Historic home in Charleston SC In Charleston SC no one should be afraid to take their renovation project before the Board of Architectural Review (BAR), but some automatically regard a trip to the BAR as positively as a visit to the Headmaster in years gone by. The BAR is here to keep Charleston looking and functioning like the city we all love.  It is here to protect architectural style and vernacular, to maintain neighborhood streetscapes and generally make sure everyone behaves according to a loosely defined set of rules we all agree to work within. The BAR does not exist to just be a stopping point, or to simply add unnecessary layers of headaches to the renovation projects that are brought before them, and if we all understand that and work with City staff, this process can have a positive outcome.  

The BAR has been around for the last 80 years or so. City of Charleston Zoning Ordinance states that the purpose of the Board is “the preservation and protection of the old historic or architecturally worthy structures and quaint neighborhoods which impart a distinct aspect to the city and which serve as visible reminders of the historical and cultural heritage of the city, the state, and the nation.” The BAR is made up of individuals being either city staff or professionals with related experience.  Its rules do not cover every eventuality, so on occasion the decisions of the BAR can appear to be a little arbitrary. This is not an opportunity to spoil for a fight (as you will probably lose), but to work with them seeking a compromise that tries to satisfy often competing demands and opinions. 

Get that? Now here is a quick summary for those who live on the peninsula within city limits and wish to make alterations to a building:

  • If you live South of Line Street, you will need BAR approval for almost everything.
  • If you live north of Line Street and your building is more than 50 years old, then you will need BAR approval for any demolition.

BAR decisions can be made two ways:

  1. At Staff level for small alterations, or to finalize amendments to something approved in principle at a full BAR Board hearing.
  2. At Board level for anything major.

The BAR reviews all new construction, alterations, and renovations visible from the public right-of-way. It reviews all demolitions of buildings 50 years of age or older on any structures south of Mount Pleasant Street, and any demolitions (regardless of age) within the Old and Historic District. In addition, the BAR has jurisdiction over all structures included on the Landmark Overlay Properties list. In reviewing alterations to historic properties and proposed new structures, the BAR adheres to the principles established by the Charleston Standards (that is the loose rules and guidelines we mentioned above). The BAR was recently split in to two parts. Applications for development valued at less and greater than $10M in a change designed to focus attention appropriately given the huge amount of varied of development underway downtown.  Further changes at the BAR are coming down the pike, though its uncertain exactly when they will be implemented.  A review of height restrictions changing physical height limits in to number of floor limits is one such change under consideration. 

Finally here are our own golden rules for working within jurisdiction of the BAR:

  • The BAR is administered by city staff. They are always helpful and will offer good guidance prior to an application. Listen to their guidance and do not plan on engaging in a fight that you will eventually lose.
  • Engage a contractor and/or architect who is familiar with downtown building and design requirements. This will limit the number of appeals and amendments needed to get approval and issues you may run into during the build itself. 
  • Design sensitively. You do not have to build a pastiche of the past, but what is designed should reflect the neighborhood in size, mass, and vernacular details.  AKA – please leave the glass boxes and concrete facades for another city environment. 
  • Allow about 6 months for planning and its various stage gates such as Zoning and BAR. Each time your project is rejected will add an additional 6 weeks or so before another review is scheduled. 
  • Build what you have promised to build and what is approved – they will check!
  • Lastly – enjoy the process as it is fun. Try not to be frustrated with the time it takes. “It is what it is ” and fretting or frustration will not help anyone. 

Note: Through our many restoration and renovation projects on the peninsula, we have extensive experience working with the Board of Architectural Review and various builders and contractors throughout Charleston. If you’re thinking of making alterations, additions or even complete renovations, our Luxury Simplified Construction team handles it all. Take a look at some of our recent projects and see for yourself!

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