June 27, 2009

Renovating Old Homes Responsibly and Sympathetically

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Some people seek it out as if it were the greatest joy in the world, while others carry it like a cross under on which they will eventually die: either way, the restoration of old homes is something that elicits very strong responses and feelings in home owners or home improvement aficionados, and there is always plenty of hard work involved in the process. It’s that you really never know what you’re going to stumble across when renovating an old home, and though some such surprises may delight you, it’s more than likely that such surprises will implicate significant complications to the project and further delays in getting the whole thing over and done with.

Before engaging in this sort of odyssey, it is wise to seriously evaluate whether or not you have the time, energy, and devotion to carry out the renovation of an old home—which clearly doesn’t apply to people who have already bought such a property and now have virtually no choice but to renovate it. Many people fool themselves into thinking that—especially if the plan on doing most of the work themselves—the whole project will be over and done with in relatively little time: don’t commit this error, as most old home renovation projects take a fairly long time, especially when compared to renovation projects on new homes. Evaluate your own level of commitment to the project, and also evaluate exactly how drastic the situation is with the particular old home you have in mind. If there are significant problems with the foundations or the framings of the home, you are looking at a money-eater of a project, and it might be a good idea to just move on and find another, less complicated old home to fulfill your hobby (again, not applicable to people that are already in possession of such a home and have no choice but to take on the task…poor souls).

If you are planning on doing the project all on your lonesome, then you will at the very least need the consultation services of a professional (i.e. an architect) in order to identify all the areas of complication and precisely which will need to be tackled, with no chance of being glazed over or cosmetically remedied. Furthermore, you will want to get a strong notion of the order of the multiple tasks besetting you, as it is a foolish thing to do to spend lots of time and energy on a chore that could be postponed when a slew of vital touchups and reworkings could be accomplished first, in less time.

There are, as the title of this article implies, two driving principles when renovating an old home: responsibility and sympathy. Let’s analyze these two issues in detail for a moment. Firstly, with regards to responsibility, you will be charged with bringing the functionality of the home in line with modern standards; you will have to make various aspects of the home more efficient (such as the heating system), and you will have to bring the performance of other aspects up to levels in tune with modern necessities (like the plumbing and electrical capacities). The responsibility for ensuring that the home complies with current safety standards is also a big deal—installing flame resistant roofing materials is a huge factor, and one which basically no old home is equipped with. Putting in place banisters and safety rails in stairways and on balconies and porches that fully protect the inhabitants and guests in your home will be the most pressing task as far as fulfilling your responsibilities is concerned.

Secondly, with regards to sympathetically renovating an old home, you will want to capture the feel of the original designs as best as possible and prevent the intrusion and obfuscation of more modern features. The word “sympathy” itself denotes an ability to think or feel alike (with the original architect, or more broadly the style of home which the structure embodies), and as such this entails you immersing yourself in the tastes, culture, and history of a different era—not exactly the simplest of tasks. Consequently, it’s a good idea to do a fair bit of research and peruse some antiques shops, whatever it takes to get good ideas, materials, and results.

Nonetheless, nobody is saying that you need to create a complete mimicry of the original home—the idea is to think alike, not identically. There are certain aspects of old homes that tend to be a bit of a nuisance, and therefore can be altered or completely reinvented. For example, it is common for older homes to have a profusion of dinky rooms (which generally create a maze of hallways) that are likely not to be comfortable for a modern family; some walls may be toppled as a result, converting two small rooms into one large room that provides a greater degree of comfort. However, don’t go overboard here, as you risk endangering the character of the home, leaving the exterior as the only “old” aspect to the structure. Essentially, you need to have a keen sense of compromise, and know when something needs to go and when something ought to stay. A rickety side-porch with rotted foundations that can’t be seen from the street and that requires a serious amount of cash to fix is a good candidate for the scrap list; on the other hand, a cornice that is deteriorated but that provides the home a tremendous degree of character (and that is one of the most visible qualities from the street) ought to be fixed up just like new.

In the end, there is a lot of personal judgment that comes into play when making decisions about how to renovate an old home, so there really are no set rules. What one home renovator considers a triumph another home renovator might consider a travesty, so don’t fall for the notion that there is dogma to be obeyed here. Simply focus your attention on the functional and structural issues first, and leave the cosmetics till last…otherwise, you will never finish the project!

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