Some Thoughts on Teardowns and New Construction

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VHLogo_color_horiz_letterheadSpurred by a recent wave of teardowns and new construction, there has been a lively debate over the last couple of weeks about historic preservation and the building characteristics that help define the neighborhood. While Virginia-Highland is a collection of smaller subdivisions built over a span of several decades, some local architects and residents identified and summarized many common and key architectural features during the community’s 2009 study of historic preservation guidelines. The students and faculty of the Heritage Preservation Program at Georgia State University summarized them in a reference document that may be viewed at  Scroll down to the section titled “Design Reference For Renovation.”

Its level of detail is fascinating; it formalized and summarized for me a wealth of personal observations formed over years of long strolls, porch conversations, neighbor interaction, and study. But I also think a shorter summary might be useful. To that end, here is my own list of five key do’s and don’ts that go to the heart of what makes some renovated houses fit in nicely and leave others looking like they belong on a 1-acre lot.  Many people will find these points painfully obvious; some may disagree with them. I’ll be glad to hear your thoughts.

  1. The Golden Rule:  Build to the neighborhood scale. Find an architect who will work very hard not to plunge the neighbors into perpetual shade or make them feel they are living in the shadow of a castle. A common contributing factor to the feel of excessive height are basements that are above ground enough that they feel more like a first floor. In this vein, if you’re adding a second floor next to a house that already has one, try to line up the bedrooms windows so that they don’t face one another.
  2. Modify the existing roofline as little as possible, especially in front. There are numerous examples in this neighborhood of homes with greatly expanded capacity that do not dwarf their neighbors or appear grossly out of scale when viewed from the street.
  3. Don’t put garages on the front of the house. They stand out like a sore suburban thumb, and exiting your car directly into the house reduces interaction with your neighbors.
  4. Matching the existing front setbacks on your street will help any house fit into its setting.  While this may require an extra administrative step, the variance process was created to consider exactly this sort of challenge.
  5. Be thoughtful about your choice of exterior building materials; use the predominant historic ones on your block.

A final wish list item is mentioned separately because it’s not historically specific; it’s relevant to all remodeling and new construction, independent of the factors listed above. Capturing and reusing your stormwater is a practical and civic-minded act that ensures that your development will not cause stormwater issues for your neighbors and it will provide a return on your investment sooner than you think. Most of northeast Atlanta (including Virginia-Highland) has combined sewers – the stormwater on the street goes into the same underground pipes as our wastewater. In big storms, it’s a big problem, one we pay for every day with astronomical water rates that are primarily linked to the cost of treating stormwater. Addressing this issue benefits both your neighbors and your wallet.

You can write me at

Lola Carlisle

Vice President, Virginia-Highland Civic Association

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