Row of Edwardian Houses
Credit: ibsky/iStock

Historic Preservation Design Guidelines

Design Guidelines help establish a general understanding of preservation design principles and standards concerning our built environment. They serve to promote and protect neighborhood character and high quality of life.

Purposes and Goals of the Historic Design Guidelines Project

The Guidelines are intended to be used by the public, project sponsors, design and planning professionals, neighborhood groups, City staff, and decision-makers such as the Historic Preservation Commission, Planning Commission, and the Board of Supervisors. 
The overarching goal is to install procedures consistent with the Secretary of the Interior's Standards that also address preservation goals and approaches consistent with San Francisco's Preservation Element, which establishes the preservation expectations of the City at a policy level. The guidelines will help institute a common directive as to how to treat historic resources, define a clear set of design principles, and identify a range of appropriate design solutions.

The guidelines will be directive, not prescriptive. They will advise the design and assessment of all preservation projects subject to review, and will work in concert with San Francisco's General Plan, the Secretary of the Interior Standards, and all other Building Code and Planning Department requirements.

The goals of the Historic Design Guidelines include:

  • Consistency: Provide a common understanding to inform projects and are applied equally to all properties with like circumstances.
  • Predictability: Well-defined, focused, and accessible using non-technical language help ensure a level of predictability. Clear expectations provide users a collective understanding, allowing a project to move through each step of its respective approval process(es) smoothly.
  • Flexibility: Encourage innovative and original approach as to help ensure that design will reflect evolving community values and expectations, and can influence the ways in which they are applied over time.

The guidelines will be directive, not prescriptive. They will inform the design and assessment of all preservation projects subject to review and will work in concert with San Francisco's General Plan, the Secretary of the Interior Standards, and all other Building Code and Planning Department requirements.


In the late 1960s,the National Park Service, serving under the Department of the Interior, developed the Secretary of the Interior Standards (SOIS) for assessing the treatment of individual historic structures and structures within national historic districts.

Currently, the majority of preservation programs across the country, including San Francisco, rely on these federal Standards as a foundation for project review at the local level. Most of these programs supplement the SOIS with locally established guidelines.

While the SOIS have generally well served San Francisco, their use as the primary approval criteria has two primary deficiencies:

  1. They are broad, and thus subject to varying levels of interpretation; and
  2. They don’t provide direction specific to San Francisco’s unique urban and historic environment.

For these reasons, San Francisco Planning has developed design guidelines for historic structures and districts specific to San Francisco.

  • 2016-2017 
    Develop content from all existing policies and guidelines.
  • Summer – winter 2018: Broad Public Engagement
    Meet with neighborhood and community organizations to identify new guidelines to reflect goals and topics that require clarification. Outreach will consist of individual meetings with neighborhood groups and workshops.
  • Winter 2018 – 2019: Incorporate Public Comments #1
    Address public comment received to date through correspondence, meetings, and workshops.
The Historic Preservation Design Guidelines effort is currently on hold. Sign up for updates to learn when we resume.

Where do they apply?

  • Article 10 Historic Districts
  • Article 11 Historic Districts
  • Known Historic Resources (“A” properties)

Additional Links/Resources

  • Secretary of the Interior Standards for Rehabilitation
    The Secretary of the Interior's Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties promote responsible preservation practices for historic and cultural resources. Recommended treatments apply to individual buildings, districts, landscapes, and archeological components.
  • Preservation Bulletins
    The Planning Department has compiled procedures, definitions, and surveys to further explain the review process of historic resources in San Francisco.
  • San Francisco Preservation Element of the Comprehensive Plan
    The Preservation Element establishes the policy goals and purposes pertaining to Preservation throughout the City.
  • SOIS Preservation Briefs
    Preservation Briefs provide guidance on preserving, rehabilitating, and restoring historic buildings. These National Park Service publications provide technical information for owners and designers to resolve common issues in regular scopes of work.
  • NPS Incentive Program
    The Federal Historic Preservation Tax Incentive program encourages private sector investment in the rehabilitation and re-use of historic buildings.
  • Secretary of the Interior's Standards and Guidelines on Sustainability
    The illustrated guidelines on sustainability focus on the related efforts between preservation and sustainable practices in the building environment by providing information concerning professional methods and techniques in preservation projects.

click to enlarge
map of historic design guidelines