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Building Variances

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Project Progress: 1627 Brandywine

We're getting excited about this project--1627 Brandywine Street in Philadelphia. The building was originally a carriage house. More recently, it was used for storage. Now, we're working with the new owner to convert it to a home and studio.

The existing front.

The existing front.

The first floor will contain a garage and photography studio, with living space above. We really want to take advantage of the huge wooden roof trusses, so they'll stay exposed in the finished space. The front is in amazing condition; it's made of yellow-orange ironspot roman brick, with incredibly thin joints and great workmanship.

A detail of the oval window; look at how carefully the bricks were cut to fit it.

A detail of the oval window; look at how carefully the bricks were cut to fit it.

Carriages used to be stored in here; the large roof trusses also hold up the second floor, so that the first floor could be totally open. There's evidence that at one time there was an elevator (manually operated, of course) that could lift carriages up to the second level.

Carriages used to be stored in here; the large roof trusses also hold up the second floor, so that the first floor could be totally open. There's evidence that at one time there was an elevator (manually operated, of course) that could lift carriages up to the second level.

The second floor; the steel rods coming down from the trusses hold the floor up.

The second floor; the steel rods coming down from the trusses hold the floor up.

Some images of the proposed space.

Some images of the proposed space.

We'll keep you posted on this one. As we finish preliminary design, we're getting ready to meet with the neighbors, and then with the Historical Commission

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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 ( https://www.phillyhistory.org )

1600 Block of Wallace Street, 1963 (https://www.phillyhistory.org)

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!

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Project Progress: 170 West Oxford

We've been working on a renovation and addition to this little guy in South Kensington:

That's us, in the middle.

That's us, in the middle.

This building is an L-shaped one, with a very steep staircase, tiny rooms, and closed-in windows. We'll be opening up the interior, enlarging the windows back to their original size, rebuilding the stair, and adding a third floor.

The new plans. Finished basement, living space on the first floor, two bedrooms and a bathroom on the second floor, and a master suite on the third.

The new plans. Finished basement, living space on the first floor, two bedrooms and a bathroom on the second floor, and a master suite on the third.

Rough front and rear views of the finished house, from during preliminary design.

Rough front and rear views of the finished house, from during preliminary design.

A quick rendering of the finished project.

A quick rendering of the finished project.

The project needed a zoning variance for the addition, which was granted. We are currently working on construction drawings for this one--stay tuned!

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Zoning Process [Part II]

Next Steps, Nuts, and Bolts 

In the first part of our Zoning article, we gave an overview of the process. Some of the considerations include whether your project will affect land use, whether it’s new construction or a rehabilitation project. Another tip we covered was design and the importance of having an experienced architect. Below are your steps in the approval process that are more detailed.

STEP 1:  ZONING APPLICATION; What information do I need?

The application will require the following information

  1. Current use of property
  2. Proposed use of property
  3. Dimensions and heights of existing and proposed construction
  4. Signs – description, plot plans, photos of existing signs
  5. Plot plan for any new construction or additions
  6. Owner’s name, address and phone number
  7. Architect’s name, address and phone number
  8. Signature(s) of applicant(s)

WHEN WILL I GET A DECISION? Review time is fifteen business days for residential projects, and twenty business days for commercial projects. A letter will be emailed when a decision is made. Some types of applications can receive an “accelerated review” for an additional fee.

WHAT WILL THE DECISION BE?

  1. Approval –your application has been approved because it conforms to the Philadelphia Zoning Code.
  2. Refusal – your application has been denied because your project does not conform with the Zoning Code. You may 1) appeal this decision to the Zoning Board of Adjustment, 2) revise your plans to fit within the Zoning Code requirements, or 3) abandon your application.

Refused! What if what I want to do is not permitted?

If your request for a zoning permit is “Refused”, you can appeal to the Zoning Board of Adjustment (the “ZBA”). We’ll go into more detail on this process in Part III of this series. In short, the ZBA may sometimes allow exceptions to zoning code limitations. Upon hearing the appeal, the ZBA may offer relief in one of three forms:

Variance – provided where the use of the property (or the dimensions of what you want to build) is normally prohibited, but enforcing the code would result in “unnecessary hardship” to the property. To obtain a variance, the applicant must prove that 1) the grant of the variance is in the spirit of the zoning code and overall City plan and will not adversely affect public health, welfare or safety; 2) the conditions are unique to the property; and 3) the applicant did not create the need for the variance. Variances run with the land, not with the owner, so the ZBA takes its decisions seriously, knowing that they will have long-term effects.

The Experience of Your Architect

Here’s a perfect example for when experience comes in handy when hiring an architect. In Zoning; Part I, we discussed how your architect should, initially, determine what is allowed “by right” as opposed to what will require a variance. This is key because your project may not need a variance after all, but rather a simple zoning permit with a more compliant design tweak.

Certificates – either a “special use exception” or “conditional use” is issued with approval of the ZBA. The applicant is not required to prove “unnecessary hardship,” but must persuade the ZBA that the use is a certified use and satisfies the specific requirements of the ordinance.

Special Use Permit – typically triggered by a referral for parking uses or other uses that may have negative impacts on the neighbors, including nightclubs, animal-centered uses, and take-out restaurants. The applicant has the burden of proving that the use falls within the special use permit categories and must produce the additional required materials.

Stay Tuned for our last part of our Zoning coverage when we talk about...

PART III: THE ZONING APPEAL AND HEARING