openings should be designed with consideration and relation to its neighbors.      

At 93 Bright it was decided to make the windows appear vertical to match the existing window shapes, but they are actually wide horizontal bays that allow in much more natural light.  The bays are disguised with wood screens to make the bay appear as separate vertical-oriented windows.  At street level a store front concept was borrowed and adapted from a local building.      


Scale is a very apparent feature for the pedestrian.  In the proper scale, the building will seamlessly mesh with its surroundings.  Done poorly, the building will distract, perhaps overwhelm and be detrimental to the district's character.  Height-to-width ratios should be considered for suitable scale.  A square facade of equal height and width will have a height-to-width value of 1.  A value above 1 implies verticality and conversely, a value under 1 signifies horizontality (See example below).


Often times when building in a historic district, you may have to use the predominant material used throughout.  Decisions can still be made with regards to level of articulation in order to make the project unique from its older neighbors.  With this project, we decided to use the principal material, which in this case was brick.  It was accented with wood and aluminum, which could be found sparsely throughout the immediate area.  The level of ornament on the façade was simplified to serve as a complementary, modern gesture to the existing buildings.  You can borrow a material from the context and still have the ability to design your building.     


In the end, it is crucial to do your research and address the necessary considerations in order to build in historic districts.  While historic districts can be restrictive and challenging, once the limiting factors have been identified, solving them with innovative design can be quite a fulfilling process.  The final result should be a building that complements and improves the context and inspires future projects to meet the same high standards of design. 

Dilsaver, L. M. (1994). Administrative Policies for Historic Areas. America's national park system: the critical documents (). Lanham, Md.: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers.  


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