Standards in Architecture

What Property Owners Should Know About DOI Standards

The Santa Barbara Courthouse Mural Room
Gail Arnold

So you want to start a remodel project on your property, perhaps a small addition, second story, interior remodel, or detached studio space. There is something in the back of your head that tells you this might not be an easy task to accomplish — you would be right about that. This is especially true if your property is a designated landmark or on a planning watch list of properties of interest. Most jurisdictions have codes or policies that set forth requirements for when historic properties are under consideration for an improvement project. Most require the application of the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) Standards for the treatment of historic properties. These standards are required if state or federal grants are involved. Typically these standards do not apply to interior spaces, but I advise you to use them for every aspect of your project. The standards are simply organized into groups by “Recommended” and “Not Recommended.” For more detail, download and read the documents at

In my work as the county architect and specifically at the Santa Barbara Courthouse, these standards are applied to every facility-related project on the property. In recent activities, the Courthouse Legacy Foundation funded the complete conservation of the Mural Room, located on the second floor of the courthouse. This effort took the better part of 12 weeks at a cost of just over $650,000, 90 percent of which was from private sources. My role in that project was to ensure that the DOI Standards were applied to every aspect of the work.

The Standards are grouped into four broad categories: preservation, restoration, rehabilitation, and reconstruction. Each of these treatment courses has its own standards. The preservation of a historic element is the highest and preferred course of action, and reconstruction the least preferred. An example of reconstruction is the El Presidio de Santa Bárbara State Historic Park, which largely falls within this category.

The work in the Courthouse Mural Room involved two of the categories: preservation and rehabilitation. Preservation prescribes the return of damaged elements using materials of the same quality and attributes as the originals. Rehabilitation allows some deviation to accommodate elements that were not original but that nonetheless add to the quality of the finished work — the lighting in the room falls under this category. While there was lighting in the Mural Room, that light did not provide enough illumination to appreciate the color and texture of the 4,200 square feet of the canvas painted mural surrounding the room.

The process of applying the DOI Standards to a residential project is similar to my example at the courthouse. A number of years ago, a couple wanted some advice on what color they should paint a house they owned on Bath Street. They wanted to get as close to the original color as possible. So I described a method to determine the color — it is quite simple, actually. Find a section of the exterior wall that you know to be original to the building. With a light-grain piece of sandpaper, softly work through the paint layers until you reach native subsurface material. As you move through each layer, document its color. The color closest to the native material is most likely the original color. There are rare occasions where the paint is removed from a building before a new color is applied.

So, if you apply to DOI Standards to your project and use a qualified architectural historian or preservation architect, you are sure to make friends at the Building Department.

Robert Ooley, FAIA, is the county architect. He can be reached at Architecturally Speaking is written by members of the American Institute of Architects’ Santa Barbara chapter.


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