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  • Writer's picturePhillips & Donovan Architects, LLC

Historic Preservation & You: Preserving Your Historic Home

The benefits of owning a historic home are many. You have a beautiful place to live in that is also a part of your town’s history. In addition, the design elements of historic homes are often unmatched by the elements included in newer buildings. Owning a historic home also comes with challenges. The biggest one of which is how to preserve the home and its history while also making it livable and functional by today's standards.

Are you rehabilitating or restoring your home? Rehabilitation, along with the common term “adaptive re-use”, is seen as the act of making a historic building usable in a modern setting through repairs, alterations, and additions to the building while preserving the elements of the building that give it its historic, cultural, and architectural significance. Restoration is considered the act of returning a building to its original condition and appearance or its condition and appearance from a particular time that is significant to its history. Restoration does not include updating the building for modern day use. In each case, the historic building is being preserved. In the case of a historic home, the rehabilitation of the home to make it a functional place to live takes precedence over restoring the home as exactly as possible to its original condition.

There are many steps that must be taken in order to preserve a historic building or home. First it must be determined what is considered historic. The most general guide for determining if a building is considered historic is its age. The minimum age for a building to be considered historic and worthy of being preserved is fifty years. Other factors that play into determining if your home is of historical significance can be things like if it is part of a community of buildings of the same type and style that were built around the same time period and should be preserved to keep the historic appearance of the community there as a record to that time period and its architectural style, if the home played a role in historic events, or who the previous owners of the property were.

After you have determined if your home is a historic home it is time to determine what pieces, elements, or features of the building give it its historical significance. These are considered the character - defining features of the building and include things like the materials it was built from, the ornamentation and style of ornamentation used, the textures of the finishes, and the actual type and style of the home itself.

Once you have determined what features of the home need to be preserved and what things need to be changed in order to make the building usable in the present day, a Certificate of Appropriateness must typically be obtained from your town’s Historic Architectural Review Board. This is generally the case if your home is in a recognized historic district. A Certificate of Appropriateness is a document that states that specific work has been approved to be carried out on a historic building. A Certificate of Appropriateness is almost always required before exterior changes are made or work on the building is done, and for changes involving new construction, demolition, reconstruction, alteration, major maintenance, and permanent landscaping . It is also required before a building permit can be issued. Once the proper authorizations and permits have been obtained, construction can begin on the home.

When working to preserve a historic home, the methods that are least likely to cause major changes to the building are considered first. This means that before the replacement of historic elements of the home is considered, work is done to protect and maintain existing features or repair features that have deteriorated. Replacement of a historic building’s feature is considered only if the deterioration of a feature is bad enough that it cannot be repaired.

Protecting and maintaining existing features consists of more minor and temporary maintenance such as the removal of rust from metal elements that have started to deteriorate, caulking, paint removal and reapplication, application or reapplication of protective coatings, and cleaning. Taking the time to protect the features of a historic home can make repair or replacement unnecessary, saving both time and money for the owner and preserving the integrity of the home and the materials used to create it.

If an element of the home does need to be repaired, care is taken to ensure that the repair is done in a way that does not undermine the integrity of the existing materials or negatively change the way the element appears. Repair consists of patching elements, piecing-in materials, splicing, consolidating, and reinforcing materials or features to maintain their integrity. Materials, finishes, and textures of repairs are kept the same as the original element whenever possible. The process of repair does include limited replacement if there is a surviving example of the damaged element to work off of. In kind materials are always used whenever possible, but if they are not available materials that look the same as the original visually may be considered.

The last option, replacement, is the process of replacing an entire character defining feature of the home once it is determined that the deterioration of the feature is too extreme for it to be repaired. When replacing an element of a historic home the preferred method is in-kind replacement. This means that the new feature is created to be the same size, shape, and style as the original and made with the same type of materials and finishes as the original whenever possible. If the same materials are not able to be used, other materials that give the same appearance as the original materials may be considered.

Sometimes it is necessary to do more than preserve existing elements of a historic home to make it functional. In the case of altering or adding on to a home, care is taken to not obscure or take away from the character-defining features of the building. The new construction must be differentiated from the historic parts of the building so that it does not create an inaccurate historical appearance, while also merging with it in a way that is aesthetically pleasing. As with replacement of elements in a historical building, additions and alterations are considered as a last resort and should be carried out only after it is determined that the needs of the occupants cannot be met in other ways.

If you are looking to preserve, rehabilitate, alter, or add on to a historic home, or have questions about the process of historic preservation Phillips and Donovan Architects, LLC would be happy to help. Our architects have worked on many projects involving historic preservation. Please feel free to reach out to us.


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