Surveying and Documenting Post-War Housing: A New Methodology

Posted on: February 8th, 2013 by Special Contributor

By: Patti Kuhn and Christina Slattery

The neighborhood in northwest Detroit epitomizes the vast number of postwar residences that were built across the country to accommodate the demand for housing.

This Detroit neighborhood epitomizes the vast number of postwar residences that were built across the country to accommodate the demand for housing.

Evidence of the post-World War II housing boom—more than 40 million houses built between 1946 and 1975—can be seen in cities, towns, suburbs, and rural areas across the country. Cultural resource professionals consequently face significant challenges as the vast number of these post-war residences, from the Cape Cod to the Ranch house, are, or will soon reach, 50 years old and are thus potentially eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. The Transportation Research Board, a division of the National Research Council, a private nonprofit institution, decided to confront the issue of how to efficiently and consistently identify and evaluate these resources that are frequently affected by transportation projects. The objective was to develop a methodology for surveying and evaluating post-war residences that was practical for this property type, reduced costs, and resulted in timely project delivery while also ensuring that the resources were recorded at a sufficient level to effectively comply with Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act.

The Project

In 2009 the Transportation Research Board (TRB) selected the team of Mead & Hunt, Inc., and The Louis Berger Group, Inc., to complete this study. The team’s efforts focused on the goal of developing a practical, consistent, efficient, and useful approach for the identification and evaluation of post-war resources that could be used to comply with Section 106.

The main components of the final published report consist of a national historic context for post-war residential development between 1946 and 1975, an innovative survey methodology for the identification and classification of post-war housing, and guidance on applying the National Register Criteria to these resources. The report is heavily illustrated with examples of post-war housing and includes an extensive bibliography, making it a useful reference for professionals seeking guidance on these resources. A model context outline included in the report also gives professionals a foundation for developing a project-specific historic context at the regional or local level.

National Context

Contextual information regarding post-war suburban development is necessary for professionals seeking to evaluate the National Register eligibility of districts composed of subdivisions as well as individual properties. Thus, the comprehensive national context provides a framework within which researchers can place properties and assess the national trends that influenced the booming residential development following World War II. Furthermore, the use of the national context allows cultural resource professionals to concentrate on developing a local historic context and its relationship to national trends.

A literature review preceded the development of the historic context statement in order to identify themes and issues surrounding post-war residential development. Team members reviewed popular and scholarly publications, government documents, newspaper articles and advertisements, and plan books illustrating popular designs. Previous survey reports, inventory forms, and National Register nominations also proved useful. Panel members, many of whom serve at state Departments of Transportation (DOTs), state historic preservation offices (SHPOs) or other planning entities, also provided case studies and historic contexts pertinent to the study of post-war housing.

The national context covers major themes that guided post-war residential development and suburbanization including social, economic, governmental, and political influences. Since the majority of post-war residential development occurred in new subdivisions and in areas outside of the urban core and central cities, the national context focuses on development patterns and subdivisions, including the role of Federal Housing Agency (FHA) standards, local ordinances, commercial developers and builders, and the amenities and design features offered in these new neighborhoods. By addressing these themes, the national context largely places the significance of post-war residential development on a collective resource, such as a subdivision, and less on an individual occurrence.

The national context also provides detailed information on post-war building materials, construction techniques, and architecture, site, and landscape characteristics associated with post-war residential development. The context statement addresses advances in materials and techniques that made possible mass production, standardization, and prefabrication in residential development. Both interior and exterior architectural elements are discussed, as well as styles and house forms that were popular during the study period. Character-defining features of each style are presented to help researchers in the field identify and evaluate the integrity of the resource.

This Ranch house in Roanoke, Va., constructed in 1955, retains character-defining features of this form, including original brick exterior, massing, windows, and its original door and rusticated stone surround.

This Ranch house in Roanoke, Va., constructed in 1955, retains character-defining features of this form, including original brick exterior, massing, windows, and its original door and rusticated stone surround.

Survey and Evaluation Methodology

The report addresses challenges with both the survey and evaluation of post-war housing types. Due to the sheer volume of this resource type, found in nearly every community in the United States, it is not practical or prudent to field survey every building that is 50, or in some cases only 40, years old. These traditional survey methodologies, when applied to post-war residences and areas, often result in the repetitive documentation of numerous similar or even identical houses, offering little value to their eligibility assessment.

The TRB study provides an alternative method of identification and National Register evaluation of post-war residences. Instead of repetitive individual resource documentation, the methodology promotes surveying concentrations of similar post-war residences as a single group or potential district. This approach works best in a neighborhood or subdivision where post-war houses display similar forms, massing, and materials because documentation can be focused on the totality of the resources that may collectively have significance, versus individual resources with little distinction.

The methodology also outlines criteria for the selective survey of individual residences, which identifies and documents those that stand out among their counterparts and warrant eligibility consideration. The selective survey approach is two-fold and looks to document properties that are distinctive or representative examples of their architectural style and also retain integrity. If a property retains character-defining features for its particular architectural style or form and retains historic integrity, then it is recommended for individual survey and documentation. To support this selective survey approach, the report provides specific guidance on the identification of character-defining features for the popular architectural forms and styles of the post-war period with illustrated examples that range from the Minimal Traditional and Ranch forms to Colonial Revival and Contemporary styles.

A primary benefit of this resource-specific methodology is that it streamlines survey efforts, as each resource does not need to be documented individually, and focuses efforts on the resources that are most likely to be eligible for the National Register--either individually or as a historic district. During the course of the project, team members tested the survey methodology in several geographic areas to confirm its streamlining benefits while appropriately considering intact examples of post-war residences. Arlington County, Va., was one test area. Its proximity to Washington, D.C., led to rapid residential development in the 1950s, and the area includes large concentrations of very similar Colonial Revival and Minimal Traditional residences. By using the selective survey approach for individual properties, the project team was able to reduce the number of individual properties in one study area that required documentation from 78 to 17, thereby focusing the majority of the effort on evaluation as a district.

Evaluation Guidance

The final component of the report is the evaluation methodology, which provides guidance for the consistent application of the National Register criteria to post-war residences, both for consideration of individual significance and as historic districts. The evaluation methodology is based on guidance in the relevant National Register Bulletins and previously completed National Register Nominations, Multiple Property Documents, and other surveys of post-war resources.

The evaluation methodology is illustrated with case studies of post-war residences and historic districts that have been listed in or determined eligible for the National Register from various regions of the country. These case studies can assist professionals in applying the National Register Criteria to post-war residences, focusing on Criterion A: History and Criterion C: Architecture.


The final published TRB report is available for download on the TRB website.

The final published TRB report is available for download on the TRB website.

The historic context and two tools for survey and evaluation developed through this project provide first-of-its-kind national guidance for post-war residential housing to be applied by cultural resource professionals. Through the application of the recommended methodology, it is expected that there will be more effective and efficient practices in addressing the documentation and National Register evaluation of post-war housing which can assist in Section 106 compliance and resource surveys.

A consistent, credible approach to surveying and evaluating post-war residences, based on strong contextual information, can go a long way toward changing the perception among both practitioners and the general public that post-war houses are not important to understanding our heritage. While few post-war resources may be individually eligible for the National Register, the post-war period saw a major residential building boom that transformed community planning and development, architectural standards, and social history. Post-war residences tell the unique story of these important housing trends, both in the distinctive architectural styles and forms that developed following the technologies and societal preferences after World War II, and in the new, larger size of subdivisions created to meet explosive demand. By identifying how to address the challenges with this resource type, largely due to volume and ubiquity, the truly important examples of this property type can be recognized for their historic significance.


NCHRP Report 723, A Model for Identifying and Evaluating the Historic Significance of Post-World War II Housing, was published by TRB in September 2012. The report includes the survey and evaluation methodology, national historic context, and model context outline. The report is available for download on the TRB website. Cultural resource practitioners are encouraged to work with their state transportation agency and state historic preservation office to determine how to best apply the outlined approaches.

Patti Kuhn is an architectural historian with The Louis Berger Group, Inc., in Washington, D.C.
Christina Slattery manages Mead & Hunt’s historic preservation business unit which specializes in the identification and management of historic properties and compliance with federal and state preservation regulations.