Solar Panels and a Garage Conversion

In September, the DC Historic Preservation Review Board with the support of our Architectural Review Committee approved two projects that will be of interest to many. Read more about them below. (Visit this page to read up on how projects in our historic district are reviewed.)

Solar panels on a foursquare: possible, but not everywhere; design and placement are crucial

The first case was a request for solar panels on the roof of a typical Cleveland Park foursquare on Newark Street. There is a lot of interest in going solar in our neighborhood and DC is encouraging solar energy. Historic Preservation Office guidelines, however, generally limit solar panels to roof surfaces that are invisible from the street. The reason for that is that an essential aspect of preserving the historic appearance of houses is preserving their character-defining roof profiles and materials. Solar panels have the potential to obscure both.

The solar-must-be-invisible standard makes it fairly easy to add solar to the flat roofs behind the main façades of typical DC row houses, which make up a large proportion of the housing stock in DC’s residential historic districts. Cleveland Park, of course, is low on row houses and rich in interesting pitched roofs with slopes, dormers, gables, and turrets. For houses with sloped roofs, HPO guidelines generally allow adding panels on rear roof slopes and on the roofs of additions that are not part of the main body of the original house, but preservation standards make it impossible to have solar panels on street-facing roof slopes, which means that in most cases houses on the north side of the street will not be able to have south-facing panels.

Rendering of solar panels on Foursquare roof

Rendering of how solar panels will appear on the west slope of 3215 Newark Street (Prospect Solar)

The applicants in the current case, whose house faces south, had originally proposed solar panels in 2012 and were denied by HPRB because the panels would have been too visually intrusive. They returned this fall with a proposal for a careful arrangement of west-facing panels. The panels proposed this time would be close in color to the roof shingles, kept well back from the roof ridge, set close (~3″-4″) to the surface of the roof, and matte in finish without the typical contrasting, shiny frame that makes many panels stand out. The side slopes of this house on which the panels will be mounted are either invisible or barely visible to a pedestrian on the street. Those features were the basis for the ARC’s support and HPRB’s approval.

In sum: we want to support solar panels where they can be implemented without damaging historic materials or altering character-defining historic roof lines. If you are interested in solar panels for your own house, start by contacting the Historic Preservation Office (Steve Callcott, 202-741-5247 or email) to discuss your individual case. HPO staff will let you know what might be possible given your house’s style and setting. And whether or not solar is possible for you, there are many ways to improve the energy performance of a historic house, on which HPO can also advise.

The first garage conversion under the new zoning code: Yes to exuberance!

September saw the implementation of DC’s long-awaited revised zoning code, which allows homeowners in single-family zones to add to their properties one accessory dwelling unit – either in their house or in a freestanding structure – as long as they occupy either the main house or the accessory unit themselves.

The first Cleveland Park application for historic preservation review under this provision of the new code was to rebuild an alley-facing garage at a Rodman Street property. The garage would become a freestanding “granny pod.” (Read more and see renderings in this Curbed DC blog post.) Over the summer, the ARC reviewed two versions of the proposal: one that would have largely retained the look of the existing garage, and one much more contemporary version with a reorientation of the roof, solar panels facing the alley, and a green roof.

Garage conversion at 3406 Rodman StreetGarage conversion at 3406 Rodman Street (archi-TEXTUAL)

The ARC preferred and strongly supported the more adventurous, more contemporary proposal. As the ARC wrote in its report, the ARC felt that the more conservative proposal was “not in concert with the goals and aspirations of the Cleveland Park Historic District. One of the most important tenets of the Historic District is to not stifle the type of exuberance that created the district to begin with. Of course that does not mean that anything goes, but it does firmly suggest that there is room for change and innovation within the historic context. As Kathy Wood wrote to the neighborhood when the ARC and the Historic District were new, ‘We want [the historic preservation review process] to encourage rather than discourage innovative architectural design.’ (Voices 1.1, Spring 1987)” The HPO staff, though they originally supported the more conservative version, ultimately agreed with the ARC, and the Historic Preservation Review Board unanimously approved the proposal illustrated above.

Note that such a complete remaking of a garage may be appropriate in a situation like this where the existing garage and the ensemble of garages of which it is a part are noncontributing (dating from after the period of significance and of no special historic importance) and the backyard/alley setting hide the accessory building from the historic streetscape. Preservation standards would not support demolition or substantial alteration of a garage that was original to the house, part of an intact ensemble of early garages, or, as is the case at many properties in Cleveland Park, an early garage that is at the side of the house and visible from the street.