[10 on Tuesday] 10 Basic Principles for Rehabbing the Right Way

Posted on: September 25th, 2012 by Emily Potter

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A couple weeks ago we defined the preservation term rehabilitate as: “To repair a structure and make it usable again while preserving those portions or features of the property that are historically and culturally significant.”

To successfully rehabilitate a historic building, though, it’s important to know more than just the definition. So this week we’re bringing you 10 basic principles to keep in mind when undertaking a rehabilitation project.

Of course, every project is different and will have different needs and solutions. But this handy reference guide is a great way to get you started.

1. Make every effort to use the building for its original purpose, when possible. But, if you can’t, make sure the new use requires minimal change to the original historic features.

Tip: You might also want to think about ways to recognize, or memorialize, the building’s original function (ex. a special plaque, framed historic photographs, or a small informational sign).

2. Do not destroy distinctive original features. Identify those unique and historic elements that define the building’s character, and make every effort to preserve and protect them. Avoid removing or altering elements that are critical to maintaining the original historic fabric of the building.

3. Recognize all buildings are physical products of their own time and tell a unique story about the people, places, and things surrounding them when they were built. Avoid changes that may create a false sense of historical development.

4. Recognize and respect changes that have taken place over time. Like a patina that is acquired over time, historic properties may change in ways that add to their historic value. Respect and retain those changes to the property that have occurred over time and have gained historic significance in their own right.

5. Treat and preserve distinctive stylistic features or examples of skilled craft work sensitively. Carefully save and preserve the materials, features, finishes, and examples of craftsmanship that characterize the property.

6. Repair rather than replace worn architectural features, whenever possible. And when replacement is necessary, new materials should match the old in design, composition, and color.

Tip: When constructing a replacement, look for physical evidence in and around the property or research historical documents to find out what the original feature looked like.

7. Clean façades using the gentlest methods possible. Avoid sandblasting and other damaging methods. Be especially cautious when using chemical or physical treatments, and always test the materials first.

8. Protect and preserve archeological resources. Keep surrounding archeological areas intact; however, if an area must be disturbed, take every step necessary to mitigate any harm done.

9. Compatible contemporary alterations are acceptable if they do not destroy significant historical or architectural fabric. When making a significant alteration (like a new addition, exterior alteration, or other new construction), be aware of how it will impact the look and feel of the property.

Tip: Find a way to differentiate the new alteration from the old structure, while using compatible and historically accurate materials as much as possible.

10. Build new additions so they can be removed without impairing the underlying structure. This way, if they are removed in the future, the essential historic structure will remain intact.

This may seem like a long list, and trying to follow them all -- or even just a few -- a little (more than a little?) daunting, but they’re intended to help you rehabilitate a historic property in the most accurate and appropriate way possible.

Plus, there are many professionals available to assist you during every phase of your project, from architects and landscapers to researchers and librarians. You can also check with your local or state preservation office for more help.

Tell us about a rehabilitation project you’ve worked on. What were the toughest things to accomplish? How did you solve problems you came up against?

Bonus: For a more detailed list of recommendations, check out the Secretary of Interior’s Standards and Guidelines for Rehabilitating Historic Buildings.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Emily Potter

Emily Potter is a copywriter at the National Trust. She enjoys writing about places of all kinds, the stories that make them special, and the people who love them enough to save them.

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