Each year we get a myriad of inquiries from people looking to preserve their historic homes or buildings, and almost everyone wants to know how to do it without damaging the building or destroying its charming features. We love coming across people like you who are as passionate about historic homes as we are. So we dedicate this post to protecting historic resources, and to providing you with a few preservation tips.
Protecting your historic treasure
There is something truly magical about walking into an historic building, and thinking about the people whose lives went on inside those walls hundreds of years ago. It’s like stepping back in time. So how do you honor history? You do so by protecting and preserving it to the best of your ability.
Trusting your design/build team is the first step. Choose a design/build team with experience dealing with the challenges of historic home or building preservation and restoration.
How you should get started with your preservation project:
1) Do your research. Start out by conducting research on the building or home. First visit the township building and ask about any archives on your property. Old permits, plans, zoning changes might still be on file. You can also contact the oldest survey and land engineering firm in the area to find out what records are available. On the Main Line, there’s Yerkes Associates, Inc., or Momenee & Associates. Try the local historical society, too. They may have a wealth of information on your home.
2) Decide what you want to accomplish. Take photos of the spaces you wish to change or restore and anything of interest in those rooms. Note the details you want to preserve, match, or restore. Consult with your design/build team and review the material.
Stabilize the building. Be sure any unsound structural elements or systems are part of the overall plan. They might use up a portion of your budget, but leaving those items unattended to can lead to significant problems down the road.
3) Preserving your piece of the past
There is so much detail and work that goes into preserving a historic building. Way more than we can cover in one post. Below are a few tips for things to watch for when working on a historic building, specific to interiors, exteriors, cleaning, and selecting materials.
Staying true to interior character
There can be a lot of character in historic homes and buildings, and you likely want to preserve whatever you can.
Read more about historic home interior design.
Follow these steps with your design/build team to determine a plan for interior preservation:
- Figure out how the building was laid out in the past, and which spaces are important to the character. Don’t divide up rooms and spaces where you don’t have to.
- Remove modern elements that don’t match character.
- Keep stairways in their original location (changing them a little could open up code compliance problems). Old stairways often do not meet building codes and once construction touches them, they might need to be brought up to full compliance.
- Install new heating, cooling, and electrical systems as discreetly as possible. A high velocity air conditioning system can cool a home that previously had no AC. These systems can often be installed with a smaller impact than a new fully ducted traditional HVAC system. These systems really shine in conjunction with a home with radiators.
- Repair or replace deteriorated plaster when possible. Drywall is an acceptable alternate in many cases and is much less expensive than plaster.
Read more about interior preservation from the National Park Service.
When preserving a small to medium sized historic building, like a home or row house, maintaining the exterior is just as important as the interior. You might have cracked roofing tiles, chipping paint, or overgrown trees or shrubbery.
Some work for your design/build team to consider on the exterior:
- Repoint masonry and investigate any cracks for structural issues.
- Correct any areas trapping or letting moisture into the building.
- Repair or replace wooden siding that is rotted.
- Remove deteriorated caulk and sealants and reapply new.
- Trim tree branches and plants away from the house.
- Keep painted surfaces in good condition. Once the paint fails, the material beneath can fail too.
Learn more about exterior building preservation.
Cleaning your building the right way
When cleaning an historic building, care must be taken so abrasive cleaning methods don’t destroy surfaces. Power washing the outside of a historic building to clean up years of dirt accumulation is one example of how a historic home could become damaged.
There are specific methods for cleaning
- Wood: Avoid abrasives.
- Metals: Avoid corrosives, treat immediately depending on the type of metal.
- Brick : Acid wash with CARE, Consult a professional.
- Plaster or stucco: Consult a professional.
- Building stones: Acid wash or sand blast to remove paint.
Find out more about how to properly clean a historic building.
Using substitute materials
Scour estate sales, antique stores, and online sites to find any reclaimed materials that can be used in your historic building. You might not always be able to find what you need, and the use of substitute materials may be warranted.
Consider substitute materials when:
- The historic look is maintained, but the function is improved.
- There aren’t historic materials available.
- A craftsman can’t reproduce the materials.
- There are flaws in the original materials.
- To meet current code.
When choosing new materials, choose ones that replicate or match the old materials as close as possible. Your design/build team should have plenty of expertise in this area.
No small job
If you’re taking the first steps toward preserving your historic home or building, good for you. It can be an overwhelming undertaking, but we’d like to offer our help. If you’re in the Philadelphia area or on the Main Line, consider sitting down with us to talk about historic building preservation.