Renovations that Honor an Older Home’s Character

Older homes provide a link to the past—to the previous residents who raised their families, worked for a living, and cared about their neighborhoods. In the Boston area, the region’s many older homes provide a tangible connection to the people who laid the foundations for the city we know today.

“When we think about the past, we think it’s all gone, but in fact, it’s all here. It’s all out there, with us,” said Sally Zimmerman of Historic New England. “To me, it honors [the past residents] to honor the buildings.”

Preservation consultant Jeff Gonyeau concurs. When it comes to details like mantels, newel posts, doorknobs, and pocket doors, “To touch the things that people have been touching since the house was built—there is something very satisfying about that.” Jeff and Sally were panelists at the annual meeting of Boston Building Resources in May, where they were joined by window restoration contractor Alison Hardy.

Conserving older materials can make a property more valuable. Irreplaceable old-growth wood windows and trim, hand-carved mantels, and solid brass doorknobs all add to a home’s equity. And preservation is “green” because it keeps existing materials in use longer and eliminates the need to manufacture new replacements.

If the owner of an older house wants to make some changes, what’s the best way to make thoughtful updates that honor the past? Here are some tips that the panelists shared.

Learn the history of your house and neighborhood

By doing research, you can find out when your house was built and, if you’re lucky, perhaps find old drawings or photos of what it looked like in years past. Resources include the Mass Historical Commission, Boston Landmarks Commission, Boston Preservation Alliance, Historic New England, Preservation Massachusetts, local historical societies, and the Boston Public Library.

Sometimes, the house itself will tell you its history. If it has been covered in vinyl or aluminum siding, removing the covering will reveal areas where wooden trim was removed. Restoring these elements will go a long way to bringing back the home’s original appearance. “Unsiding is the absolute best way to recapture character. It’s all under there,” says Sally.

Use quality materials

Don’t compromise on the quality of the materials you use. “Buy the best materials you can possibly afford. In fact, buy 25 percent more than you can afford,” said BBR board member Andrew St. John. “If you don’t, you could wind up replacing it within your lifetime. Good materials will last you a lifetime.” Labor costs will be the same for installing poor-quality materials as they will for good-quality ones; investing in quality materials will save the labor costs of premature replacement.

When money is tight, take your project in stages to fit your budget. If you’re restoring your home’s exterior, “Start with one side, the most prominent one,” Sally recommends. “Chunk down the project to levels that are more economical. Try to look at phasing, and learn to do some stuff on your own.” Jeff adds, “Taking your time is a good thing.”

Make careful, durable repairs

Avoid quick fixes or solutions that will just cover up problems, and strive to think long-term. “When the next person comes to fix this, do I want them saying in the back of their mind, ‘What was that guy thinking?’” says Jeff.

Keep in mind that a house is a system. Exterior wood trim isn’t just decorative; it helps the house shed weather. Sally recommends a cautious approach: “Make one change and then test to see what the results are, and if there are any unintended consequences.”

Embrace maintenance and imperfections

While artificial siding and replacement windows are marketed as “maintenance free,” there really is no such thing. Some degree of maintenance will always be needed. Alison pointed out that even a thorough cleaning can make a big difference in how old houses look.

Older materials, especially wood, are bound to have some imperfections. “We’re not trying to make everything perfect. Sometimes the little imperfections that are left tell a story and they shouldn’t be covered up,” said Alison. “Leave some evidence of the life of the house.” Floors don’t have to be “gleaming,” Jeff emphasized. “After all, you walk on them.”

“We’re all guilty of wanting to be in control of all things in our lives,” said Sally. “But your house has been there awhile, probably a lot longer than you’ve owned it.” Taking a preservation approach may require rethinking a renovation project, “but it’s really wonderful to bring back that character and to bring back the pieces that have been missing.”

Well-preserved houses add up to well-preserved communities, which convey an aura of authenticity—and that contributes to the value and the spirit of the places we live.