Renovation versus restoration: One professional's guide

by Patricia Cove
Posted 1/12/23

If you own an historically significant building, you may be interested in a firm that specializes in the preservation and design of buildings built within a specific time frame. 

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Renovation versus restoration: One professional's guide


Many architectural and design firms are open to taking on projects that involve a variety of architectural styles and periods. There are also firms that concentrate on new, contemporary or modern construction. 

But if you are lucky enough to own an historically significant building, you may be interested in seeking out a firm that specializes in the preservation and design of buildings built within a specific historic time frame. 

These professionals concentrate on architectural styles that exemplify design elements that were prevalent during a specific time period, and are closely associated with the social, political and industrial influences of that time. Their expertise can prove invaluable in the completion of any necessary new design work, as they can use their knowledge to preserve and maintain what is most important about these structures.

Once you’ve chosen your professionals, you can then select a specific direction that fits with your preservation goal. 

Depending on the significance of the structure, you may or may not want to restore the building to its original pristine condition. Restoration involves returning a building, often both inside and out, to its original appearance. Architectural historians concentrate on documented research, and emphasize the elements of authentic design, being mindful of all the spaces, and especially the architectural style of the building itself.

When considering a “restoration” project, you may discover many time periods present within the same building. In this case, you’d need to discuss the architectural elements in each space, and how a unified interior should be addressed. The project can then make a distinction between an actual restoration versus an historic “recreation.”

Although restoration projects can be the most fascinating, there are other available options for preserving an historic structure. 

Sometimes, the preservation of a building itself takes precedence over the preservation of its interior spaces. In such cases, the practice known as “adaptive reuse” can be used to preserve and reuse the building envelope and exterior, while sacrificing the original interior. 

Using this approach, massive buildings of the past can be repurposed, and are often broken down into smaller residences, office spaces or commercial businesses.  Colleges often employ adaptive reuse practices by housing dormitories and even classrooms within historically significant buildings on estates that are now their campuses. 

But the most common practice in the preservation of buildings is the renovation.  This is a practice that architectural professionals are often faced with, and one that presents the most challenges to original historic fabric. Trends in architectural styles come and go, and renovation projects can often result in the unnecessary loss of important interior detail – especially when owners do not realize the significance of the original design and attempt to introduce a trend that may or may not stand the test of time.

The goal of any renovation project should be to renovate a space that recognizes and respects the original design – while delivering rooms that support a modern lifestyle. Having closet space, for example, can easily become more important than original wainscot, chair rail, or crown molding.

Luckily, no matter what direction an historic homeowner takes, there are standards. The Department of the Interior specifies that the “Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation” should be used as a guide in building preservation. 

If you are fortunate enough to own an historically significant building, and are researching the various methods of preservation, you may become overwhelmed with the opinions and information on the various directions to take.  It will be important to consider all possible options to determine the best one – which can not only preserve the building, but also maintain the original character of the interiors.

Patricia Cove is Principal of Architectural Interiors and Design, and serves as Vice President of Preservation of the Chestnut Hill Conservancy.