Norfolk's Historic Guidelines

"Like with Like"

or harassing the neighborhood with nitpicking nonsense?

"Thou shalt not mix modern materials with original materials" is not a rule laid down by the Architect of the Universe. It's a facile regulation made up by bureurcrats — or more likely a committee of bureacrats. According to a spokesperson for the Norfolk City Governement, "The general rule of thumb for repairing materials are that they should match the original materials, for example wood to wood or masonry to masonry." This "original materials" or "like with like" rule is part of the City of Norfolk Historic District Design Guidelines, which are based on the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation. But Norfolk's Historic Guidelines are not mandated by the federal government nor the state government. No, the rules in the Historic Guidelines are imposed on the citizens of Norfolk Historic Districts solely by the Norfolk City Government.

You don't believe the Norfolk City Government and only the Nortfolk City Government is behind these rules? That's not what you've heard, maybe not even what some City functionary told you? Get the FAQs from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources:

"Only locally designated historic districts are subject to local zoning ordinances and procedures. Sometimes, a property or district may be listed at the national, state, and local levels but it is only the local designation that places restrictions on private owners."


What is the problem?

Everyone knows that covering an old house with aluminum or vinyl siding profoundly changes its appearance and character. But what's wrong with modern, low-maintenance, longer lasting materials that are designed to look like the old stuff? What about a porch column that looks historically appropriate but is composed of modern, low-maintenance materials? Or a door? Or anything, for that matter.

According to Norfolk's Historic Design Guidelines:

"The introduction of recent materials in historic buildings has not been tested over time and their compatibility with the materials in historic buildings has not been ascertained. There are potential expansion/contraction issues when installing new materials adjacent to historic ones."

And this:

"If a window or windows must be replaced, it should be replaced with one matching the original in design, material, size, depth of reveal, muntin configuration and profile, detail, and color of glass and glazing."

This "potential expansion/contraction issues" justification, the sole justification given for the "original materials" rule, might sound plausible or even scientific, but the truth is that all architecture, from the oldest to the most modern, is composed of a variety of materials located adjacent to eah other and with different coefficients of expansion, for example: woods, bricks, stones, concrete, glass, metals, sealants, etc.


But bricks and mortar are different...

In certain instances, using disparate materials in contact with each other is indeed a proven bad idea. For example, joining different metals together in an outdoor environment is an invitation to electrolytic corrosion. Or repointing old masonry using a modern mortar that is harder and less porous than the original mortar can cause old bricks to crack and spall (something City of Norfolk officials couldn't care less about, because they do not bother to enforce proper repointing). In other instances it might not be good to join different materials together, for example, replacing a rotten section of clapboard siding with synthetic boards because this might lead to adverse expansion issues. But then again, it might not lead to such issues. So is such a hard and fast prohibition really justified? In most instances, what difference does using different materials together make? As pointed out before, all architecture old and new already contains a variety of materials with different expansion characteristics.


Mindless Unfairness

The house at Mowbray Arch and Mill Street (in the photo below) was built using both modern and traditional materials. The rules allow this because this is a new house, not a "historic" house, even though this house was designed to blend with the vintage architecture of the neighborhood.

Traditional materials used in this house include the wood framing, sheathing, trusses, and floor boards; the brick, mortar, and stone facade and stairs; the cedar shakes on its gables; the wrought iron rails.

Modern materials include the synthetic "slate" roofing shingles and synthetic roof membranes, the Azek (PVC) cornices and trim; the metal-clad window frames; the various modern caulks and sealants. While Hardie Board was not used on this house, the owners have used it elsewhere and found it, too, superior to wood.

And guess what: "Potential expansion/contraction issues" with this house, as with many, many other houses built with both modern and traditional materials, will not be a problem.

As long as a historically consistent look is maintained, there is nothing wrong with replacing old wood windows and doors with modern windows composed of more durable modern materials. Why use wood that requires frequent and costly maintenance when you could use modern materials that look the same, yet are more durable and require significantly less maintenance?

We are talking about houses that people live in here, not monuments or museums replete with do-not-touch signs. If the DownTown politicians expect people to buy the stately old residential dinosaurs of Ghent and foot the high cost of their maintenance — and yes, even live in them — then why pester those people with ridiculously unnecessary and ill-thought-out regulations?

Maybe the people who live in Historic Districts such as Ghent should consider why they should keep on putting up with thickheaded bureaucrats and senseless rules. Where does the Ghent Neighborhood League, which allegedly represent the neighborhood's residents, stand on the issue?





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