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Restoring Historic Buildings Responsibly

Renovating Historic Buildings

Architects play a crucial role in ensuring the preservation of historically significant buildings and structures when tasked with renovating or converting them for new businesses. An architectural design team is responsible for updating historic buildings to create spaces that are functional, sustainable, and aesthetically pleasing. In some instances, the architects will work together with preservationists to create plans that respect and protect the historical significance of the building and its architecture while also modernizing it for contemporary use.

historical photo of a fire company building decorated for a holiday

Preservationists are focused on protecting the cultural and historical legacy of a site or building. They protect historic sites and structures from deterioration or destruction and promote an understanding and appreciation of their significance. By collaborating, architects and preservationists can help protect and celebrate our built heritage for future generations.

Examples of a historic building renovation include:

Interior remodeling: The modernization of an interior space or conversion of the building’s usage; such as converting a vacant factory into a residential loft, a brewery, restaurant, or event space. When switching the general usage of a building, the occupancy classification of the building will change and thus require compliance with current building codes.

Energy efficiency upgrades: To enhance sustainability, modern insulation materials and methods, new HVAC systems, and energy-efficient windows can be installed. Occasionally, it might be possible to furnish new windows that adhere to historic requirements and prevent altering the building’s exterior appearance.

Accessibility improvements: Include accessibility features that adhere to current ADA standards, like new restrooms, ramps, railings and elevators, to align with the latest building codes and create an accessible space for everyone.

Technology integration: Integrate modern technology infrastructure, such as wiring for high-speed internet and security systems with an emphasis of concealment within the historical framework.

Maintaining Original Character and Structure

There is often a desire to put a modern spin on the restoration of old buildings. However, a true-to-character historic restoration will include maintaining the building’s structural/form and character. Additionally, when an element or aspect needs attention, proper historic restoration should seek to repair rather than replace. If replacement is necessary, the new piece should aspire to match the original in texture, material, design, color, size, and features.

Consider the surrounding area and its community. Many historic and heritage buildings offer a rich history of architectural and design elements that might not be present today. Conduct research on the building itself, including the community. Was there anything significant? What was the area known for? Did the building have any significant or identifiable features? Were they constructed in a certain way – different from others?

Ensure the Property Can Support Modern Amenities

Sometimes, historic buildings have complications that impact their integrity. During the renovation, it’s best to repair and retain as much of the original build as possible. However, you may find you want or need to add amenities. Before making changes, ensure the property can support the modern amenities you want to include.

Permitting Phase

Projects are typically delayed at the permitting phase. In busy cities where development is growing, city planners often can’t keep up with the influx of projects. To solve this problem, there are a few key items your project team can do up front to avoid delays in dealing with the city and getting your building permit.

Start the conversation early – bring in the historical society early on in the project to review designs and concepts. By including them in the design early on there’s less risk of a major change coming out of the building permit application.

Start the application process as soon as possible – leaving lots of time in then schedule for a building permit review is important. There are more opinions on the reviewers side when dealing with a heritage building building permit application so account for that.

Construction Phase

When planning the construction, it’s important to review elements that need to be retained or protected. Heritage elements often have strict requirements relating to temperature, humidity, dust and potential damage so they will need to either be removed or protected up front. While renovations of a heritage building may be a challenge, and during the project you may start to ask yourself why. It’s important to remember that preserving buildings for future generations is important.

The stories that historic buildings can tell are powerful and can be instrumental in understanding our past. Ensuring they are preserved and maintained is an important function of architects, designers and planners.

At Watkins Architects, our team of professionals have provided architectural services for the renovation of historic buildings in Pennsylvania that were designed to maintain the authentic character of the original structure, restoring it back to the original external and interior design.

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