You own an historic home and are committed to maintaining its cultural legacy for future generations, but you also want to renovate and maximize its potential for life in the 21st century. Where should you start?

Renovating your historic home is an important undertaking. First steps include identifying the project’s scope and evaluating the property’s condition. But selecting the right architect to guide you is the most critical decision you will make to ensure your project’s success.

Wendy Hillis, AIA, is the university architect at Tulane University, where she works on large building preservation. When a friend asked her advice about an old house renovation that was seriously over budget, Hillis agreed to review the contractor’s drawings.

“So much was not spelled out on the plans,” she says. “You need an architect experienced in historic home renovations to plan the project. The more project details are laid out before starting, the easier and faster construction will be. Instead of making decisions on the fly, an architect would anticipate issues ahead of time.”

The upfront expense of hiring architects can be recovered when they recommend knowledgeable contractors or serve as your advocate if unforeseen conditions arise. They will also help with applications for historic renovation tax credits.

An experienced architect can conduct forensics into the home’s original design and subsequent remodels. Heed their advice “about what should be kept and what needs to be replaced,” says Andy Carpentier, associate principal at YHLA Architects. “The end result will add value to your property.” By conducting in-depth evaluations before creating any drawings, your designer considers strategies to preserve your home’s architectural integrity that fit your budget. Together, you can decide whether to restore, reconfigure, or add on. And with detailed drawings, the architect helps the contractor understand how the house was originally built.

Overcoming renovation complications

Besides architectural style, a home’s physical condition will influence renovation plans, as will local building codes and historic designations. Often times, historic designations dictate what can be done to the exterior—particularly the front façade—of an old house. And sometimes those dictates are at odds with building codes.

Carpentier, who spent a decade on Oakland’s Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board, says energy-losing single pane windows and true divided lights are often required on old house restorations. “But local governments can make some exceptions and negotiate code issue trade-offs on historic homes,” he adds.

After purchasing an 1860s cabin in Sonora, California, Carpentier first studied it carefully. He recommends living in your house before starting any projects to see if the remodeling you consider necessary turns out to be so. “Make a phased master plan,” he advises. While occupying his cabin, he found that the linen-covered walls lacked studs. Though not part of his original plan, adding studs turned out to be one of his first tasks, along with focusing on the heat pump, insulating floors, ceilings, and perimeter walls. None of these choices were historic, but all were important for comfort.

“I would caution you and your architect to think twice about a completely open plan in an old house.” - Andy Carpentier, associate principal at YHLA Architects

Interior renovations of historic homes rarely adhere to strict period restoration. Notable features that are useful or boost aesthetics might be preserved, but modern plumbing, heating, air-conditioning, and electrical systems are bigger priorities than maintaining the interior fabric.

However, both Hillis and Carpentier warn against the current trend of open floor plans in historic homes. “I would caution you and your architect to think twice about a completely open plan in an old house,” says Carpentier. The rooms are generally small for a reason, and they are much easier to heat and cool.

Hillis also says to avoid the open floor plan concept. She understands that homeowners want more light and longer sight lines. It is possible to have an open feel while still maintaining the original concept of the home. “For example,” she says, “if there is a wall with a three-foot doorway, instead of knocking down the wall your architect can design an eight-foot cased opening, in keeping with the style of your historic home.”

Whether your home is Victorian, Craftsman, Mid-century modern or another historic style, you will want to preserve the features that define its distinct design and its place in architectural history. An architect will guide you to the right choices.

About the author: Elena Marcheso-Moreno writes about architecture and design from McLean, Virginia.

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