Neglecting Historic Commission Approvals for Windows Can Cost Tax Credits, Project Time

February 14, 2020

By Joe Zaino

For many developers, adapting historically significant buildings for office, multifamily and retail uses has proven to be a way to reduce construction costs, build sustainably, and in some cases, receive government tax credits that make redevelopment projects economically viable.

While preservationists from small town historic commissions to the National Park Service (NPS) are generally eager to see these structures restored, coming into compliance with historic requirements can present a myriad of challenges for developers. One of these challenges is replacing old windows in a cost-effective manner that doesn’t alter the historic character of the building. While many historic commissions have become more broad-minded in the approval process and now consider factors such as energy efficiency, developers should never take the window approval process for granted.

As manufacturers of historically accurate aluminum replica windows, Universal works closely with historic consultants and architects who specialize in commercial historic restoration projects. It is not uncommon, according to these experts, for developers to either lose vital tax credits or have building permits denied for failing to provide new windows that meet the strict guidelines of the historic commissions.

Currently, Federal and State Historic Tax Credit programs provide 20 percent tax credits to property owners who renovate a historic building for a commercial or income producing use while maintaining its historic character – which can represent substantial cost savings and make or break a project’s financial feasibility. Not all developers of historic renovation projects will seek tax credits, usually citing the financial burden or logistical difficulties of complying with the stringent requirements, but that doesn’t mean that some projects aren’t also subject to approval by local historic commissions. Buildings located in designated historic districts still need approval – and window replacements are often a major point of contention.  

For tax credits, the windows must first be reviewed by the state historic preservation office (SHPO), then reviewed by the NPS. Developers must first demonstrate that the windows are in poor enough condition to warrant replacement. Agencies will then require that the replacement windows and exterior details are as closely matched to the originals as possible (using historic photos or original plans). Aluminum or vinyl products are often allowed in place of wood for cost and durability reasons. Other than wood, aluminum is the only product that can match the design elements of the historic wood or steel windows.

Historic consultants emphasize the importance of having initial applications fully document how the new windows will match the original window’s site lines. The NPS and state will often require a mockup, but it is something that every developer should always do before purchasing replacement windows to ensure that the project will gain approval of the governing agencies. Windows, particularly for former industrial buildings with hundreds of large openings, constitute a significant part of a project’s budget. Many developers have chosen to forego this process, in order to meet an expedited timeline or out of concern that mockups will add to the lead times. On the contrary, issues can be ironed out up front, preventing design changes, which can cost both time and money. The installation team can plan around what is discovered, focusing on the opening in question and mobilizing for the project install.

Because time is money for real estate developers, it is crucial to get the necessary approvals early on in a project. The approval process, combined with the time required to manufacture the windows, can be time consuming. Taking the time up front to gain approvals ensures that tax credits aren’t lost, and that projects can be completed on time and on budget.

(Joe Zaino is a sales manager for Universal Window and Door, which has provided windows for over 100 buildings listed on the NPS National Register of Historic Places)