Restoring a Historic Home in Ann Arbor: What to Know Before You Renovate

Written by
Giraffe Team
Published on
March 17, 2022

Restoring a historic home to its original glory can be a tremendously rewarding experience. It does, however, come with its unique challenges. Historic homes are bound by all the same building codes and zoning regulations as any residence, in addition to evaluations by the historic commission. As homeowners begin the process of renovating their historic home in Ann Arbor, there are a few things to keep in mind.

The purpose of the historic district commission

The Ann Arbor historic district commission is a body appointed by the Mayor and City Council with the purpose of protecting and supporting local historic districts. The commission is made up of 7 members with each commissioner serving a three year term. Each member of the commission is passionate and knowledgeable about preserving the beauty and integrity of the historic district. The role and purpose of the historic district commission is to promote the protection and enhancements of historic landmarks for the safety and welfare of the people of Ann Arbor. The commission represents the cultural and architectural history of the city and works to promote civic pride in past accomplishments of the city of Ann Arbor and what’s to come for the future. The commission’s overarching goal is to protect the history of Ann Arbor, with several functions that make up that goal. The historic district commission works to:

  • Identify and document historic county resources
  • Provide educational programs and resources regarding the history and importance of preserving historic areas
  • Support local and state historic preservation efforts
  • Evaluate proposals that affect the landmarks and historic districts of Ann Arbor

As you begin your historic home renovation, consider the following.

Start by contacting the historic commission

If you live in a historic district in Ann Arbor and want to make renovations to your home, you are required to work with the historic district commission. The historic district commission serves as a citizen review board on matters concerning historic preservation within Washtenaw county.Renovations that need to be approved include, but are not limited to:

  • Replacing your roof
  • Rebuilding a porch
  • Replacing a non-original door
  • Adding or replacing fences, decks, or patios

These renovations will require a Certificate of Appropriateness from the Historic District Commission, which states the proposed work meets the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation and is appropriate for the resource. A Denial means the proposed work does not meet the standards and is not appropriate for the style or time period of the building. A Notice to Proceed means the work is inappropriate but the commission has found that the work is necessary to correct a public safety hazard or will greatly benefit the community. Minor work, such as a new fence, can be approved by staff on behalf of the commission while major work, such as a new porch, would require a commission decision. Historic district fees range from $35 to $1,000 and depend on the size of the project. You can view the breakdown of fees here.

What needs to be approved and what doesn’t

The historic district commission only reviews work to the exterior of a home, not the interior, so you have full creative expression when it comes to the inside of your home. If the renovations you wish to do affect the exterior in any way, you may be required to submit your plans to the commission and explain why the changes to the exterior have to be made. Renovations such as closing up a window or moving a doorway would fit into this category. Significant yard work and landscape additions also require approval from the commission. Now, this doesn’t mean that you have to get permission to plant a flower in your yard. However, large projects such as tree removal, fence additions, and repaving a driveway will need to be approved by the commission.

Decide what you want versus what you need

Take some time to think about what you love about your home, what you wish you could change, and why. Ann Arbor’s historic homes are known for their character and incredible craftsmanship which is more than likely what led you to purchase your home in the first place. Identify the features of your home that you love so when you begin the renovation process, you have a better understanding of what you’d like to highlight. A comprehensive understanding of why an area or design element of your home does or doesn’t fit into your lifestyle will ensure that you're happy with the end result. As you work with a design-build team, you may discover that what you thought you wanted doesn’t actually serve your needs. For example, today's homeowners have prioritized open concept living spaces, while historic homes traditionally have several smaller rooms and living areas. Once you see the design of the open floor plan, you may realize that you want more privacy throughout your home.

Find a design-build firm with historic home experience

Restoring a historic home in Ann Arbor is a more nuanced process than the average traditional home remodel. A design-build firm with the knowledge and expertise in historic homes will help guide you through the process and make the experience seamless.At Giraffe Design Build, we have over 20 of years of experience renovating, remodeling, and restoring historic homes in Ann Arbor. Our design and build process is collaborative and focuses on inspired design, excellent craftsmanship, and sustainable practices to deliver a product that fits your lifestyle.

Contact our team to learn more about our services and how we can help bring your dream home to life.

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