[10 on Tuesday] Restore vs. Rehabilitate: Which is Right for Your Historic House?


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Our previous toolkit series walked you through the steps of finding and buying a historic house. Now the search is over, and you’re the proud owner of a new old home -- congratulations! Sooo … now what?

As you’ll find out, historic homeownership brings with it a unique set of questions, decisions, and goals. Our next toolkit series is designed to guide you through the process and offer practical advice on how to make the most of your historic home.

Let’s address one of the most basic questions first: Should you restore or rehabilitate your house? Your decision will influence the house’s finished character, the project cost, and the amount of time it takes. It will also impact how much of the work you take on yourself and how much you’ll hand off to professionals.

Here are ten things to keep in mind to determine which approach will work best for you.


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[10 on Tuesday] Restore vs. Rehabilitate: Which is Right for Your Historic House?

  1. 1. Photo courtesy Kansas Sebastian, FlickrRestore v. RehabilitateWhich Is Right For Your Historic House?
  2. 2. This decision will involve understanding your home’s history, architecture,and present condition of its materials, finishes, and systems. Also consideryour household’s lifestyle and what personal needs the finished housemust accommodate. More broadly, local historic district designations, localbuilding codes, property insurance and other regulatory or financialconsiderations will impact the path you take.1. Identify the factors that will shapeyour decision.Photo courtesy bree__, Flickr
  3. 3. Who lived in the house and when? Did important events occurthere? Did either (or both) scenarios have historical significance? Ifso, you could consider restoring the house to that period to helpinterpret its history.2. Review the house’s history.Photo courtesy freestone, Flickr
  4. 4. To restore a house means to return its interiorand exterior appearance to a particular date ortime period. Strict restorations -- ones thateliminate everything not present during theperiod chosen -- are rare for homes, with mostowners opting to maintain modern systems(plumbing, anyone?) and sympatheticallydesigned changes, such as later additions, thatadd to the house’s history.3. Know what “restore”means.Photo courtesy Ani Od Chai, Flickr
  5. 5. To rehabilitate a house means to make ituseful and functional for contemporary livingwhile preserving important historic andarchitectural features. For example, arehabilitated old house would always includemodern electrical, mechanical, and plumbingsystems, a modern kitchen, and otherattributes typical of present-day homes.4. Know what “rehabilitate”means.Photo courtesy Wonderlane, Flickr
  6. 6. The major difference between restoring and rehabilitating is to eitherexactly duplicate a particular period or concentrate on preserving a senseof the changes that have occurred over time. For example, if an Italianate-style house had lost its wood eave brackets, a restoration project wouldduplicate them in wood as they originally appeared, while a rehab projectwould add new brackets of a compatible design in an appropriatesubstitute material (ex. fiberglass).5. Choose your approach.Photo courtesy Jan Tik, Flickr
  7. 7. Consider the quality, design, materials,and craftsmanship of the original houseas well as the changes that have occurredover time. Compatible interior and exteriorchanges of the same or better quality thanthe original house, even if done indifferent styles or materials, shouldprobably be kept and restored.Conversely, you should probably removeany poorly designed or executedchanges.6. Evaluate existingalterations.Photo courtesy Kansas Sebastian, Flickr
  8. 8. When adding to or altering your home, consider its scale (apparentsize), actual dimension, and massing (proportion/balance). Usematerials, textures, and colors similar to those of the originalbuilding.7. Design new additions and alterationswith attention to detail.Photo courtesy roarofthefour, Flickr
  9. 9. The key to a quality rehabilitation is how well itaccommodates modern technologies and livingstyles. Keep changes non-intrusive andcompatible with the house’s design and style,and don’t let alterations destroy or coverhistorically or architecturally significant featuresor materials.8. Integrate moderntouches with care andcaution.Photo courtesy pov_steve, Flickr
  10. 10. This might seem counter-intuitive, but you actually do want to beable to tell additions apart from the original so the house’s historyis visible and transparent. Also be careful not to design additionsthat make the house appear to date from an earlier or later period,or alter the house’s details to an extent that suggest a differentarchitectural period.9. Take care not to falsify the house’s history.Photo courtesy NPCA Photos, Flickr
  11. 11. For a more detailed list of recommendations,check out the Secretary of Interior’s Standardsfor the Treatment of Historic Properties. Thisjam-packed resource from the National ParkService includes guidelines on preservation,rehabilitating, restoring, and reconstructinghistoric buildings.10. Look to the experts.Photo courtesy dharmabumx, Flickr
  12. 12. Ten on Tuesday features ten preservationtips each week. For more tips, visitblog.PreservationNation.org.