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To renovate or not to renovate?

Keep what’s irreplaceable. Improve the rest.

The discussion around whether or not one should renovate an old house feels like a raging battle between “history is sacred” and “tear out everything HGTV style.” This all-or-nothing framework—a product of long-running debates over which types of housing are worthy of attention—is unhelpful at best and detrimental at worst.

Like most architecture people, I have a great and sincere love for old houses, especially “time capsule” homes in which the interiors remain untouched by the passage of years. These types of houses are rarer and rarer in our moment of televised old house flip-mania, and I agree that a special case could be made for their preservation. But even for less-well-preserved homes, I’m on record as arguing that home-improvement TV has fueled an unnecessary obsession with renovation, setting up a false expectation that every house is a project house.

In fact, the vast majority of houses fall somewhere in the middle, neither pristine time capsules nor unlivable wrecks. For those houses, we need a new way of thinking about when and how to tackle home improvement projects.

If the house is move-in ready (i.e., living in it isn’t unsafe or logistically impossible), wait before renovating—and keep in mind that renovation is a huge financial undertaking that will make your house virtually unlivable until it’s complete. Then imagine gutting the house only to find out that open floorplans actually drive you insane. And remember that the contestants on buy-then-renovate shows never have the chance to experience the house as it is before deciding to turn it into something else. They claim to omg love the house but really want nothing to do with it; its age and unique story are merely inconvenient speed bumps on the way to a final, whitewashed goal. What these folks want is a new house wearing the skin of an old house, often for the purpose of communicating authenticity or historicity. (If you want a new house that looks like an old one, there are plenty of fine builders happy to accommodate you.)

The best way to understand the way an old house works and what it needs to work better is to live in it. You may discover that some elements you disliked when the house was empty make it rather cozy when you’re all moved in. (Many people have told me they felt this way about their wood paneling or kitchen cabinets.) You may grow to like dated elements, such as oak cabinets or trim, after seeing how nicely they complement the wood tones of the rest of your furniture. Those Hollywood-style lights in that orange bathroom may turn your reflection into an airbrushed goddess (this one is from personal experience).

Just as living in the house is a great way to identify its lovable quirks, it’s also a way to find out what isn’t working and how to fix it. This is a more efficient, precise, and inexpensive solution than a total flip—and often, when people embark on a partial renovation, they find that they are actually undoing a change made by a previous owner. For example, some folks asked me whether or not turning the screen porch on their 1925 colonial revival into a sunroom would ruin its historic character only to discover, after unearthing some old photographs, that the porch was enclosed to begin with. And even though they may be period artifacts, nobody is going to shed tears over replacing asbestos shingles or popcorn ceilings.

So where do we draw the line between what we should and should not get rid of? What is and is not historically important? My personal litmus test is one question: Is what I want to get rid of irreversible or irreplaceable? This may seem straightforward, but it’s actually rather nuanced. For example, my partner’s sister and her husband just bought a house built in 1930. One side of their kitchen is an incredibly intact, perfectly functioning prefabricated kitchen from the 1930s, with curved Art Deco shelves, white steel cabinets with their original fixtures, and high-gloss linoleum countertops with steel trim. It is in perfect condition, better than similar examples I’ve seen purchased by museums. To find something of similar quality at an architectural salvage would be both difficult and enormously expensive. And even by today’s high standards, the kitchen is still usable, mostly because its only “appliance” is the kitchen sink. However, the opposite side of the kitchen was redone in the 1970s in a haphazard attempt to match the original 1930s side. Even though this part of the kitchen is technically vintage, it’s not particularly unique and is ripe for a modernization: new stove and refrigerator, better allocation of storage, new countertops. A renovation would be a perfect compromise, keeping what is irreplaceable and improving the rest.

What to do with the bathroom, which appears to have come straight from a vintage American Standard catalogue, is a more complicated question. First of all, the original ’30s mint-green tile is starting to break, creating a serious risk of water damage. The plumbing is not modernized. The vintage Armstrong linoleum floor makes the room look dark and cramped and is starting to peel. My partner’s sister wanted to keep the fixtures but replace the linoleum floor with patterned tile and the mint-green walls with white subway tile with black accents. White subway tile, while trendy to the point that some describe it as overused, is actually a perfect choice for this bathroom because it fits well with these particular historical fixtures and the overall character of the house. An original element that needs to be replaced can be exchanged for contemporary materials in a way that is respectful to the past yet also forward thinking.

When tearing out structural elements, such as walls or windows, consider the potential visual clash of modern building techniques with older ones. For example, there are very few craftsmen trained to work with traditional plaster, and no matter how you dress them up, neither sheetrock nor drywall will look the same. Think hard before removing all those walls because there’s likely no going back. Similarly, it’s a common fallacy that (unless you are renovating your house to passive house energy standards) new windows are more energy efficient or durable than historic ones. First, it will take up to 240 years to recoup enough money from energy savings to pay back the cost of installing replacement windows. Second, let’s be real: New windows are not nearly as good looking. Old windows are very hard to replace, but much easier and often cheaper to restore to modern standards. Finally, no other types of windows are going to be durable or energy efficient enough to justify the loss of historic ones.

The individual historic elements of your home fall on a spectrum: some will be more historically significant or worthy of preservation than others. Before thinking about doing serious renovating, do some research on the more interesting quirks of your old home. I personally recommend sifting through Archive.org’s comprehensive Building Technology Heritage Library, which is rife with period trade resources from the 19th century up to 1965, including decorating books, paint and furniture catalogs, and house plans. If your house was built a little more recently, check out the decorating books at your local library. If nothing else, what you find might inspire or inform your future renovation. Regardless, there is a sense of pride in knowing what makes your house different.

Finally, if you do want to take out those vintage features, I urge you to not do that HGTV-show thing where you indiscriminately destroy everything in sight with a sledgehammer. Even if you don’t want that ’30s kitchen or those old windows, somebody certainly will. Most cities and many small municipalities have architectural salvages that will happily take those fixtures off your hands. Sometimes these salvages even have crews who will come and help you with what they call “deconstruction,” which is exactly what it sounds like. Salvages don’t just take architectural elements, but also building materials like bricks, wood, and tiles, so consider reaching out before you tear out that wall. Often, salvages, and even vintage or antique stores, will also pay top dollar for intact historical items like door and window fittings, kitchen and bath fixtures, stained glass windows, architectural details (e.g., columns) and lighting fixtures. If anything should dissuade you from getting sledgehammer happy, it’s a fat wad of cash.

Most old homes are not museum pieces, so talking about them as if they are focuses only on beginnings and ignores the long, wonderful lives our buildings lead. With few exceptions, old homes are and always have been living documents that reflect gradual changes in the lives of their inhabitants and the world around them. When you approach an old house as a living place, rather than as a problem to be fixed, the answer to how to best write its next chapter will become much clearer and more focused.

Special thanks to Jackson Gilman-Forlini, a preservationist working for the city of Baltimore, for sharing his time and expertise on the subject of historic preservation.

Kate Wagner is the creator of the viral blog McMansion Hell, which roasts the world’s ugliest houses. Outside of McMansion Hell, Kate is a guest contributor for Curbed, 99 Percent Invisible, and Atlas Obscura. In addition to writing about architecture, Kate has worked extensively as a sound engineer.

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