Your corner trim is too wide. Please play again.
For many homeowners, spring time is renovation time. But if you live in the downtown area—in a ‘heritage’ designated area—working on your property isn’t always enjoyable. Building regulations for the heritage area, which determine what you can and can’t do to your house, can be difficult, convoluted, and creatively stifling.
Recently, a friend recounted to me her experience of building in a ‘Heritage 3’ area. Her vision for her property was for a modern saltbox. She found that the contemporary detailing she wanted wasn’t allowed, and instead the city requires certain window types, trim widths, and eave placement, all specified with particular dimensions and colours. No casement windows, no cove style siding, no architectural panelling, no face-nailed members, no awning windows, and on and on. The guidelines for house constructions are incredibly specific in dimensions also. Listening to her, I couldn’t help but wonder: Why does it have to look like this? And where do all these details come from, anyways?
Enforcing certain architectural features to keep things looking historic is a questionable practice. How do you choose what era of the past defines future architecture? How do you pinpoint a window of time and decide that we will collectively remake our city in this fashion? There’s no doubt that our historians have identified many important historical buildings and houses and, for residential buildings in heritage areas, the St. John’s Victorian townhouse seems to be the city’s vision. But what if we looked at other times in the city’s history to use as an homage to the past?
If the city chose the 1700’s as their hallmark heritage era, we’d all be maintaining rough, unpainted spruce sheds. It would be pretty silly if, in the name of historical continuity, we weren’t allowed to paint our houses. It seems equally silly to me that a city inspector is paid to make sure your corner trim is exactly six inches wide and not a fraction more.
The fact is, heritage regulations can’t possibly outline a perfect historical house. The idea of reproducing a Victorian past is there, but this architecture we enforce is affected by the construction industry, the National Building Code and, of course, availability of supplies. It’s as much a product of our time as it is a revival. It’s a compromise, made up of 1890s window and trim styles, bright 20th century paint colors, synthetic building materials and contemporary building proportions. New heritage style buildings would probably look pretty alien if placed back in the time they are supposed to be from.
With the start of this new construction season, I expect to see more of the gaps in the downtown streetscapes seamlessly filled in with clapboard and trim. This can be a good thing, as it further establishes the present look of our city, but these heritage regulations can be really limiting for creative home owners, and it’s hard to understand the rationale behind some of the very strict and seemingly arbitrary rules. Is it a hidden truth that the Heritage Advisory Board is more like an arbiter of taste than a guardian of heritage? It might be more honest to refer to it as the ‘present architectural zeitgeist’ of St. John’s, rather than its ‘architectural heritage.’ After all, it’s not entirely historically accurate. It’s hard for people not to ask why things are the way they are, especially when they own their property and they are paying their bills.