Old buildings have a unique beauty and charm. Call it a “soul” or a personality, homes and commercial buildings that have seen the passage of time are imbued with character you can’t find in recent structures. Architecture, materials and building techniques provide us with a time machine- a snapshot of the past, and there’s an aesthetic there that many find irresistible. Unfortunately, many historic buildings aren’t up to modern building codes and restoring them isn’t as easy as fixing a few pipes or shingles.
Before you invest time and money in restoring an older building to its former glory, be sure that you understand the options available to you, the costs that could be involved, and common problems that arise with historic home renovation.
Think it Through with a Plan
It might seem obvious, but planning is the step you need to take before starting anything else. Your plans need to be more than just which builder you’ll be using or making a list what needs to be repaired. When working with a historic building, you need to consider the project on a much deeper level.
Make sure you know all the requirements of the zoning laws and codes in the neighborhood. The set of regulations depend on whether or it will be a commercial or residential building. While residential and commercial zoning laws do have some elements in common, there will be key differences that need to be followed to ensure your building is legal and safe. Talking with local residential construction companies can also help because they should be familiar with all the laws and guidelines that apply to your historic building. Make sure they have experience working with house restoration or historic buildings, as well. Old homes require a lot more scrutiny than a modern home would, and you want to make sure the job is in good hands, and as they say, the structure has “good bones.”
The phrase “good bones” isn’t a mystery. It simply means that the basics of the structure are well-preserved and continuing to do what it was designed to do. Is the flooring solid, or does it give or bounce at all? Are there any cracks from settling or shifting? Look carefully around door and window frames for telltale signs. In the basement- do the floor joists sag at all? Is everything tight and straight? The foundation is the primary backbone of the building. Any tilting, cracking, or separation? The roof and rafters should also show straight with no sags or weak points.
Water damage isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker, but if there are leaks, they should be taken seriously. Walls and ceilings can usually be taken care of with a new roof, but pay close attention to the sill plate in wood frame construction- the transition between the foundation and the wooden structures of the building. Rot or compromise there means complications.
The circulatory systems should also look good. Don’t let major plumbing, electrical or HVAC problems derail your project- there are usually clever ways to overcome most issues. Chimneys or other masonry can be costly to resurrect, but most older homes just aren’t the same without a working fireplace.
If it indeed has good bones, your contractor will then tell you that it’s most important to start off with anything that improves the weathertight properties of the building. That means windows, roof, doors and / or masonry. Keeping water out is akin to stopping the bleeding for an emergency room patient.
Don’t aim for bland perfection. Your project should come through with some quirks intact, like different baseboard sizes, or a slightly tilted floor. Building techniques from 100 years ago were not nearly standardized as today, and as a result you’ll have stud widths that vary based on the length of the particular carpenter’s hammer handle, or door openings that never were intended to match.
Explore the Building’s History
In addition to looking into the physical features of the place, look into your building’s history for any vital information that will help you with planning. Look at previous owners and anything that may have happened over the course of it’s past.Were there any major repairs done? Was anything restored or altered in the past? Did anything of historic significance happen there? Sometimes you can uncover adjustments that changed the character of the building, and you may want to consider returning it to its “just built” state.
Historic home renovations are unique in that the age of the home means it has probably had many alterations and repairs done before. Finding out what may have been fixed or altered allows you to address problems resulting from improperly done repairs. For example, maybe a load-bearing wall was torn down between two rooms in the past but the installed support beam wasn’t adequate, leading to a sag or other damage.
Knowing a building’s history will also help you with decisions you’ll make over the course of construction. If the building had historic significance, you may be required to use materials appropriate to the time or restore the exterior to match the original, and other historic structures in the vicinity.
Local Resources for Historic Home Renovation
In Savannah, organizations like the Historic Savannah Foundation are active in restoration projects in the historic district by finding buyers who will renovate or by donating funds to bringing older homes back to life. The Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation is also a gold mine of helpful information about our older buildings here in Savannah. Savannah College of Art and Design offers classes on historic preservation that have had an impact on local architecture in the city.
Empire Construction has completed a number of these projects. One example is the Solomon Cohen Townhouse at 116 W. Liberty St. in downtown Savannah. Ground was broken to build the home in 1875- a wedding present for Cohen’s daughter. Finished with exposed brick walls and hardwood flooring, it’s old world charm has been brought back and updated.
The Savannah Visitors Bureau has published a page of examples of the different kinds of past architectural styles found in Savannah, from Georgian to Romanesque Revival. Touring some of these grand old mansions can give you ideas for your own restoration project.
Want to research an older property? The Chatham County Board of Assessors has a website page which allows you to enter a property ID number that may be a great starting point for your research.
The City of Savannah also has an extensive page listing resources on the history of the city. More extensive research can be found through the Georgia Historical Society and in the Digital Libraries of Georgia’s collection of digitally stored records.
Restoration. Renovation, Rehabilitation?
Restoration isn’t the only option when it comes to historic buildings. You can also rehabilitate the home. Those two terms may sound similar, but they change the construction process and what will be done to the home.
A strict restoration is a process that returns the building to what it would have been at a particular time. This is usually done by stripping the home of everything that wouldn’t have been there in that time period. As most people living in a residential home prefer the building have some modern updates to plumbing and electrical systems, it may not be practical to restore to an exact replica of the original, but you may be able to restore the appearance while adding some modern conveniences by creatively concealing them.
Rehabilitating is a little different. When a home is rehabilitated, it’s changed so that it’s functional in the present day. Most of the design elements and architectural elements will remain (along with the charm of the place) but all the home’s inner workings will be updated. Walls may be removed or relocated, windows improved and bathrooms remodeled. The kitchen will often be modernized, all the plumbing and electrical systems will be brought up to date. It’s meant to make the home comfortable for modern living while still honoring its history and architecture.
Once you have decided whether you will be restoring or rehabilitating the building, it’s time to find a construction company you’d like to work with. Interview different contractors to find out about their experience with older buildings. find out what they specialize in and whether or not they have worked with historic homes in the past.
Communication is key when working with the company you choose. Make sure you know how much freedom you have to change your mind or how the contractor will handle revisions if a problem is encountered. A good contractor will facilitate a contract that is as specific as possible up front about what you want and what can be done within your budget. They will be able to help estimate the cost of the repairs and show you options in terms of building materials and other elements, like window repair or replacement. There will be a lot of decision making, and the first one is choosing a contractor you are comfortable with.
Empire Construction is your Savannah source for top-notch historic home renovation services. They are here to address any questions or concerns you have about the process. You’ll find expertise and a passion for customer service from the first conversation to the final walkthrough! Call today for a free consultation at 912-335-3881, or fill out an online contact form and we will get back to you within 24 hours.