The character and durability of older and historic properties are a testament to the architects, masons, craftsmen and ingenuity that past generations possessed before the technological age.
However, purchasing and restoring an older, historic property can be a costly and risky venture, fraught with issues that may hinder your enjoyment and financial peace of mind. Knowing where your home inspector should concentrate his efforts, before you buy, can save you concerns about what to expect during the renovation phase and through the life of your homeownership.
Fortunately, today’s modern technologies afford us many options for combating the ravages of time in older, historic properties.
We’ve researched a number of technologies and methodologies that are currently being applied to historic home preservations around the country, to combat some of the most common issues that plague these magnificent structures.
It is our intention to give potential buyers solace that many of these current innovations will allow you to retain the aesthetics, craftsmanship and original style of an older home, while repairing and fortifying any defects or future issues that the structure may encounter.
Even if you are not in the market for a historic property, these same technologies can be applied to your older structure to improve or rectify the destructive forces caused by aging, while improving your home’s overall intrinsic value.
Table of Contents
- What to Consider If You Are Planning to Restore a Historic Home
- Common Issues Encountered with Older Houses
- Technologies to Rectify Historic Home Issues
- Closing Thoughts
- Historic Home Resources
What to Consider If You Are Planning to Restore a Historic Home
- Get Familiar with Your Local Historic Architectural Review Boards
- Know the Ideal Traits of Someone Restoring a Historic Home
- Have Ample Financial Reserves
- Have Sufficient Time and Patience
Get Familiar with Your Local Historic Architectural Review Boards
The investigation of your historic design review board should start during the home purchase process to determine upfront if a historic home in a specific locale and historic district is a good fit for your finances and lifestyle.
Once you own a historic home and begin planning your restoration, you need to immerse yourself into the details of the design review process and various restrictions. This will help you prioritize the key challenges of your restoration.
For example, an important first step is to confirm any restrictions on what you can do to the interior of your home. Though there could be some aesthetic limitations or requirements pertaining to the interior of your home, more likely there will be local building codes that would require specific methods for upgrading a home’s infrastructure (e.g. electricity, plumbing, HVAC).
Most historic design review boards are primarily focused on the exterior appearance of historic homes. Specifically, they are concerned with historical adherence to the period architectural style and materials, and how the home “shows” in relation to neighboring properties.
Here is an example of a helpful historic design guidebook from the St. Paul Hill Historic District, in St. Paul, Minnesota:
Know the Ideal Traits of Someone Restoring a Historic Home
The ideal traits of someone planning to conduct a major restoration of a historically significant home include:
- Has ample wealth and financial reserves to cover the restoration adequately
- Has sufficient time and patience to manage the restoration process correctly and thoroughly
- Has a secondary residence to live in during the entirety of the restoration
- Has healthy relationships with local expert contractors and architects, or has trustworthy referrals
- Maintains a collaborative and cordial attitude when working with the local design review board
Have Ample Financial Reserves
The importance of having ample financial reserves going into the purchase or planned restoration of a historic home cannot be overstated. In general, the older the home, the more reserves you should have on hand.
A general rule of thumb for older, historic homes that require major restoration work is to have in the range of 50% of the purchase price available to cover post-purchase repairs and upgrades. If you are fortunate enough to purchase a marvelous historic mansion for, say, $5 million, you should be able and willing to spend in the range of at least $2.5M for necessary repairs and upgrades.
A healthy reserve equal to the purchase price should cover all repairs, upgrades and unforeseeable challenges.
Having ample budget reserves will also help achieve approvals from architectural boards, as larger budgets will allow for a wider range of solutions, especially when safety is an issue.
Have Sufficient Time and Patience
If finances are not an issue, the next big challenge is having adequate time and patience to have restoration work done properly. Patience is especially critical to meet any and all historical restrictions, and to address unforeseen issues encountered once demolition begins.
Keep in mind, that for high-end, large, and significantly older homes, restoration projects can often take between 3 and 4 years to complete.
Common Issues Encountered with Older Houses
- The General Ravages of Time
- Water Damage
- Structural Integrity + Foundation Issues
- Architectural Ornamental Design
- Outdated Infrastructure: Electrical, Plumbing, HVAC
The General Ravages of Time
Depending on the geographic location of the home, older properties are often ravaged by the elements, termites, soil erosion and other geologic events, such as earthquakes.
Added to this, a century’s worth of normal wear and tear of the materials used during original construction, and older homes can look quite rundown and remain in a constant state of disrepair over time.
General maintenance and upkeep of older properties can be costly and challenging, especially if you are attempting to match materials and artistry that were used during the home’s original construction.
Locating skilled craftsmen and artisans who understand, appreciate and can replicate the intricacies of ornamental design, limestone washes and other original construction techniques, may be equally arduous, as many of these skills are diminishing with future generations.
Water is perhaps the most destructive force for a home, as it can cause damage to exterior finishes, internal walls, and ultimately, infrastructure, such as crucial, support structures. For example, older brick walls can act as wicks, drawing moisture up from the ground level and into the upper floors, causing untold havoc from rot, erosion of mortar and mold growth.
Whether water intrusion is the result of older plumbing, either supply or sewer, or meteorological events, such as floods or hurricanes, resulting damage is a common occurrence in older structures.
Properties built on reclaimed land are most at risk, as the constant battering of water ingress and egress from flooding creates significant pressure on a home’s foundation walls and structural materials, such as lumber, concrete, brick and mortar. Older homes built on reclaimed marshland in flood prone areas can expect joist rot, which can eventually lead to collapse of the structure.
Ideally, water damage should be addressed immediately. However if the progression of the damage has occurred over time and has included absorption into floors, walls and support beams, it’s safe to say that restoration work is necessary to preserve the home’s structural integrity.
Structural Integrity + Foundation Issues
As buildings age, structural defects begin to manifest themselves as construction materials corrode or decay with time. Erosion, soil issues and geologic events all contribute to the instability of the foundation of a home, as movement can cause floors to become uneven, windows and doors to cease opening and closing, and cracks to appear in interior walls.
Although the quality of lumber used in older structures is more dense, with a finer grain than modern lumber, time and nature can sometimes prove formidable enemies to even the most well-built structure with superior materials.
Architectural Ornamental Design
Intricate plaster work, such as door and celling medallions and other ornamental design features, are the standout characteristics of many older, historic homes. Unfortunately, the plaster in these works of art begin to deteriorate over time leaving missing matching door medallions or chipped, cracked or broken chandelier medallions and fireplace frames.
Outdated Infrastructure: Electrical, Plumbing, HVAC
Older infrastructure such as plumbing, electrical wiring, and HVAC will eventually fail, a result of the choice of materials available and common methods in use during the period that a home was first constructed or previously renovated.
Plumbing lines made of Orangeburg, or lower quality cast iron, are no longer used in modern homes due to the corrosion and eventual failure of the materials over time.
Orangeburg pipe was made from layers of ground wood pulp fibers that were compressed and bound with Bitumen, a liquefied coal tar. The lack of strength of this combination caused the pipe to fail often, but it was a low cost, inexpensive sewer line option, that was used liberally in many homes from the early 1940’s up until 1972.
Shifting of the soils in a home’s foundation can also cause “bellied lines”, as the pipes underneath the house begin to slope or “belly”, thus restricting water flow resulting in blockages and leaks. Lower quality cast iron results in rusts, cracks, thinning, and eventual breakage underneath the foundation, and in the yard and surrounding areas of your property.
Electrical wiring used in the period of 1880 to 1940 was known as the “knob-and-tube” system (K&T), which consisted of insulated copper conductors passed through lumber framing with protective porcelain insulating tubes.
This older wiring system has insulating knobs and tubes that run the wiring along the framing of the home with only one “hot” wire and one neutral wire with no ground safety system. Thus it cannot accept three-pronged appliances. The lack of a ground safety system may result in electrical shocks or damage to electrical appliances as power surges will “fry” sensitive electronics.
Although there are many advantages of K&T systems, such as higher amperage than systems with similar wire gauge, and the longevity of the porcelain components, these systems are almost always replaced in older homes as they tend to stretch and sag over time.
Finding a maintenance and repair expert may be more difficult, as K&T wiring systems require more skill than that of the average, modern electrician. Fewer electricians in the US are skilled in K&T system knowledge, maintenance and repair.
HVAC: Heating Ventilation and Air Conditioning
HVAC is a modern convenience that many cannot imagine was unheard of before 1902, when William Carrier invented the first air conditioner. Older systems developed around 1933 used a belt-driven condensing unit with a blower, mechanical coils and evaporator coil as standalone cooling systems.
Today the modern homeowner expects complete heating ventilation and air conditioning throughout the home with the ability to control air flow in specific zones. Unlike contemporary homes, the placement of HVAC systems of historic homes will need to be “unseen” from public view.
Technologies to Rectify Historic Home Issues
The same technologies that preservationists have been applying to historic homes throughout the nation can be applied to older homes with equivalent results. Buyers of historic properties have come to expect the same comforts in an older or historic property, as they do in a modern or contemporary structure.
Current lifestyle dictates that a home should allow us to enjoy comfortable temperatures, modern electricity, reliable Internet access, Wi-Fi capabilities, and problem free sewage, with an ample supply of running water.
Homeowners located in floodplains should not hyperventilate each time there is a severe weather threat in their areas for fear that one or more of these expected comforts will be taken away.
Here are the most common issues that need to be addressed during major restorations of older, historic homes:
- Flood Area Remedies
- Improvements in Plumbing Technology
- Plastic Ducting for HVAC System
- Air Duct Lining and Restoration
- Plaster Medallions and Ornamental Design Restoration
- Structural Remediation
- Improvements in Flooring
- 3D Printing, Scanning & Modeling
- Digital Twins
Flood Area Remedies
Flood prone regions, such as Charleston, South Carolina, New Orleans, Louisiana and the Florida Panhandle, build and renovate their structures to accommodate the inevitable flood waters that will most certainly rise each year. Protecting a home’s infrastructure by installing Sump Pumps and Flood Ventilation Systems are two common methods of draining flood waters from a home’s interior structure that are common throughout these floodplains.
However, smart renovations that employ additional methods that can help protect the home’s critical building systems, electrical and mechanical, are also being incorporated into preservation planning.
Protection of Critical Building Systems: Electrical, Mechanical
FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) recommends raising electrical system components, including wiring, to at least 1 foot above the 100-year-flood level This would include all electric service panels (fuse and circuit breaker boxes) and all outlets, switches, and wiring.
To further insulate critical electrical systems, advanced methods of infrastructure protection require raising waterproof wiring embedded in salt water-rated housings to at least 1 foot above the potential flood elevation, and then dropped down to the various locations throughout the home.
FEMA also suggests the following tips when you have your electrical system components raised:
- Electrical system modifications must be done by a licensed contractor who will ensure that the work is done correctly and according to all applicable codes. This is important for your safety.
- Your contractor should check with the local power company about the maximum height to which the electric meter can be raised.
- If your property is equipped with an old-style fuse box or low-amperage service, you may want to consider upgrading to a modern circuit breaker system and higher-amperage service, especially if you have large appliances, or other electrical equipment that draws a lot of power.
- You may also want to elevate electric service lines (at the point they enter your home) at least 12 inches above the projected flood elevation.
Improvements in Plumbing Technology
Modernizing plumbing, both supply side and sewer systems, is integral for years of reliable usage in older homes. The good news is that new technologies have evolved which change the methodology and techniques for repairing sewer lines that are less expensive and faster than older remediation methods.
As we documented in our own plumbing project, CIPP (Cured-in-Place-Pipe Lining) is a breakthrough innovation for owners of older homes and is a less invasive method of repairing old sewage systems. The method involves using the old host pipe and insertion of a flexible, latex liner that later attaches to the walls of the old pipe, which then hardens with the help of heat curing or ultra violet light.
The newly reinforced lined-pipe has a smooth internal surface and essentially restores the old pipe to “as new” condition with less invasive trenching of interiors flooring and exterior landscaping.
Another less invasive method is Pipe Bursting, an advanced method for repairing older, severely corroded or thinning sewage pipes. Unlike CIPP or pipe lining, pipe bursting requires two access points to create an entry and exit for the new pipe to be pulled through.
A replacement pipe is then affixed to a bursting head and tunneled through the access hole into the existing, old sewage pipe using hydraulic power. The force of the hydraulic power helps to break through the old pipe, while simultaneously replacing it with a new seamless HPDE (Higher-Density Polyethylene) pipe, which is more durable than PVC.
A third method of restoring sewage pipes in older homes is epoxy pipe lining which is similar to CIPP, but more simplified. Using a clean-out access point, a plumber can spray epoxy to the affected areas of the sewer line to “re-pipe” older damaged lines, which later hardens.
Plastic Ducting for HVAC System
PVC Air Ducts for homes built in floodplains are an alternative to metal ducting, which can corrode from the constant standing water left to settle inside the duct floor. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) strongly recommends that air ducts be cleaned after flooding as:
“moisture can collect in the HVAC system components that were not submerged (such as air supply ducts above the water line) and can promote the growth of microorganisms…”
Since some air duct may remain below the flood line, or DFE (Design Floor Elevation), it is important to replace metal ducting with plastic ducting systems which are designed to get wet, drained, cleaned of dirt and debris to NADCA standards, and be re-engaged, without concerns for contamination of indoor air quality.
Air Duct Lining and Restoration
Air ducts can also be lined or coated with a proprietary water-based latex material that contains zinc to inhibit the growth of mold and bacteria. These methods are less expensive than ripping out older ducting work as it involves restoration of existing infrastructure.
This newer method of air duct restoration can be applied to either galvanized metal or cast concrete duct work which have a history of containing dangerous asbestos or fiberglass. As they age, these duct material can rust from the condensation and moist air leading to crack leaks and water in the ducting system. In worse cases these conditions can lead to mold and bacteria growth which will contaminate the home’s indoor air quality.
In a process somewhat similar to sewage pipe repair, existing in-ground air duct work can be restored with an epoxy spray, and then finished with Duct Armor, a rubberized duct liner that is EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) approved for fresh air breathing.
For more information see:
Plaster Medallions and Ornamental Design Restoration
As we showcased in an earlier article, ornamental design or plaster embellishment is the hallmark of many striking older homes and the one item that homeowners should never compromise on when planning a restoration. The full glory of these spectacular ceiling medallions, strapwork ceilings, intricate door casings, and wall panels can only be appreciated in person.
Even though the fragile plaster ages and deteriorates over time, new life can be revived into these magnificent showpieces by enlisting the services of architectural molding specialists. Ornamental design experts such as JP Weaver Company, in Los Angeles, are experienced in recasting, recreating and restoring original ceiling masterpieces back to their original splendor.
Even a top rated home inspector cannot give a prospective buyer assurances that what he is seeing is the ultimate inspection of the property. Even with today’s infrared technologies and other investigative inspection methods and tools, the only way to really know what you are dealing with in respect to structural integrity is to open the walls and floors of the home.
Seasoned restoration experts will tell you that there are often unforeseen perilous situations awaiting you when the ceilings and walls of older or historic homes are opened during demolition. They suggest that buyers reserve at least 50% of the sale price of the home to meet the structural remediation needs that will cure any issues not evident during the inspection walkthrough.
Another related budgeting rule-of-the-thumb is to reserve an additional 20% of your total restoration budget to use toward unforeseen repairs.
Improvements for Flooring
The primary challenge of restoring older wooden floors is that they can only be sanded a limited number of times, as with each sanding, as much as 1/8” of thickness may be removed.
As with other remediation challenges in older homes, be sure to solicit proposals from as many specialists, as feasible, to understand your options fully. With old wooden floors, do not assume that you will have to replace your existing floors. There are non-invasive methods of restoring an old floor to its former glory through organic cleaning and less damaging approaches to sanding.
The Rosebud Company, based in Atlanta, Georgia, is the pioneer in Passive Refinishing®, a trademark they have held for over thirty years. Passive Refinishing is their proprietary gentle method of restoring old wood floors by removing surface accumulations with no loss of original material. They achieve this by using environmentally responsible cleaning solvents and finishes that restore the original beauty and craftsmanship of aged wood flooring.
Their cleaning solution has been optimized to work well with older finishes. When sanding is necessary, they use alternative, more gentle, sanding methods that significantly reduce the amount of lost material.
Here are invaluable wood flooring restoration tips from the Rosebud Company:
- Be wary of contractors who only offer one option (e.g. tear out the flooring and replace it)
- Keep dirt, grime and abrasive materials from digging into your hardwood flooring
- Add protection to the bottom of your furniture to prevent scratches, gouges and indentations
- You do not need to sand down to the bottom of gouges, which will remove valuable layers of historic wood
- If you can see the heads of finishing nails, you have already lost too much wood, so sanding is not a viable option
- Use unconventional sanding techniques and tools to take off the bare minimum of wood (the goal is to remove just the finish)
- Use hardening oils to provide an attractive and durable surface (no coating is added, as it is absorbed by the wood)
- You often have to make compromises with old wood floors (not all damaged wood can be sanded out, as you would lose too much wood)
- Don’t think of old wooden floors as liabilities, but as assets!
- Old wood floors need an advocate, so do not give up on them prematurely!
- Take the approach of keeping old floors and giving them extended lives with proper care
- Never use steam cleaning on hardwood floors, as it will damage the finish and accelerate its aging
- Only use cleaning products made by reputable manufacturers of wood floor coatings
- You’re not restoring anything, if you are losing a significant amount of the original wood floor
Tuckpointing, also loosely referred to as “repointing”, involves the restoration of historic brick buildings by removing damaged, weakened, and aged mortar between masonry joints and replacing it with lime-based mortar. In comparison to mortar, bricks are long-lasting, but mortar can deteriorate from exposure to the natural elements over the passage of time. Strong and well-laid mortar will prevent water from seeping into the bricks, which would impact their durability and structural integrity, as well as lead to mildew, rotting wood, and mold.
This practice is applicable to brick building facades, brick foundations, and chimneys. When done properly, tuckpointing will improve the structural integrity, longevity, and aesthetics of homes constructed of brick from all architectural periods.
Technically, tuckpointing differs from repointing in that it entails an aesthetic process of adding an additional layer of mortar with a contrasting color that has a more narrow and “neat” appearance.
3D Printing, Scanning & Modeling
The uses of 3D printing continues to expand across all industries, including construction and restoration applications.
Here are the leading uses of 3D printing and scanning for historic restoration:
- 3D scanning & printing are being used to recreate and restore historic building and architectural components
- 3D scanning is being used to record accurate dimensions and texture data of important architectural structures & features, as well as artifacts
- 3D models are being created from photographs of deteriorated architectural features, such as plaster medallions
- 3D models are then being used with 3D printers to create accurate molds to recreate historic pieces
- 3D printing is being used to replicate historic architectural features, like gargoyles, with substitute materials when historical materials and methods are no longer available or feasible
- 3D printing is being used to create highly accurate 3D scaled model of architectural structures and spaces, quickly and cost-effectively
Benefits of 3D Printing for Historic Restoration
- Restoration work can be done at a much lower cost while maintaining authenticity and precision
- 3D printing saves time and energy in recreating important historical pieces
- 3D printing is a more efficient process for recreating historical elements compared to traditional methods
- 3D printing is providing vital options when historical methods or materials are not viable
- 3D printing is emerging as a viable alternative to address the declining number of tradespersons who possess highly specialized restoration skills
In the context of residential real estate, a Digital Twin is a software model or application that can virtually replicate a corresponding house through digital assets, data, and control mechanisms. The primary goal of a “digital twin house” is to help a homeowner better understand, manage and make better use of all aspects of their property. Improved energy efficiency is just one powerful benefit that digital twins will facilitate for years to come.
In terms of historic homes and restorations, digital twin technology will play a vital role in first documenting all detailed traits and features of architecturally significant aspects of a given historic house. Given the importance of maintaining accurate detailed records (e.g. colors, materials, designs, tectures, drawings, methods, etc.), we expect the community of historic preservationists and homeowners to push the evolution and early adoption of digital twins in the residential real estate and construction spaces.
Much can be learned from state-of-the-art restoration technologies and methods. These leading-edge techniques can be applied to the aging housing inventory throughout the United States, opening new opportunities for both prospective homebuyers, as well as towns looking to revitalize their communities.
With the backdrop of increasing remote work opportunities, we expect to see increasing interest in purchasing historic, or, simply, older homes throughout the country.
The most important next step when considering an older home is to educate yourself on your options. Partnering with proven experts in the restoration industry will deliver tremendous, rewarding results, for both your financial and spiritual well-being!
Historic Home Resources
- Historical Societies & Preservation Organizations
- National Trust for Historic Preservation
- Disaster Preparedness & Recovery for Historic Properties
- Disaster Preparation and Response for Homeowners
- Historic Districts in the United States: Wikipedia
- The Most Beautiful Historic Neighborhoods in America
- Federal Historic Tax Credit Projects by State
- PreserveList Directory of Restoration Service Companies (DC, MD, DE, PA, VA)
- Preservation Directory
- Preservation Businesses, Products & Services
- State Historic Preservation Offices
- National Register Database and Research
- Restoration Products & Services by Topic
- National Register of Historic Places
Leading Historic Restoration Firms
- John Canning & Co.
- EDG: Historic Buildings
- Heritage Restoration & Design
- Richard Marks Restorations, Inc.
- Renaissance Development: Brick Restoration
- The Rosebud Company: Flooring
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