For every building, old and new, cultural complexity is signified by location and architectural design. As the years progress, buildings remain as markers of history, defining communities and keeping cities rooted to their past.

When renovating old buildings, developers should be careful not to damage or destroy the unique features that define historic properties. This can be tricky, especially when buildings need structural updates or worse, total gutting, to adhere to modern standards of functionality.

Renovation requires patience, attention to detail, and a reconciliation between modern conveniences and authenticity. It’s a delicate balance, and one that should be respected if developers want to preserve their properties’ heritage.

Why renovate?

As opposed to starting from scratch, there are numerous benefits to renovating older buildings; more urgently, if the building qualifies as historic, its preservation may be legally mandated. Whatever the case may be, old buildings have intrinsic value, making them worthy of keeping around. For example, sturdy materials rare hardwood, bricks and stones are both more valuable and durable than the materials used for newer buildings.

Another incentive? When an existing infrastructure can be repurposed, it saves money and energy that would otherwise go into demolition and reconstruction — in other words, it’s the green option as well as the affordable one. If the property qualifies as historic, its renovation may also come with tax incentives.

Repurposing older buildings also speeds up potential occupancy, since the framework for residency only needs updates instead of a complete reconstruction. The character and charm of such properties are worth preserving not only for their great value, but for their mass appeal to pedestrians, tenants and businesses.

Choose your treatment

Depending on the age and historical status of your property, there are several distinct approaches that can be taken in regards to renovation:

  • Preservation focuses on maintenance stabilization, repair of existing historic materials, and retention of a property’s original form over time
  • Rehabilitation acknowledges the need to add to or alter a building with continuous changes while retaining its historical character
  • Restoration depicts a property or feature at a certain time in history, erasing evidence of other time periods
  • Reconstruction recreates historic elements that have vanished or deteriorated over time

These treatments aren’t mutually exclusive; all or some may be used together in different aspects building renovation. Typically one treatment will encompass the general approach, while others could apply to specific features like light fixtures, flooring and windows. For example, you may be rehabilitating a building and reconstructing its wrap-around porch.

Property owners and developers can determine which treatment is right by examining the building to make sure the proposed function is compatible with the existing condition. To develop a treatment plan, they should get the property evaluated for character-defining features and qualities — this can help single out “preservation zones,” or areas of historical significance.

The planning stage calls for collaboration between designers, facility managers, fire, security and code officials, curators, preservation officials, and building occupants. Together, a holistic solution can be decided upon that both protects occupant safety and security and preserves cultural resources.

Getting it done

Now for the actual work. Property developers should hire contractors that are up to date with current building codes, and well-briefed on the treatment process. The renovation of old buildings requires different techniques than the construction of new ones, so knowledge and experience with best practices is key.

After a thorough evaluation comes extensive maintenance and repair. If done right, this will prevent deterioration of historic elements over time. Steps include rust removal, caulking, re-application of paint, and repairing features with as little interference as possible. Character-defining features can be repaired through patching, splicing, consolidating and other methods.

If repair isn’t possible, contractors can find materials and designs that match the original feature closely. If the the authentic material isn’t available, it’s best to find an “in-kind” replacement. Remember, alternative materials should fit in with the building’s style and character — preferably enough so that no one can tell the difference.

Adding in modern conveniences and other updates can be a trickier task. Modern systems of heating, electricity and air conditioning can be installed in secondary spaces like attics and basements, then configured to interfere minimally (or not at all) with primary spaces. Since many old buildings lack handicap accessibility, interior and exterior accommodations can also be sensitively added without taking away from the original structure.

The renovation of old buildings, in the end, depends on a property’s specific history and the needs the space has to meet in the future. It’s a delicate but worthwhile process that comes with a bounty of benefits for all parties involved. With smart preservation, developers can expand and augment a property’s historically rich legacy, all while keeping the stories of its stories strong and timeless.