Standards > Architectural Character Checklist/Questionnaire

This Checklist/Questionnaire is included in Nelson, Lee H., FAIA. Preservation Briefs 17: Architectural Character Identifying the Visual Aspects of Historic Buildings as an Aid to Preserving Their Character, Washington, D.C.: Technical Preservation Services (TPS), National Park Service, September, 1988 (Web: Last Modified: Thursday, April 25 2002 08:30:08 am EDT, KDW) [Layout for this version has been changed: section questions have been separated and numbered; images have been added.]


Related Standards > Significance
Related Work > Preservation > Assessment

This checklist can be taken to the building and used to identify those aspects that give the building and setting its essential visual qualities and character. This checklist consists of a series of questions that are designed to help in identifying those things that contribute to a building's character. The use of this checklist involves the three-step process of looking for:

  1. the overall visual aspects,
  2. the visual character at close range, and
  3. the visual character of interior spaces, features and finishes. Because this is a process to identify architectural character, it does not address those intangible qualities that give a property or building or its contents its historic significance, instead this checklist is organized on the assumption that historic significance is embodied in those tangible aspects that include the building's setting, its form and fabric.

Step One: The overall visual aspects

1. Shape

  1. What is there about the form or shape of the building that gives the building its identity?
  2. Is the shape distinctive in relation to the neighboring buildings?
  3. Is it simply a low, squat box, or is it a tall, narrow building with a corner tower?
  4. Is the shape highly consistent with its neighbors?
  5. Is the shape so complicated because of wings, or ells, or differences in height, that its complexity is important to its character?
  6. Conversely, is the shape so simple or plain that adding a feature like a porch would change that character?
  7. Does the shape convey its historic function as in smoke stacks or silos?

2. Roof and Roof Features

  1. Does the roof shape or its steep (or shallow) slope contribute to the building's character?
  2. Does the fact that the roof is highly visible (or not visible at all) contribute to the architectural identity of the building?
  3. Are certain roof features important to the profile of the building against the sky or its background, such as cupolas, multiple chimneys, dormers, cresting, or weather vanes?
  4. Are the roofing materials or their colors or their patterns (such as patterned slates) more noticeable than the shape or slope of the roof?

3. Openings

  1. Is there a rhythm or pattern to the arrangement of windows or other openings in the walls; like the rhythm of windows in a factory building, or a three-part window in the front bay of a house; or is there a noticeable relationship between the width of the window openings and the wall space between the window openings?
  2. Are there distinctive openings, like a large arched entranceway, or decorative window lintels that accentuate the importance the window openings, or unusually shaped windows, or patterned window sash, like small panes of glass in the windows or doors, that are important to the character?
  3. Is the plainness of the window openings such that adding shutters or gingerbread trim would radically change its character?
  4. Is there a hierarchy of facades that make the front windows more important than the side windows?
  5. What about those walls where the absence of windows establishes its own character?

4. Projections

  1. Are there parts of the building that are character defining because they project from the walls of the building like porches, cornices, bay windows, or balconies?
  2. Are there turrets, or widely overhanging eaves, projecting pediments or chimneys?

5. Trim and Secondary Features

  1. Does the trim around the windows or doors contribute to the character of the building?
  2. Is there other trim on the walls or around the projections that, because of its decoration or color or patterning contributes to the character of the building?
  3. Are there secondary features such as shutters, decorative gables, railings, or exterior wall panels?

6. Materials

  1. Do the materials or combination of materials contribute to the overall character of the building as seen from a distance because of their color or patterning, such as broken faced stone, scalloped wall shingling, rounded rock foundation walls, boards and battens, or textured stucco?

7. Setting

  1. What are the aspects of the setting that are important to the visual character?
  2. For example, is the alignment of buildings along a city street and their relationship to the sidewalk the essential aspect of its setting?
  3. Or, conversely, is the essential character dependent upon the tree plantings and out buildings which surround the farmhouse?
  4. Is the front yard important to the setting of the modest house?
  5. Is the specific site important to the setting such as being on a hilltop, along a river, or, is the building placed on the site in such a way to enhance its setting?
  6. Is there a special relationship to the adjoining streets and other buildings?
  7. Is there a view?
  8. Is there fencing, planting, terracing, walkways or any other landscape aspects that contribute to the setting?

Step Two: The visual character at close range

8. Materials at Close Range

  1. Are there one or more materials that have an inherent texture that contributes to the close range character, such as stucco, exposed aggregate concrete, or brick textured with vertical grooves?
  2. Or materials with inherent colors such as smooth orange colored brick with dark spots of iron pyrites, or prominently veined stone, or green serpentine stone?
  3. Are there combinations of materials, used in juxtaposition, such as several different kinds of stone, combinations of stone and brick, dressed stones for window lintels used in conjunction with rough stones for the wall?
  4. Has the choice of materials or the combinations of materials contributed to the character?

9. Craft Details

  1. Is there high quality brickwork with narrow mortar joints?
  2. Is there hand tooled or patterned stonework?
  3. Do the walls exhibit carefully struck vertical mortar joints and recessed horizontal joints?
  4. Is the wall shingle work laid up in patterns or does it retain evidence of the circular saw marks or can the grain of the wood be seen through the semitransparent stain?
  5. Are there hand split or hand dressed clapboards, or machine smooth beveled siding, or wood rusticated to look like stone, or Art Deco zigzag designs executed in stucco?
  6. Almost any evidence of craft details, whether handmade or machine made, will contribute to the character of a building because it is a manifestation of the materials, of the times in which the work was done, and of the tools and processes that were used. It further reflects the effects of time, of maintenance (and/or neglect) that the building has received over the years.
  7. All of these aspects are a part of the surface qualities that are seen only at close range.

Step Three: The visual character of interior spaces, features and finishes

10. Individual Spaces

  1. Are there individual rooms or spaces that are important to this building because of their size, height, proportion, configuration, or function, like the center hallway in a house, or the bank lobby, or the school auditorium, or the ballroom in a hotel, or a courtroom in a county courthouse?

11. Related Spaces and Sequences of Spaces

  1. Are there adjoining rooms that are visually and physically related with large doorways or open archways so that they are perceived as related rooms as opposed to separate rooms?
  2. Is there an important sequence of spaces that are related to each other, such as the sequence from the entry way to the lobby to the stairway and to the upper balcony as in a theatre; or the sequence in a residence from the entry vestibule to the hallway to the front parlor, and on through the sliding doors to the back parlor; or the sequence in an office building from the entry vestibule to the lobby to the bank of elevators?

12. Interior Features

  1. Are there interior features that help define the character of the building, such as fireplace mantels, stairways and balustrades, arched openings, interior shutters, inglenooks, cornices, ceiling medallions, light fixtures, balconies, doors, windows, hardware, wainscoting, paneling, trim, church pews, courtroom bars, teller cages, waiting room benches?

13. Surface Finishes and Materials

  1. Are there surface finishes and materials that can affect the design, the color or the texture of the interior?
  2. Are there materials and finishes or craft practices that contribute to the interior character, such as wooden parquet floors, checkerboard marble floors, pressed metal ceilings, fine hardwoods, grained doors or marbleized surfaces, or polychrome painted surfaces, or stenciling, or wallpaper that is important to the historic character?
  3. Are there surface finishes and materials that, because of their plainness, are imparting the essential character of the interior such as hard or bright, shiny wall surfaces of plaster or glass or metal?

14. Exposed Structure

  1. Are there spaces where the exposed structural elements define the interior character such as the exposed posts, beams, and trusses in a church or train shed or factory?
  2. Are there rooms with decorative ceiling beams (nonstructural) in bungalows, or exposed vigas in adobe buildings?

This concludes the three-step process of identifying the visual aspects of historic buildings and is intended as an aid in preserving their character and other distinguishing qualities. It is not intended as a means of understanding the significance of historical properties or districts, nor of the events or people associated with them. That can only be done through other kinds of research and investigation.

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