Whether you’re on the hunt for a new house (or a new older house) or have made a decision to work with the one you have, perhaps based on sentiment, budget, and/or your family’s needs (called the “program” in architectural terms), sometimes what to do with the home itself can be a bit confusing. Terms such as renovation, restoration, preservation, and rehabilitation are sometimes used interchangeably, though their definitions and purposes are about as far apart as Maine and Hawaii.
If your home is newer–say built in the second half of the 20th Century–and you wish to update, or if you’ve decided to purchase a fixer-upper built in the last 60 or so years, the course of action is probably clear in that a straightforward renovation is warranted. This may include assessing outmoded electrical and mechanical code issues, having professionals address replacing materials like asbestos–found in drywall and sometimes even in popcorn ceilings (asbestos can’t be seen with the naked eye, which is why an expert evaluation is needed), and refinishing older wood flooring with an eye to sustainability rather than tearing it up. In the interest of reducing your carbon footprint, you may wish to replace inadequate insulation and decades-old appliances like refrigerators, washing machines, and dryers with current Energy Star models. True, the initial investment may be more, but in the long run you’ll save energy and lower your bills, not to mention honoring the environment. As older windows are a serious culprit in the loss of heat and cooling, opting for newer double-paned, low-E (low-emission) glazing can make your home more energy efficient as well.
For older structures, whether you live in one currently or are purchasing one, the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties provides guidelines, primarily for architects in their work to save these properties that may include landmarks. However these guidelines may also be useful to homeowners in deciding how to treat their own residences.
For Will and Betsey Baines and their two toddlers, a decision to purchase an historical, though tired 160-year-old sea captain’s house in the former whaling port of New Bedford, Massachusetts (heads up fans of Moby Dick) came with a lot of conditions. Unoccupied for 20 years, painstaking thought and investigation went into considering its repair and redesign.
According to the Standards mentioned above, outright preservation would imply a strict adherence to retaining the structure’s historical fabric through “conservation, maintenance, and repair.” These include “…materials, features, finishes, spaces, and spatial relationships that go together to give the property its historic character” —something not always possible when a space is going to be occupied by a growing family.
Rehabilitation, on the other hand, emphasizes retention and repair of historic materials but provides for more latitude as the property is often severely deteriorated at the outset. In short, if the couple was looking to retain the home’s history but not to museum-like standards, rehabilitation would give them the opportunity to introduce other materials that reflected the originals.
Restoration concentrates on retaining materials from the most significant time in a property’s history while removing items/materials that may have been introduced later on. For Will and Betsey, attempting to preserve the home’s period significance was important, but not to the exclusion of ripping out usable flooring and other finishes that were installed when the former homeowners lived there.
According to the Standards above, among the elements to consider when determining what to do with your older property is its physical condition. Has it been decimated by water, weather, vandalism or mold? Was it altered (a lot or a little) over time? In this regard, how much difference would your redesign actually make, even if you adhered less to its history.
Also, what is the property’s real significance in history? Some older homes belonged to leading politicians, entertainers, famous architects, etc., or maybe a pivotal event took place inside. Consequently it may be worth preserving both for the present and for resale values.
Finally, practical considerations such as your family’s lifestyle, needs, and aspirations should be high on the agenda. Are family members very young? Older? Empty nesters? Is there a disability? History withstanding, how can the space best provide for comfort and aesthetic values, as well as maximize your investment?
Whatever you decide, renovation, restoration, preservation and rehabilitation are more often than not complicated, time-consuming processes. Involving experts upfront can facilitate analysis and decision-making, leaving you with a home of historical proportion!