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Things We Do: Historical Commission Approvals

Philadelphia is an old city, whose plan was first laid out by William Penn in 1683. One of the main agencies in charge of protecting our architectural history is the Philadelphia Historical Commission (PHC). Philadelphia has a combination of historic properties (individual buildings that are protected) and historic districts (whole areas of the city that are protected). The PHC has a process in place to review any work on protected buildings and within protected districts.

Proposed Facade Restoration Drawing, 1629 Wallace Street

Proposed Facade Restoration Drawing, 1629 Wallace Street

The Commission's protections cover the exterior shape and materials of a building. The goal is to preserve existing history, and--when new development is planned--to protect the character of historic buildings and neighborhoods.

Everything is reviewed--from the materials to be used, to the restoration of existing cornices, to the shape of the roofline. We've worked with several clients to get through this process. There are several steps involved.

At the beginning of design, we will confirm that the client's property is protected. Our experience with past projects helps to inform us as to what the PHC is likely to approve, and we will try to steer our work in that direction. After putting together some preliminary drawings and taking existing-conditions photographs, we will meet with PHC staff at their office to discuss the project. They will often be able to give us a deeper historical perspective on the building, using their extensive collection of historical photographs.

1600 Block of Wallace Street, 1963 ( )

1600 Block of Wallace Street, 1963 (

Once preliminary design is complete, we assemble an application package for the PHC Architectural Committee. This committee is made up of architects and preservationists, and their purpose is to provide guidance to us regarding the specifics of our building. We will meet with the committee to discuss the particulars of our building, and our proposed solutions. They will ultimately make a recommendation to the Historical Commission, either in favor of or in opposition to the project.

Existing Conditions at 1629 Wallace Street

Existing Conditions at 1629 Wallace Street

A few weeks later, we meet with the Historical Commission, which is the group that will make the final decision on the project. The Commission is made up of architects, preservationists, historians, and representatives from the community and real-estate development interests. We present the project to them, and they ask questions. At the end of the hearing, they will take a vote either approving or denying the project.

But wait--there's more! Assuming the project is approved, it's time for us to start on construction drawings. This involves more detailed drawings, as well as material samples. For a typical project, this might include "shop drawings" from a custom window manufacturer, brick and mortar samples, and metal finish samples. Once the construction drawings are complete and the details and material samples are assembled, we make one last trip to the PHC office to get everything reviewed. The review is just to make sure that we haven't changed anything since our Commission approval. After review, the PHC staff will stamp the drawings, and then they are ready to go to Licenses and Inspections for building permit review.

If you have a property that's listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, we can help!



Things We Do: Zoning Plans

Sometimes, you find yourself in a situation where you need to get permission to use your property in a way that isn't normally allowed. Some examples of this might include:

  • New curb cuts or parking spaces.
  • A duplex, on a lot that is only zoned to hold a single-family home.
  • A permit for live music or other types of assembly.
  • An accessory dwelling unit adjacent to your main residence.
  • An outbuilding on your property.
  • An apartment in a former storefront.

So, while you may not need an architect to "design" something for you, you most definitely need drawings that are to scale, and show the kind of information that the authorities need to see.

This is something we do a lot of. Whether you're getting a request directly from L+I or your attorney is telling you about it, we can help. The requirements are different depending on what you're trying to achieve. We've been through dozens of different scenarios, and can work with you to provide you with the information you need.




Things We Do: Permits

assembling permit materials for five current projects

assembling permit materials for five current projects

A big part of getting a project done is getting the right permits. You may have heard from your friends about the long lines, frustrating responses, and failed attempts to get permits, along with the associated delays and violations.

One of the things we do on nearly every project is handle permitting. This involves more than just assembling the required drawings, forms, and paperwork for the initial submission. We also fill out all the paperwork and get the required pre-approvals before dropping it off with Licenses + Inspections. This removes any doubt our clients might have that the right stuff has gone in, and that it has gotten to the right person.

After the application has been reviewed, the plans examiner might have additional questions. They get in touch directly with us, and we provide the answers they need. After the review is complete, we pick up the permit for you (remember those lines?) and get it into your builder's hands so you can get going with construction. 

Never having to deal with L+I for permits? Just one more perk of working with us.



Things We Do: Lot Subdivisions & Consolidations

Sometimes you have a property that's too big for one project, and you want to divide it into more than one lot. On the other hand, maybe you have two small lots next to each other, and you want to combine them into one. These processes are called subdivisions and consolidations, respectively. 

In order to make this happen, you need to work with a surveyor, the City Survey District, the Office of Property Assessment, and the Department of Licenses and Inspections.

We've worked with several clients to make this happen. Before that, though, we were able to help the clients analyze their properties to determine whether a consolidation/subdivision was a good idea or not. The potential of your property is determined by the zoning code, so we want you to be sure that you can achieve your goals before going through with the process.


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"Stronger Than the Storm"

I spent last week on vacation in Stone Harbor, NJ.  Sitting on the beach and observing the results of Hurricane Sandy's power--and the Borough's reaction to it--got me thinking.  How do we choose when to fight the inevitability of nature?  Who should pay for it?  When, if ever, do we admit defeat and treat our coastline as a fluid, rather than rigid, boundary?

As you can see in the photo above, the water has really scoured the beach, causing almost cliff-like conditions at the high-water line.  Higher up on the beach, the large and well-established dunes were eaten away by the hurricane.  It's fortunate for property owners on the island that these dunes have been the subject of a lot of focus in recent years.

Natural dunes often occur in a double-humped configuration.  That is, there are two rows of dunes running parallel to the beach.  Because of this, four distinct microclimates are created; the primary (outer) dune facing the beach, the back of that dune, the outer face of the secondary (inner) dune, and the back of that dune.  Dunes serve many purposes.  They create several microclimates where different flora and fauna live.  In the photo below, you can see how the sides of the dunes facing the ocean have more grasses, while the back side has larger plants.  If these dunes are allowed to progress naturally, larger vegetation, including trees, will develop as you move away from the ocean.  This is determined by how much wind, blowing sand, and salt spray each area is subjected to.  (For a more thorough description of this process and a list of the plant species involved, see Ian McHarg's Design With Nature, in the chapter entitled "Sea and Survival".) 

When I was a kid, there were almost no dunes.  Over the past several years, the towns along this stretch of the coast have been developing dune projects, putting in snow fencing to trap sand and planting grasses to hold it in place.  As the wind blows more sand onto the dunes, the grasses extend their roots, creating a dense mat that grips the sand.  It is this network of roots that held most of the dune mass in place during the storm.  The dunes were able to absorb most of the power of the storm, and kept the sea back (mostly), reducing the storm damage to flooding, but not destruction.

Now, the beach is being rebuilt.  The dredging barge has moved in, and large equipment stands at the ready on the sand.  The barge will suck sand from offshore and blow it, along with whatever else is down there, through a three-foot-wide pipe up onto shore.  The sand will be spread into place and will bring the beach back to where it was the last time this process was done (three years ago, I think).  The total sand to be moved will be about 700,000 cubic yards, or the equivalent of 46,667 standard dump-truck loads.  

Fortunately for local property owners, the beach fill project is entirely funded with Sandy relief money, costing the Borough nothing.  But it begs the question: Who should be paying for this beach reclamation, and should they get a vote?  There are strong arguments on both sides.  On the one hand, the Jersey Shore is a vacation destination, filled with memories for those who go there.  On the other, the vast majority of the homes on these islands are second homes, so why should the government pay to keep them safe?

This isn't just a problem that occurs after major storms.  The islands along this part of the coast are barrier islands, made of sand and, in their natural state, constantly forming, changing, and reforming.  It's only been in the last hundred years or so that people have decided to "stabilize" them, putting up barriers to the sea and periodically taking sand that has drifted away and putting it back.

I don't have any clever answers here, but it's food for thought.  In the wake of the storm, there's been plenty written about why we need to replenish these beaches and rebuild.  There are also articles like this one (written in 2004), questioning whether it should be the federal government that foots the bill.  Fortunately, in the case of this storm it seems like people were generally able to put these argument aside and help those in need of immediate assistance.

As Jimi Hendrix said, "And so castles made of sand fall in the sea, eventually".

If you'd like to keep up with the dredging progress, you can do so here.

If you want to be part of the larger discussion, Philadelphia's own WHYY is hosting a series on it entitled "Ready For Next Time?  Rethinking the Jersey Shore After Sandy".  Read more and see a schedule of events, starting July 15th, here.

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Zoning? Building? What?

A set of Zoning drawings showing the size of the building's exterior, and where it sits on its site.

When considering a construction project, there are seemingly endless codes one must conform to.  In Philadelphia alone, we must adhere to:

  • Philadelphia Zoning Code
    • Pennsylvania Uniform Construction Code, which consists of
      • International Building Code 2009
      • International Building Code 2012, Chapter 11 and Appendix E
      • International Residential Code 2009
      • International Existing Building Code 2009
      • International Fire Code 2009, including the 2010 Philadelphia Fire Code amendments
      • International Plumbing Code 2009
      • International Mechanical Code 2009
      • International Fuel Gas Code 2009
      • International Energy Conservation Code 2009
      • ICC Performance Code for Buildings and Facilities 2009
      • International Wildland-Urban Interface Code 2009
      • International Private Sewage Disposal Code 2009
      • Pennsylvania’s Propane and Liquefied Petroleum Gas Act
      • The Philadelphia Code, which modifies many of the above, and consists of
        • Administrative Code
        • Plumbing Code
        • Property Maintenance Code

Did I miss anything?

A big part of figuring out the code requirements for a project is figuring out which codes apply and which don't.  This can be a difficult process, and often requires calls to the City.  However, most projects boil down to two main codes that will affect the architectural design.  They are the Zoning and Building codes.

The Zoning Code is the body of rules that regulates three main things:

  1. what can be built on a site, 
  2. where on the site it can be built, and 
  3. how big it can be.

The first thing to do is to find out how your property is zoned.  In Philadelphia we have a great interactive map system that lets you search a property by address.  For example, my office:

If we zoom in, you can see that the map indicates the parcel with a box, and calls out its zoning designation.  In this case, it's CMX-1.

The next step is to go to the Philadelphia Zoning Code, which is Title 14 of The Philadelphia Code.  Here, you'll find Table 14-602-2, which tells you what is allowed to be built on a parcel with a CMX-1 designation.  For example, you are allowed to operate a day care center, professional office, or retail store, but are not allowed to operate a hospital, a restaurant, or a parking lot.  

Because Zoning is so specific to the place it regulates, nearly every county or municipality in the country has its own code (Houston, TX is a famous exception).  We're lucky in Philadelphia, because all of this information is available online and is searchable.  Most smaller municipalities have their Zoning maps and codes online, but the maps aren't interactive.  To be sure of the Zoning designation for a parcel in one of these places, it's best to call the municipal office to get their input.

So what's the point of Zoning?  These types of regulations have many proponents and detractors ever since the first large-scale Zoning rules were enacted in New York City in 1916.  The basic purpose of Zoning is to separate land uses that are thought to be incompatible with one another, to prevent new development from negatively impacting existing development, and to encourage development in a direction deemed beneficial to the community as a whole.  Some examples:

  1. Zoning rules might keep large factories from being built in residential neighborhoods.
  2. Zoning rules might encourage higher-density development in a downtown business district, and allow lower-density development in residential areas.
  3. Zoning rules might limit the height of buildings near an airport for safety reasons.

Zoning is what tells you how far your building must sit from the street and from your property lines.  It regulates how high your building can be and what you can use it for.

What if you don't like what the Zoning Code says about your property?  That's when you need a variance, and that's a tale for a future post. . .

The other main type of code is the Building Code.  While the Zoning Code determines what can be built, building codes regulate how a building is built.  This includes issues such as structural design, handicap accessibility, exiting requirements, and construction materials.  The Building Code will tell you what the minimum size is for a room, and how many exits you need from a gymnasium.  It will tell you what size joists you need to support your floor, and it will tell you what testing requirements your brick must meet.

A sheet from a set of drawings used to obtain a Building permit, showing how the building is constructed.

Because construction techniques and materials are similar in different regions of the country, the basic Building Code is usually the same everywhere (the International Building Code).  Of course, every government has the right to choose its own code or to modify the IBC, so here in Philadelphia we use a combination of the IBC 2009 and the IBC 2012, and we don't follow all the chapters of either, substituting in our own Plumbing Code and Elevator Code, and striking many of the Appendices, among other changes.

Lobo/Zilper Residence; the amount of code-wrangling on this project was immense.

So, after reading this post, do you want to be an architect?  This part is step one on any project; you can't design something until you know your parameters.  When you work with an architect, an understanding of these codes is just one small part of the expertise he or she brings to the table.

Happy reading!