Restoring a historic home is much like renovating any other house. Many historic home restoration steps one must undertake are quite similar. In both, one must determine project scope, meet with an architect, consult a structural engineer, apply for permits and repair damage. All of this must be done before making structural changes like altering the floor plan or making cosmetic updates like replacing fixtures. There are several key differences, however, between restoring a historic home and renovating a regular house. One can build an addition or remodel the kitchen at their own whim with a regular house. The same cannot be done with a historic home. The homeowner must consult both an experienced residential design firm and their historic preservation commission. With our shared heritage at stake, the permitting process for additions, changes to the home’s exterior and other structural alterations can be lengthy. Issues of age — not just historical significance — must also be considered. In this post, we explain what it takes to restore a historic home without too many headaches. From consulting experts to improving energy efficiency and avoiding trends, read on for our top historic home renovation tips.
11 of Our Top Historic Home Renovation Tips
Put bluntly, historic home renovations can be intimidating. A lot has changed in the past century — or past few centuries. Energy efficient windows and safer build codes have improved quality of life immensely. Living in Houston without AC is unthinkable nowadays.
However, if you’re purchasing a home from the 1920s, you may find yourself with a very outdated HVAC system. That doesn’t even scratch the surface of electrical wiring issues, plumbing problems, and the serious concerns of water damage or crumbling foundations.
Today, we want to share some of our most stunning home renovations — including Laura’s previous home on North Blvd — as well as tips for home restoration success. Even if you aren’t currently tackling a historic home reno, you will love these Before and Afters!
Tip #1 – Determine Whether Your Home is Historic or Simply Old
The first step in a historic home renovation is to determine whether your home is actually historic — or simply old. This will direct the course of your remodel and could also impact how long the restoration takes. In a recent article for Rocket Mortgage, Victoria Araj writes that a home must “be at least 50 years old.” It must also “meet one of four criteria” to be considered historic.
If a home is linked to “significant, historical events [or] the lives of significant individuals,” it could qualify as historic. A home that bears quintessential characteristics of a certain period or style could also be considered historic. If a home offers significant information about a period in history, it could qualify too. Keep in mind that a home need not be a certain age to be historic. Some homes are relatively young but meet one or more of the additional criteria listed above and are granted historic status.
Of course, your state or municipal government might treat historic homes a bit differently than the next. Be sure to check local, state and national designations before moving forward. Your state probably has a historic register, and your district might also govern how historic buildings are designated and addressed. The National Register of Historic Places is a good jumping-off point, but consider consulting with an expert if you remain unsure.
Tip #2 – Consult with Your Historic Preservation Commission
Next on our list of historic home restoration tips is to consult with your local preservation commission or preservation office. The commission will explain what you can and cannot do to your property, and in what manner you can update the home.
Some communities consider homes historically significant even if they have not been added to any national, state or local registry. Given this, your older home might have to go through a review process before permits are approved.
Working closely with your city’s Historic Preservation Commission ensures all renovations are executed legally and with respect to the history of your home.
Tip #3 Decide Whether You Want to Update the Exterior, Remodel the Interior or Both
The next step is to decide whether you want to update the exterior, remodel the interior or do both. There are typically fewer restrictions on remodeling the interior of a historic home, though certain structural alterations could face some limitations.
Altering the exterior of the home or expanding the home will likely pique the attention of your local historic preservation commission/office. Replacing windows, doors, roofs, siding and other elements of your home’s exterior could all require a second look from an architectural historian.
Of course, you might not be able to entirely control the trajectory of your historic home renovation. In many cases, improvements to the home’s exterior, foundation and/or overall framework might be unavoidable.
Tip #4 – Prioritize Structural Issues Before Moving On to Cosmetic Changes
Historic home restoration isn’t all about repairing millwork and shopping for period-appropriate wallpaper. Most historic homes are old — meaning the electrical, plumbing, insulation, foundation and framing might have deteriorated.
Many historic homes have housed multiple owners — some of whom may have been hobbyists or DIY-ers. Unfortunately, this could mean undoing mistakes in addition to conducting routine repairs.
It is vital to work alongside builders, structural engineers and architects who understand the challenges posed by historic home renovations. They will prioritize solving structural issues before moving on to cosmetic changes.
Tip #5 – Work with a Residential Design Firm that Has Experience Restoring Historic Homes
Interior design can focus exclusively on furnishings. However, we often find ourselves in the lucky position of completing re-imagining a home from top to bottom. We work closely with builders and architects to develop cohesive plans that address every renovation concern. Learn all you need to know about working with a residential architect here.
Your first step in restoring a historic home is to make sure the home can withstand the updates. A residential architect and building team will ensure the home’s foundation, internal structure and other elements are strong enough to modify.
Regardless of the home’s age, it’s critical that the bones are structurally sound and wired properly for electrical and HVAC. These are the not-so-sexy, but oh-so-essential elements you should not DIY. An architect will guide you through the process of restoring the home’s floorplan and flow, in a way that makes sense for modern living.
Choosing Your Historic Home Renovation Team
We recommend working with both an architect AND a builder. Your architect will lay out the plans, and your builder will execute those plans. Writing for Boston.com, Scott T. Hanson identifies two of the “most important things to do” if you want to restore a historic house. These are “educating yourself about what you are getting into and “finding professionals with experience in the restoration field.”
Newberry Architecture was able to take Dryden’s bones and re-frame them into my dream home. Consider for a moment that this home had just one bathroom. ONE. For my family of four. The team at Newberry developed a plan for doubling the original square footage, giving us a new master bath and a kids’ playroom.
Then they handed off those plans to Blue River Custom Builders, who brought those drawings to life. Seeing them work in hand-in-hand with Newberry is really a sight to see.
Tip #6 – Source Pieces That Match the Architecture of Your Home
We’re a huge believer in matching your interiors to the architecture of your home. Even if you would describe your style as eclectic and strange, you must include something that honors the original build-out.
Not all trends stay that way. Sometimes, a decade-specific style will evolve into something timeless, chic, or historically significant. These are the kinds of items we recommend sourcing and including in your home.
For example, let’s say you have a home built in the late 1950s. It is distinctly Mid-Century Modern. The iconic Eames Lounge Chair would be a perfect addition to your home. It sleekly defines that period. When combined with more contemporary and personal pieces, you will begin to see your home mature in a very authentic way.
You may also have a home that is late 19th century. That’s a little more difficult to find in my native Houston! But this home would beautifully invite French oak casegoods or maximalist floral prints. Think ornately turned tables and the late, great Mario Buatta.
If maximalism isn’t your thing, make a small piece of your home an homage to the time period. Like a powder room, for example. Even if you’re seeking to juxtapose a more traditional exterior with a contemporary interior, there is always room to honor your home’s history.
Tip #7 – Go Green and Bring the Home Up to Today’s Energy Efficiency Standards
We’ve only been environmentally conscious about our homes for the last few decades. Around the 1970s, we started to really think about how we could conserve energy and reduce our environmental impact. We also began considering what materials had negative effects on our well-being (remember lead-based paints for the INSIDE of your home?).
Since then, we’ve developed smart appliances and energy efficient light bulbs and windows. We have also made homes healthier by removing asbestos from our insulating materials and painting with low VOC paints.
The insulation you use is one of the most important factors in your home’s energy efficiency. Choosing the right insulation reduces your energy usage and most importantly, your energy bills. When your home is 10,000 sq. ft., you will love those new windows during that unexpected cold snap! Opt for energy efficient windows to place less stress on your HVAC system too.
Reupholstering your current pieces is another good way to go green and bring your home into the modern era. Older fabrics may contain formaldehyde to reduce wrinkling. Heck, even newer fabrics may contain it.
Stay on the safe side and use materials that you know are sustainably sourced. We select high-performance fabrics for our projects based on their sustainability, durability, and the positive impact they make on the community.
We highly recommend the EPA resource “Energy Advice for Owners of Older and Historic Homes.” It provides excellent information for homeowners seeking to “maximize energy savings” without compromising the historic significance of their property.
Tip #8 – Get Smart, Technology That Is!
Technology is a huge part of our lives. Hidden surround sound speakers, the latest security systems, and app-controlled lights can all make your home more functional. Plus, they make your busy life a little bit easier. We recommend installing a traditional security system, like the ones Symbio provides (more on that below). It gives you the peace of mind to know your home is safe when you’re away.
A home surround sound system is a must if you love entertaining. Most of the time they can be hidden in the walls. But the sound is so rich and all-encompassing that you can hear it clearly and with such incredible depth throughout the home. It’s a big hit at parties.
And if you want to spend less time in the kitchen and more time with your family and friends, consider using Monogram smart appliances. They can connect with your phone and systems like a Nest and Amazon Alexa. Laura loves the Monogram Advantium Speed-Oven. When you can cut your cooking time in half, your life takes such a positive turn. Especially on weeknights.
We suggest working with a company like Symbio Lighting + Control. They create home automation systems that allow you to manage all your home technology in one place. Managing home technology has never been easier.
Tip #9 – Go with a Classically Current, Timeless Design
We’ve got to talk about the interior design, of course! If you renovate a historic home, it can feel dated if you only source items from the period in which the home was built.
Much like the home itself, combining old with new is a sure fire way to create some visual cohesion. We love mixing family heirlooms with modern accessories. It’s a great contrast that creates tension and when done well, is the key to a polished and authentic interior. Curated and timeless style interprets designs of the past in a modern way. If you aren’t afraid to go bold, pair unexpected items against a high contrast color palette.
And we love mixing masculine and feminine styles. Black with white never goes out of style. Neither do soft forms against angular shapes. Contrast, contrast, contrast! For more inspiration, check out our recent post “How to Create Timeless Interiors in 17 Simple Steps.”
Tip #10 – Keep and Eye Out for Grants and Tax Credits
Did you know that there are many grants, tax credits and other programs designed to encourage owners to preserve our architectural heritage? For example, the 1986 Tax Reform Act passed under President Reagan’s administration offers a 20% tax credit to certain homeowners.
According to this resource from California’s OHP, your home could qualify if it is “listed in the National Register.” If the home is located in a historic district and is deemed significant, it might also make the cut. As long as the home is “income-producing” — i.e. used as a long or short-term rental — it could provide a “20% federal income investment tax credit based on the costs of a qualified rehabilitation.”
Keep in mind that “owner-occupied residential properties” do not qualify for this historic home restoration tax credit. There are additional incentives for homeowners who use their historic property as a primary residence, however. Some local and state governments offer property tax cuts to homeowners in exchange for preserving and restoring historic properties.
Tip #11 – Be Patient With Your Historic Home Restoration
Restoring a historic home is time-consuming, labor-intensive and usually expensive. The historic home restoration permitting process can be lengthy. Working with your local Historic Preservation Commission can be complex.
Often times, elements of historic significance — like window frames and tile flooring — should be repaired rather than replaced. If you must swap deteriorated elements with new versions, some districts require you to obtain a permit — even when replacing windows or painting masonry.
Historic home restoration can mean involving architectural conservators and other preservation specialists. Historic home restoration can take longer than renovating a modern or contemporary one, but it is well worth the wait. Be prepared, be patient and commit to the process of preserving your historic home.
Final Thoughts on Historic Home Restoration
Through the historic home renovation process, we’ve developed a Rolodex of the best resources in the industry. Laura’s home renovations wouldn’t have been possible without the hard work and dedication of these vendors, people, and sponsors! From the foundation, to the roof, and everything in between, these resources are a critical part of a successful historic home renovation.
It all starts by working with an architect and builder. We cannot recommend this crucial step enough. Working with them ensures you have the right materials, systems, and technologies to bring your home into the 21st century. But a successful historic home restoration isn’t just about the outside.
What you bring into your home is just as important. Interiors that blend period pieces with modern furnishings is the best way to create designs that never go out of style. When you incorporate elements of your own personality into the design, that’s when your historic home becomes truly livable and yours.
For more interior design inspiration and reveals, check out our portfolio. And if you’re considering a historic home renovation and aren’t sure where to begin (or if you should even buy the home!), let’s chat.