The Golden Rules of Historic Home Renovation, Explained

So, you bought yourself a historic property. You love its character and its place in your storied neighborhood. But, understandably, you want to make it your own! Before you start picking out fixtures, though, it’s important to set yourself up for success. Do your due diligence on the historic nature and designation of your home, connect with the appropriate authorities on historic preservation and design, and hire the right contractors to help shepherd your vision through. (See here for more details on these steps.)  

An experienced architecture studio can help you navigate this process, and a good north star for guiding the renovation of a historic home is the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards of Rehabilitation for the Treatment of Historic Properties. It’s likely that your renovation plans may require a design review process through a commission or committee tasked with historic and cultural preservation matters. In Denver, that’s the Landmark Preservation Commission, which uses these 10 standards to inform its review process. Bonus: If your property is revenue-generating and the renovations adhere to these standards, it may qualify for a 20-percent tax credit. (A qualified tax professional can help you sort out the details.)

Here, KGA senior architect Travis Hendrix shares some insight on how to interpret these guidelines for historic home renovations.

The 10 Standards, Explained

1. A property shall be used for its historic purpose or be placed in a new use that requires minimal change to the defining characteristics of the building and its site and environment.

What it means: if your house sits in a historic district, and you want to turn it into a law firm, you can’t just add a wing onto the structure to accommodate employees. “They want to try to keep the historic fabric of that district in place,” Hendrix says, with minimal structural alterations. “A single family residence, converted to a B&B, would be a good example, or a mansion converted to apartments, so it’s still a ‘living’ use. [These] might change the density of people without changing the density of the built environment in that area.”

2. The historic character of a property shall be retained and preserved. The removal of historic materials or alteration of features and spaces that characterize a property shall be avoided.

What it means: even if you’re modifying the house for a new use or giving the façade an overhaul, significant characteristics that make the structure unique—think: arched windows, terracotta roof tile, slate tile roof, a certain type of column—should be kept. Work around the defining features.

Staying true to the original 1937 architecture of this home, we re-created and repaired all of the chimneys, old and new, right down to the flue tile; and found brick and clinkers to blend the additions with the original portions.

3. Each property shall be recognized as a physical record of its time, place, and use. Changes that create a false sense of historical development, such as adding conjectural features or architectural elements from other buildings, shall not be undertaken.

What it means: don’t add features that don’t belong to the era of the house. For example, avoid adding Victorian elements (ornate gables, bright painted brick, steeply pitched rooflines, rounded towers) to a Craftsman-style home (horizontal plane, muted colors, heavy columns, covered porch).

4. Most properties change over time; those changes that have acquired historic significance in their own right shall be retained and preserved.

What it means: don’t take out what someone else put in along the way—even if it doesn’t jive with the original aesthetic—unless the appropriate commission gives the green light to demolish it. Take one of KGA’s current renovation projects. Fifty years after a turn-of-the-century hotel in a historic landmark district was built, the owners added a log-cabin-esque room at odds with the hotel’s tongue-and-groove Victorian-era style. Before even considering altering or removing it, Hendrix’s team consulted with the local commission. “Ultimately, we devised a way to work around the addition instead of hiding it,” he says, “because the historic commission deemed it a significant part of the hotel’s history.”

BEFORE: KGA is currently working on renovating this turn-of-the-century hotel located in a historic district. We look forward to sharing the results!

5. Distinctive features, finishes, and construction techniques or examples of craftsmanship that characterize a historic property shall be preserved.

What it means: preserving a historic building’s original craftsmanship may take priority over meeting modern code. In other words, “you don’t need to get up to modern insulations standards if the framing can’t physically support it,” Hendrix says. Put another way, you get some leeway with your stairway railing falling short of code if it’s a specimen of historic architecture.

6. Deteriorated historic features shall be repaired rather than replaced. Where the severity of deterioration requires replacement of a distinctive feature, the new feature shall match the old in design, color, texture, and other visual qualities and, where possible, materials. Replacement of missing features shall be substantiated by documentary, physical, or pictorial evidence.

What it means: try to fix features before you replace them. If you need to replace, say, the front columns, but can’t locate an exact replica, choose something appropriate to the era’s aesthetic.

7. Chemical or physical treatments, such as sandblasting, that cause damage to historic materials shall not be used. The surface cleaning of structures, if appropriate, shall be undertaken using the gentlest means possible.

What it means: “don’t use harsh treatments that could kill the structural integrity of the historic material,” Hendrix says. (Read: Don’t sandblast.)

8. Significant archeological resources affected by a project shall be protected and preserved. If such resources must be disturbed, mitigation measures shall be undertaken.

What it means: hand over fossils, pottery, or other artifacts found during renovations to an archeologist.

9. New additions, exterior alterations, or related new construction shall not destroy historic materials that characterize the property. The new work shall be differentiated from the old and shall be compatible with the massing, size, scale, and architectural features to protect the historic integrity of the property and its environment.

What it means: contemporary design in a historic district can be appropriate as long as it meshes well with, but can be differentiated from, the original features and doesn’t destroy any part of the property.

10. New additions and adjacent or related new construction shall be undertaken in such a manner that if removed in the future, the essential form and integrity of the historic property and its environment would be unimpaired.

What it means: don’t put something on (a deck, an addition, a feature) if you can’t take it off without altering or damaging the original structure.

No matter what your vision entails, KGA’s experience in whole-house remodeling ensures we can guide the design and execution per the 10 Standards of Rehabilitation to update your home while maintaining its historic integrity.

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