Builders, developer, homeowners just want a simple answer: “Is fiber-cement siding OK in the historic district?” But no one can provide a simple answer, because there are three different takes on it:
(1) the Guidelines as written which give any inquirer a runaround from one chapter to another and at the end leave them little wiser than when they started reading
(2) the Guidelines as City staff interpret them which is roughly that they generally mean Yes for new construction but No on existing buildings except perhaps if it’s an addition
(3) the Guidelines as interpreted by the Historic Preservation Commission in ruling votes, which in recent times have generally been Yes, but are never a sure thing.
At the January 22 hearing in HPC14-1012 262 West Patrick Street owner Jim Mackintosh applied among other things to replace deteriorated siding with ‘Hardiplank’ – the brandname for fiber cement of the leading international manufacturer James Hardie LLC. Generically this is often called cementitious siding since it is made from a proprietary slurry of portland cement, sand, wood fibers and resins.
The staff report said fiber cement was not in compliance with the Guidelines and recommended that Mackintosh’s application in HPC14-1012 be denied. It was pointed out that the Commission has been regularly approving fiber cement siding as an alternative to wood siding. Why stop him when so many others are allowed to use the material. The commissioners hardly needed to be reminded of this, there have been so many cases when it has sailed through. Staff reports normally endorse its use.
Unanimous vote to disregard staff ’No’
With almost no discussion the HPC voted unanimously in HPC14-1012 against the staff recommendation to deny, and Mackintosh has his permit to use fiber cement or Hardiplank siding.
How can there be so many versions of what the Guidelines allow by way of a common siding material?
The simple answer is that the Frederick’s Historic Guidelines are an incoherent mess.
The Jesuitical analysis
The more complicated answer requires some mental gymnastics of textual analysis, but here goes:
Chapter 4 Materials for Rehabilitation and Their Treatment starts by saying that “Approved materials are those that may be used in rehabilitation, including additions, in the Frederick Town Historic District. On a case-by-case basis for the construction of new additions, the Commission may approve use of materials acceptable for new construction, as discussed in Chapter 10.” p43
Under Part D. Wood Materials the Guidelines repeat the familiar preservation lines that every effort must be made to retain and preserve original materials, and to make repairs rather than replace. p50
In paragraph 3. Siding and shingles, they say: “Siding, including shingles used for siding, on walls to be rehabilitated must be wood. p51
In Part E, paragraph 4. Non-historic siding materials the Guidelines states: “Resurfacing structures that historically were wood with artificial stone, thin brick veneer, asbestos or asphalt shingles, cementitious shingles or siding, T1-11 and similar wood products, vinyl or horizontal metal siding or other non-historic siding materials will not be approved.” p52
“Cementitious siding” clearly encompasses fiber cement, the Guidelines glossary item characterizing it as “Fiber cement siding made of a combination of Portland cement, ground sand and cellulose fiber.” p152
The situation is somewhat muddied if there is already “non-historic siding” on a building. Paragraph 5. Removal of non-historic siding says the removal requires Commission approval, adding: “The Commission encourages removal of the inappropriate material and repair of the underlying surfaces.” p52
Nothing explicitly calls for wood siding or rules out fiber cement as siding in case of “non-historic siding” being the existing material.
Chapter 9 Guidelines for Rehabilitation: Additions defines these as new construction attached to an existing building and says their design “must be compatible with the… materials of the existing building.” Additions should be differentiated from historic structures by some means, the Guidelines say, which include “an obvious or subtle change in materials.” under G. Design p135
There follows immediately: J . Materials “Additions to historic buildings must incorporate materials that are compatible with the age and style of the historic building. The materials listed in Chapter 4 should be used in the construction of additions.” Chapter 4 of course has ruled out fiber-cement among other “non-historic” materials. So far it is a No, No.
But the Guidelines on Additions immediately provides this out: “On a case-by-case basis the Commission may approve materials acceptable for new construction, as discussed in Chapter 10. New Construction.” p136
Chapter 10 is titled Guidelines for New Construction, which is defined as new freestanding buildings and structures. p137
Materials are addressed in G. “The materials outlined in Chapter 4 are suggested for use in new construction and are generally considered to be compatible throughout the Historic District.” But then there’s the ‘out’: “Other materials may also be considered compatible and will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis and evaluated based on their contribution to the integrity of the overall design although vinyl, stucco panels, exterior insulating finishing system (EIFS) and siding with fake textures will not be approved.” p142
Fiber cement siding is omitted from the list of unapprovable or forbidden materials.
It is not explicitly approved, or for that matter even mentioned in the chapters on additions and new construction. From this thin textual basis fiber cement siding has for some time been routinely described in staff reports as an appropriate and approved material under the Guidelines for additions and new construction. But from time to time they’ll say it is barred for rehabilitation without new construction.
No rationale advanced for distinguishing rehab materials from additions, new construction
Trouble is the Guidelines do not articulate any rationale for the differential treatment of existing buildings and new. And every attempt by city staff to discriminate between rehab of old and new work seems unfair and generates the angry sense that a permissive approach is taken for some favored applicants while others suffer restrictive handling. And all for no good reason.
Fiber cement siding is a good substitute for wood siding. In smooth finish and painted it looks so like wood it can only be distinguished with difficulty. It is much cheaper but it performs far better than wood. It is highly rot resistant and doesn’t shrink or split. It takes paint better, and lasts several paintings of wood.
But historic preservation means quite different things to different people. Most property owners see it as treatment that uses the best modern technology consistent with maintaining the general historic ambience of the neighborhood . They aim to preserve their building with the most cost-effective materials.
Historic preservation ideologues on the other hand tend to disdain new materials, are unconcerned about cost-effectiveness (it’s not their money being spent) and want to force property owners to keep the old because it is old. And these ideologues tend to gravitate to regulatory commissions. They think like museum curators.
Very different rules, different places
Historic district regulators in different places have very different approaches to fiber cement siding, according a review of several jurisdictions.
Some flatly ban it.
City of Annapolis: “Synthetic substitutes for wood siding and trim are not appropriate in the historic district.” (p47)
Some allow it so long as it can’t be seen from a public way:
Alexandria VA: “Composition board siding may be approved… where there is minimal visibility from the public way.” (p111)
Another approves it as long as it is made to look like wood.
Ellicott City, Howard Co: “If wood siding must be replaced on a historic building, a composite material may be considered if… it conveys the appearance of the historic material…” (p30)
Another welcomes its use.
Charlottesville VA calls cementitious siding a “sustainable”: and “preferred” material on new construction and additions in the historic districts (p2) For rehab: “Some composites … may be found acceptable as a substitute material (for wood)… but must be painted.” (IV-18) In Charlottesville all buildings in historic districts get formally classified ahead of time as contributing or non-contributing and design review applies only to the contributing buildings.
Some historic districts have no rules on specific materials for siding.
Washington DC: materials on new additions to historic buildings in historic districts must be “visually compatible” especially when visible from a public street (p10). New construction materials should fit with the materials in the street. (p8) No specific materials are barred.
All those we reviewed manage to make themselves clearly understood without the tortuous textual analysis required in Frederick’s Guidelines.
- editor 2015-01-25
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