Friday, July 5, 2019 by Jessi Devenyns

Historic Landmark Commission looks for a pitch-perfect roofline solution

The Historic Landmark Commission recently discovered that the design guidelines of a local historic district may not always be practical in real-life situations.

When Mike Synowiec, the owner of 305 W. 45th St., came before the commission’s Certificate of Appropriateness committee, he was directed to design an addition with a roofline that was not so out of scale with the original that it would be “distracting.” According to the committee, this entailed raising the roofline apex for a second story just 1.7 feet, or one-third of the 5.1-foot elevation he had originally requested.

However, Synowiec told the commission at its June 24 meeting that elevating the roof apex for a second story by under 2 feet “doesn’t meet standards of my head.” In an effort to compromise between his requested 5.1-foot elevation and the committee’s suggested 1.7-foot elevation, Synowiec offered designs with a 3.2-foot apex increase for their consideration.

The result of these efforts to abide by the design standards of the historic district was not as streamlined as the commission anticipated.

“I don’t like what we’ve got, and I think there’s a better alternative,” said Commissioner Ben Heimsath, who offered to sketch out a few designs himself and send them to the applicant for consideration.

Terri Myers, who sits on the committee and who gave Synowiec the direction to pursue a design that would minimally increase the roofline, noted, “If there’s a better way to design the roof than the jagged crimped effect that it has … maybe that would be in everyone’s best interest.”

Deputy Historic Preservation Officer Cara Bertron told commissioners that the local historic district design standards offer specific guidance on rooflines. The standards require architects to “make the pitch and height of the roof compatible with that of the existing house and to design additions to have the same forward existing height of the existing house.” Bertron explained that in using these guidelines as a measuring stick, city staffers find that Synowiec’s proposed 3.2-foot roof elevation design “somewhat meets the applicable standards.”

Despite his willingness to compromise, Synowiec made it clear to the commission that he would strongly prefer to have the roof elevated by 5.1 feet at the highest point. He presented digital models demonstrating what the roof would look like if increased by each of the three proposed heights.

Commissioner Kevin Koch explained that once the roof pitch begins to climb too high, it starts to resemble an A-frame sitting on top of a small house, which can risk changing the style of the contributing structure entirely.

Still, there was a general consensus that in following the design standards, perhaps the best design was not chosen.

“In trying to split hairs on height, we’re just making an awkward arrangement,” Heimsath said.

Although the commissioners were in agreement that the proposed design was not ideal, no one could generate an appealing solution to maintain the historic aesthetic while allowing for practical use of the addition. As a result, they asked the applicant if postponing the case for another month to allow for more thought to be put into the roofline design would be a burden.

Synowiec said it was a good idea and that it would be even more preferable if there was a design that allowed for a greater increase in height that also maintained the style of the historic district.

In a unanimous vote, the commissioners postponed the case to their July meeting and referred Synowiec back to the Certificate of Appropriateness committee to further discuss appropriate design options.

Commissioners Emily Hibbs and Kelly Little were absent.

Photo courtesy of the city of Austin.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Historic Landmark Commission: The city’s Historic Landmark Commission promotes historic preservation of buildings and structures. The commission also reviews applications and permits for historic zoning and historic grants.

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