Historic Preservation Vs. Composite Decking

I purchased a 1901 Victorian home in the historic district of Edenton, North Carolina. The house has a two-story front porch with highly ornamental gingerbread trim. We replaced the rotten tongue-and-groove porch floor on the lower level with composite decking without realizing we needed a special permit. Now the Historic Commission wants the flooring removed. A contractor tells us that tearing up the flooring may damage the framing and lead to all kinds of other trouble. He suggests removing the composite trim board facing the street and replacing it with painted wood. But the commission won't budge. Any suggestions?

Your dilemma is a good example of how well meaning efforts to preserve a community's historic flavor can actually make it more difficult to keep old buildings around. Historic district rules can make renovations to older buildings difficult and expensive.

Edenton, which thanks to Google maps I now know is located on Albemarle Sound, bills itself as the "South's prettiest small town." It takes a great deal of pride in its inventory of old buildings and its historical significance as an important colonial hub.

That should be an indication of what you're up against, assuming the historic commission has any binding legal authority here.

Appeal to common sense. Zoning boards, historic commissions, and other municipal boards are a lot less charitable about after-the-fact requests than they are if you follow the rules in the first place. Given the sprawl of ugly strip malls, hideous renovations and botched repairs, it's understandable.

But in this case, it sounds like you've made a reasonable effort to repair an historic structure. What's better, allowing a rotting porch to collapse in disrepair or saving it with materials that aren't historically accurate?

As time goes on, it will be more difficult to find completely authentic building materials, and more expensive to pay for them. Old growth cypress and long leaf pine, for instance, are now so expensive that homeowners without fat trust funds will need a second mortgage to afford them.

And that's the case I'd make to the historic commission. Composite decking, which is a mix of recycled plastic and wood flour, should last longer than wood, thus extending the life of your porch. It can also be painted to blend with the house and neighborhood.

If tearing up the composite decking would compromise porch framing and possibly lead to further damage on the second floor, your case is that much stronger.

Look for a compromise. Your contractor's suggestion of replacing the composite trim on the street side of the porch is a good one. Only those visitors who come all the way up to the porch itself (your guests, after all) are going to notice the porch floorboards aren't historically pristine--if they notice at all.

You might go the extra mile by replacing any composite stair treads and risers with painted wood, thus camouflaging the offense even further.

Should none of these offers appease Edenton's guardians of history, you could always cap the composite decking with wood or with a tongue-and-groove composite decking that's now available. When painted, it would be indistinguishable from the real thing.

That's not a perfect answer. But it would be better than wasting the time, effort, and money you've already invested. I'll bet that next time you'll get a building permit before you start.

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