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Working with Historical Commissions: An Architect’s Advice

Updated: May 10, 2018

INTERIORS+SOURCES | April 12, 2018 by Adrian Thompson

Architects and designers know that modifications to buildings located within designated historical districts require approval from local commissions and preservation groups. And the more history a place has, the more demanding commissioners may be regarding design and materials. So when Alameda, Calif.,-based architecture and design firm MBH Architects was invited to create a concept for Peet’s Coffee & Tea in Washington D.C.’s historical Georgetown neighborhood, senior project manager Celso Rivera knew his team would be in for a challenge.

“Be ready, because it's going to be a bumpy ride,” laughed Rivera when reflecting on his initial thoughts of the project.

According to the National Alliance of Preservation Commissions, design guidelines vary from one local jurisdiction’s historic preservation commission to the next and one glance shows that regulations can get pretty particular. For example, Georgetown Historic District predates the D.C. historic preservation law meaning there are different review procedures for most exterior work permits issued in Georgetown, as well as unique sign regulations.

Flying regularly from California to Washington D.C., Rivera and his team worked within the intense Georgetown neighborhood restrictions to ensure Peet’s Coffee & Tea received the visibility it deserved while following the limited signage guidelines. As a result, they finished the project in about six months with a dramatic interior and exterior remodel.

interiors+sources recently got the chance to chat with Rivera on what he learned while working with the Old Georgetown Board (OGB). We gathered his advice for fellow designers who may be getting ready to work with local historic commissioners.

First thing's first: Do your research.

Because Rivera is from California and was unfamiliar with Georgetown and the D.C. area, planning ahead was essential to his project’s success.

“The technology we have right now made it very easy, unlike during the ‘90s when we didn’t have any internet,” Rivera said. “Now, you’re able to really dig into the city’s website [for information].”

For this particular project, Rivera utilized Washington D.C.’s Office of Planning website, where he was able to look at previous meeting minutes to see what project proposals have come up in the historical neighborhood’s past. With a little research, he gained insight into how other contractors went through the process, questions or concerns that came up, and why projects were or were not approved, in addition to other useful information.

Don’t rely on just one person.

“One thing that really helped was soliciting some consultants who had been working in the [D.C.] jurisdiction,” Rivera noted. “I asked for their advice and I also asked for their fee proposals because once you ask for a fee proposal they tend to open up about their experiences within the city and start a dialogue.”

Rivera added that while calling the city is beneficial for a designer’s planning process, they shouldn’t rely on talking to just one person who works there.

“No matter who you talk to on the phone, they each have their own interpretation, especially of the code,” he said. Rivera suggests calling back again the following week, and if need be, pretend it’s your first call. Then, compare the conversations held with each city employee to see if there’s consistency from what the first person said versus the second, the third, the fourth, and so on. This will give you a better feel of what to expect from commissioners you might be working with.

Communication is key.

It’s common sense that good communication leads to consistent results.

“Regardless of what time it is during the day or at night—if I hear anything bad, I don’t wait for the following morning. I just tell [the client] immediately,” Rivera said about keeping track of updates for Peet’s Coffee & Tea. He believes that having open and honest relationships and conversations with clients is one key to being successful.

“If you feel comfortable with this person that you were able to negotiate with and talk to, then stick with them,” he added. He also mentioned to never be afraid to ask a lot of questions, because asking shows that the designer wants the project to be a success. Simply “follow your instinct” when discussing your plan with potential contractors and commissioners.

Don’t give up.

From restrictive signage regulations to rooftop air conditioners, Rivera faced several design challenges while modifying the historical building to suit the modern-day needs of Peet’s Coffee & Tea. Obstacles he faced included widening the basement staircase to fit kitchen equipment and then having to put it back to its original state; installing the air conditioner on the roof while building a screen for the unit that fit within design regulations; creating an eye-catching sign that gave the brand visibility as a corner building while still working within simple signage guidelines; and making sure an updated and to-code sprinkler system was on all three floors.

Because of the positive relationships he established, Rivera wasn’t fazed by the hiccups along the way.

“I believe in the location and I love my clients, so I will really do 110 percent to make it work for them regardless,” he said. “I think it’s basically just perseverance and no matter how scary it is you just have to keep on trying if you really want to succeed.”


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