Did you know that historical wood windows are one of the most vulnerable and at-risk elements of our architectural heritage?

Preservation Virginia has proclaimed historical windows endangered, saying, “Historic wooden windows are destroyed daily in lieu of new, inferior windows.  Salesman convince owners and architectural review boards members that replacement windows are superior to historic wooden windows when the truth is, these historic windows can last longer than any new wooden or vinyl-clad window.”

Despite this, windows don’t often have a high priority on the list of things we should preserve in our built history.  Yet they should.  If eyes are the windows into the soul, as the old adage goes, then surely windows are how we see into the soul of a historical building.

Windows are an important component in a historical building’s appearance.  Not only are they one of the few parts of a building that serve as both an interior and exterior architectural feature, they usually make up about a quarter of the surface area of a historical building.

Many aspects of windows contribute to a building’s architectural style and historic fabric – height, width, and thickness of frames and sills, the visual design of sash components, the materials and color treatments used, and even the way light reflects off the glass.

Muntins, historical glass, putty beading, moulding profiles, glazed opening widths and regionally specific patterns and features are more distinct characteristics of original wood windows that contribute to a historical building’s façade.  And all of these varied between architectural styles and periods and from region to region, making wood windows living artifacts from history – an archeological gold mine that helps us understand and document historical building practices and craftsmanship.

These features and variances can be difficult to duplicate with modern technology.  Today’s manufacturing and installation process is significantly different than the process used hundreds of years ago.  The characteristics imparted by modern machinery and installation techniques create an entirely different window than the traditional building materials created when the building was originally constructed.  Such a loss of historical elements is a permanent scar on a historical building.

Replacing original wood windows also often requires changing the window’s rough opening to install a window manufactured on national standards to the non-standard opening of a building constructed during a time when there were no building standards – another mistake that permanently damages a building.

Throwing out the artifacts from our built history that stand testament to how buildings have been constructed over the last several hundred years prevents future generations from gaining a deep understanding of a piece of history that’s just as important as the knowledge we gain from all the other artifacts we work so hard to preserve.

Just as we shouldn’t replace our historical art with modern replicas, we shouldn’t replace our historical wood windows with modern replacement windows.  Because once they are gone, they are gone for good.

 

“We regret much of what we’ve built; we regret much of what we’ve torn down. But we’ve never regretted preserving anything.” -Daniel Sack

Original windows serve a dual purpose of providing ventilation and light while being an important part of the buildings architectural design. These windows are constantly under attack from the marketing forces of the replacement window companies.

Window Restoration

Window Restoration in Society Hill neighborhood in Philadelphia

 

Here’s a horrifying experience recently shared with us:

I was one of those stupid people who put new vinyl windows in my old 1883 farmhouse. I had already spent a winter fixing the old, broken, and cracked windows since no one had lived in my house for seven years. I did show significant saving (on) heating oil the first year since I had storm windows as well.

Fast forward ten years and I am already seeing the gas between the windows escaping. Some of the locks have stopped being cooperative as well. And the warranty? Well, the company no longer makes windows.

And ever since installing the windows, I have had peeling paint on my siding. I didn’t know about siding vents – the kind you stick up under the clapboards – until earlier this year.

This is one decision I wish I could make again – I’d never get rid of my old wooden windows!

Sadly, we hear these kinds of stories all the time (so much in fact we make traditional windows to replace modern replacement windows).

Traditional Wood Windows with Insulated Glass at the Petersen House in Washington, DC

Traditional Wood Windows with Insulated Glass at the Petersen

House in Washington, DC

However, we also know that your wood windows are the prime targets for replacement window companies.

The information homeowners are taught to believe, is that original wood windows are substandard and the only viable solution is to replace them with their very own superior product. Chances are you’ll probably even get a guarantee too!

The original windows are part of your home and integral to the historic fabric of it. Windows are one of the most significant architectural elements, and they serve as both an interior and exterior feature.

Windows that are not properly maintained can become more than an eye soar. The functionality of their original design begins to falter, chilly winter air seeps in and humidity becomes the deciding factor if the window will open this time or remain jammed shut for perpetuity.

Window Lead Magnet Ad

You can be assured that the trusted replacement window sales representative will make sure you are well educated on the seemingly endless array of benefits that can be attained by purchasing their product.

The sales pitch will include such ‘facts’ as your existing single-pane wood windows cannot perform as well as replacement windows!

This incomplete information continues to be perpetuated by the replacement window industry with the goal of you buying their window. Homeowners accepting this information are often being provided data comprised to affirm the idea that original and historic wood windows are inferior to their replacement counterparts.

Single-pane wood windows in disrepair and poorly maintained, cannot perform as well as intact replacement windows or any window in optimum condition.

Wood windows that are not adequately maintained, neglected and in poor condition are often used to base conclusive assessments of the efficiency of replacement windows verses original windows.

It should not be surprising that replacement windows fair better in this scenario.

These comparison studies and their findings are used to influence homeowners, but they do not tell the entire story. In fact, a properly maintained single-pane wood window, weatherized, in conjunction with a storm window (interior or exterior) is equal to a replacement window in energy usage according to numerous engineering studies.

A replacement window may save a few dollars in heating and cooling cost, but to recoup the cost in the investment of a whole home window replacement, it will take you fifty or more years at less than a $1.00 a year in heating and cooling savings according to the University of Vermont study.

Yes, replacement windows do offer double panes (sometimes triple), low U-Values and Low-E glass. The really cheap ones offer a low price point too.
It doesn’t make them better.

Restored windows Franklin and Marshall College Lancaster, PA

Restored windows Franklin and Marshall College Lancaster, PA

Another ‘fact’ that will be citied during the sales presentation is that replacement windows are “maintenance free”.

Maintenance free may imply a solution to a home’s rundown windows, but the solution is not found in mass produced and disposable windows.

Maintenance free means it cannot be maintained or repaired, with the average life span under twenty years, those very same replacement windows will find themselves in a land fill along with their nemesis, the original windows, they replaced. Every material and every part of a window wears, breaks down and needs some type of repair to continue proper functioning.

Fact is, that a replacement window cannot be repaired and cannot continue to work at the same level it was when installed. It is not comprised of the same individual components as traditional windows, it’s a single unit design and constructed as such to make it impossible to disassemble and repair.

When a replacement window fails, its maintenance free selling point becomes the reason you need another replacement window. It also becomes another opportunity for a replacement window company to sell you the latest and greatest ‘maintenance free’ window. The notion that replacing supposedly substandard wood windows with modern replacement worry-free windows, is certainly a misnomer. As in the case study above, homeowners are often disillusioned when the integrity of ten or twenty-year-old replacement windows deteriorate to level where they inevitably need to be replaced – again and again – welcome to the replacement cycle.

Original windows can be repaired and preserved because they predate the era of planned obsolescence. An era when buildings had to work with the environment to keep its inhabitants warm in the winter and cool in the summer. An era in which fixing things was preferred to replacement. An era before the skilled tradesman become product installers with an assembly line mentality of the building trades. The individual components of these windows can each be repaired, maintained or replaced in sections as need be. They were built for longevity, not for replacement.

Window Lead Magnet Ad
They can be preserved and their historical significance doesn’t need to be sacrificed for energy efficiency or functionality.

When an original wood window fails, it can be repaired and repaired again and it isn’t as daunting of a task as you just might think. Replacement window companies cannot make a profit if homeowners routinely maintain their historic windows. The replacement window industries’ goal is to sell as many windows as possible. Our goal is to help you understand there are options that preserve the integrity of your historic building and to arm you with information and facts.

Maintenance measures can be taken to keep historic windows energy efficient, properly functioning and able to last another 100 years:
 Painting
 Caulking
 Weather stripping
 Re-glazing
 And more…

Replacement windows will however permanently alter your homes interior and exterior appearance. Losing the detail and elegance found in the workmanship of true divided lights, wavy single pane windows, rails, muntins, profiles, depths and sills will be lost and replaced with flat and shadowless details, meant to replicate what was once there. Understanding the materials and traditional joinery used to build your original windows are superior to any replacement window is an important factor in deciding whether to restore or replace.

Challenging conventional knowledge on what it takes to maintain historic windows isn’t as daunting as it may seem. However, it requires shifting the paradigm of thought – understanding that maintaining your original windows can be a simple task and the reason to replace your windows is not to save energy costs or have zero-maintenance. 

Watch the video below to learn more options for your original wood windows.

Hi! I’m Penelope and I’m new around here, but my Mommy and Daddy know a lot about historic preservation and have been teaching me new things every day.Penelope Pic (1)

Yesterday they taught me not to chew on Karri’s office slippers (even if I really want to) and then they taught me something that really blew my mind…

Historic wood windows are one of the most “at risk” features of our historic homes.

Now, I’m still learning words, but “at risk” sounds pretty bad to me.  And apparently it’s all because the replacement window industry wants us to believe their plastic windows are better than wood windows.

But my Mommy and Daddy tell me it isn’t true.  They say wood windows not only look better in old houses, they don’t cause the moisture issues replacement windows do, AND they are more energy efficient.  They told me the guidelines for the best way to take care of America’s historic buildings say you should preserve and maintain your wood windows instead of replacing them.

And Mommy and Daddy don’t usually lie to me.

My Grandpa Chuck tells me that so many people didn’t know this and fell into the replacement window sales company’s clutches, that he’s been replacing a lot of replacement windows lately.  (I guess when people realize the plastic windows they put in weren’t the right choice they call him to make wood windows for them.  I wanna be just like him when I grow up.)

Now I have a secret to tell you, but you have to promise not to tell my Mommy and Daddy…  They gave me a report I was supposed to read so I could tell you more about this, but I was too pooped from spending the day at the office and I fell asleep before I finished it.

So I’m going just going to let you read this report for yourself:

“Put Replacement Windows to Shame: 10 Tools to Make Your Historic Wood Windows Last for Generations”

Window Report Image (Smaller File)Mainstream consumer trends would have you believe that you should replace your historic wood windows with vinyl, or other synthetic replacement windows.

Of course, you own a historic home – not a McMansion – making you anything but the typical consumer who follows mainstream trends.

Boy is this report for you, because in it we are going to give you the knowledge and tools you need to buck the system and put replacement windows (and their uneducated salesmen) to shame.

To get your copy of the report, call or email Moira at 717.291.4688 or [email protected]

Historic Wood Window Restoration, Save Historic Wood Windows, Wood Windows vs. Replacement WindowsWood windows are an integral part of the innate energy efficiency of historical buildings. If we have learned anything from history it is that sometimes with all our modern advancements we do ourselves more harm than good.

Advancements in technology do not always produce better results, and construction technology isn’t exempt from that. Built in a time of readily available building materials and energy sources, modern building designs typically make poor use of both. Historical buildings were built when neither was in abundant supply and early designers made the most of building materials and design options to construct buildings with a powerful combination of harnessed natural resources and innovative design that worked together to maximize energy efficiency.

Everything from exterior paint colors, to locations of balconies, to numbers and placement of windows, to physical placement of buildings on lots was carefully considered to maximize heating, lighting, and ventilation in traditional construction.

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The results are astounding and studies have shown that properly restored and maintained 18th & 19th Century buildings can be just as energy efficient as new construction, and in many cases even more energy efficient. (Perhaps not surprisingly, studies have also shown that buildings built in the 1950’s through the 1970’s were the biggest energy consumers of all.)

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The historical wood windows in your building contribute to that energy efficiency and, contrary to urban legend, new replacement windows are not more energy efficient than historical wood windows. Typically, studies that conclude such a finding have compared new replacement windows with historical windows that

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have not been maintained or restored, are decaying, and have no complementary energy retrofits such as weather-stripping and storm windows.

If you would like to read these studies, you can access them in the resources section of our website.

Studies on energy efficiency also usually fail to consider “embodied energy”. Embodied energy represents the energy it took to manufacture a product. They say the greenest building is the one
already built when you consider this embodied energy – an existing energy investment that will never be able to be recaptured once you destroy the product it’s embodied in.

If the greenest building is the one already built, then the greenest window is the one already there. Historical wood windows have an embodied energy value that includes all the energy from harvesting and milling the wood to transporting and manufacturing the windows to installing them in your historical building.  Preserving existing windows conserves that embodied energy and reduces the use of additional energy when making replacement windows.

Which means that when you take all energy, energy expended on heating and cooling costs as well as the embodied energy, into consideration for defining the energy efficiency of windows – historical wood windows are far more energy efficient than replacement windows
.

 

Historically Sensitive Storm Windows

A Product Recommendation from Chuck

When storm windows first came into use to promote energy efficiency, they were installed on the outside of the house.  Not only did this take away from the architectural integrity of the house by impeding the view of major architectural features in windows, they also often created moisture on the outside of the window.

Fortunately for historic homeowners today, we have better options now.  And the option we recommend here at Historic Restorations are the interior storm windows by Allied Window.

historic preservation contractors, historic restorations contractors, historic building maintenance, historic building energy efficiency, storm windows for historic buildings, historically sensitive storm windowsAllied offers an “invisible” storm window installed on the inside of the window.  One of the major benefits of this storm window option is that it has a low profile that doesn’t limit visibility of a window’s historical architectural features.  Made from aluminum they can also be painted any color – send them a sample of the color of your trim and they’ll match it for a seamless integration into your window’s look.  They also have a good seal with an aluminum u-channel across the top, magnetic strips that the aluminum frame attaches too, and a rubber or brush seal that sits on the sill.

They do offer an exterior option with the same features of the interior.  Some people think this would be the better option, that an exterior storm window would help protect the wood in their window.  I don’t recommend this option – wood needs to breathe moisture and if there is a storm window installed on the exterior moisture will be trapped in the wood and promote rot.

We’ve had a good long-term experience with Allied.  We’ve tried other companies, much to our dismay, and Allied is the one that has provided a consistent service and product performance over time.

You can learn more about the products that Allied Windows offers by visiting their website at alliedwindows.com.

 

Even if you decide I’m too long-winded, or that I’m preaching to the choir, to read this entire post – MAKE SURE YOU SCROLL TO THE BOTTOM to get your free copy of a report on how to make wood windows last for generations we recently wrote.

 

Why Save Historic Wood Windows?

Did you know that historical wood windows are one of the most vulnerable and “at-risk” elements of our architectural heritage?

Historic Wood Window Restoration, Save Historic Wood Windows, Wood Windows vs. Replacement Windows

Preservation Virginia has proclaimed historical windows endangered, saying, “Historic wooden windows are destroyed daily in lieu of new, inferior windows. Salesmen convince owners and architectural review board members that replacement windows are superior to historic wooden windows when the truth is these historic windows can last longer than any new wooden window or vinyl clad window.”

Despite this, windows don’t often have a high priority on the list of things we should preserve in our built history. Yet they should. If eyes are windows into the soul, as the old adage goes, then surely windows are how we see into the soul of a historical building.

The windows in your historical building are an important contribution to how your historical building looks. Not only are they one of only a few parts of a building that serve as both and interior and exterior architectural feature, they usually make up about a quarter of the surface area of a historical building.

Many aspects of windows contribute to your building’s architectural style and historical fabric – height, width, and thickness of frames and sills, the visual design of sash components, the materials and color treatments used, and even the way light reflects off of the glass.

Muntins, historical glass, putty beading, moulding profiles, glazed opening widths, and regionally-distinct patterns and features are more distinct characteristics of original wood windows that contribute to your historical building’s façade.  And all of these varied between architectural styles and periods and from region to region, making wood windows living artifacts from history – an archeological goldmine that helps us understand and document our historical building practices and craftsmanship.

 

[sws_grey_box box_size=”630″] Beyond their importance in contributing to how your building looks, your building’s windows play an important role in how your building functions. Perhaps one of the most important of those functions is how windows serve as an integral part of a historical building’s design to “breathe” moisture. Historical buildings function as a cohesive, whole system to handle moisture infiltration and the original design, installation, and materials used – including, and especially, the windows – were all picked for your building’s specific system. Changing your windows can significantly impact how your home handles moisture – a road no homeowner wants to travel down. [/sws_grey_box]

 

Historic Wood Windows Vs. Replacement Windows

Historic Wood Window Restoration, Save Historic Wood Windows, Wood Windows vs. Replacement WindowsThese features and variances can be difficult to duplicate with modern technology. Our manufacturing and installation process is significantly different than the process used hundreds of years ago and the characteristics modern machinery and installation techniques impart create an entirely different window than the traditional building methods created when your building was originally constructed. Such a loss of historical elements is a permanent scar on your historical building.

Replacing original wood windows also often requires changing the window’s rough opening to install a window manufactured on national standards in to the non-standard opening of a building constructed during a time when there were no building standards – another mistake that permanently damages your building.

 

The Importance of Historic Wood Window Restoration

Historic Wood Window Restoration, Save Historic Wood Windows, Wood Windows vs. Replacement Windows

Just as we shouldn’t replace our historical art with modern replicas, we shouldn’t replace our historical wood windows with modern replacement windows.

Throwing out the artifacts from our built history that stand testament to how our buildings were constructed over the last several hundred years prevents future generations from a deep understanding of a piece of our history that’s just as important as all the other artifacts we work so hard to preserve.

Because once they are gone, they are gone for good.

[sws_toggle1 title=”Which Windows are Historically Significant?“]The National Park Service’s Preservation Brief #9: The Repair of Historic Wood Windows notes that windows should be considered significant to a building if they:

1) are original,

2) reflect the original design intent for the building,

3) reflect period or regional styles or building practices,

4) reflect changes to the building resulting from major periods or events, or

5) are examples of exceptional craftsmanship or design [/sws_toggle1]

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The National Park Service’s Standards and Guidelines for Rehabilitating Historical Windows recommend the following:

• Identify, Retain, and Preserve

• Protect and Maintain

• Repair • Accurate Restoration

• Sympathetic New Windows in Additions

• Preserving Decoration and Function

• Replacement In-Kind

• Compatible Materials

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The National Park Service’s Standards and Guidelines for Rehabilitating Historical Windows do NOT recommend the following:

• Removing Windows Important to Historical Character

• Changing Location or Size of Windows

• Inappropriate Designs, Materials, and Finishes

• Destroying Historical Materials

• Replacing Windows that Can be Repaired

• Failing to Maintain

• Replacing instead of Maintaining

• Inaccurate Historical Appearance

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How to Save Historic Wood Windows

Now that you know how important your historic wood windows, we want you to have the knowledge you need to save them.

Get your free copy of our recent report “Put Replacement Windows to Shame: 10 Tools to Make Your Historic Wood Windows Last for Generations”

 

 

 

 

 

FALL MAINTENANCE FOR YOUR HISTORIC HOME Fall is here. This brings Halloween fun, Thanksgiving, fall abundance, and cooler weather. It also signals the transition to winter and harsh conditions for our homes. We have often repeated, maintenance is essential for a home, especially an old or historical one. Read on for your fall maintenance checklist. 

Autumn Leaves. Photo by Greg Shield on Unsplash.

 

Take a walk around your property and determine what needs to be addressed. Here’s a list of common fall maintenance tips to get you started:

  1. Make exterior repairs. 
    • Look for general damage to your roof, siding, and foundation – schedule repairs before winter
  2. Inspect your roof. If you have a steep roof or a multistory house, avoid injury by using binoculars to inspect your roof. Common signs of damage to your roof include:
    • Buckling, cracking, missing shingles – these should be replaced immediately
    • Rust spots on flashing – remove rust, and if metal is worn through, paint with metal primer and metal paint 
    • Large amounts of moss or lichen – this likely indicates your roof is decaying underneath, so call a pro roofer to evaluate ($100-$200). You can also prevent this decay by laying a wood shingle roof on lathe rather than sheathing (modern approach) as air can circulate and dry out the wood 
    • Cracked or loose boot(s) (rubber collars that fit around plumbing vent stacks) – call a pro roofer to evaluate (they will charge $150-$300 to replace a boot)
  3. Schedule chimney cleaning and fireplace/heating system maintenance. 
    • Blockages in the chimney – cleaning the chimney (and furnace and boiler) are important safety precautions before turning on your heat
    • Missing chimney cap – add one to prevent wildlife crawling down the chimney. You can find custom chimney caps at certain companies for non-standard sized chimneys
    • Damper not working – look up into fireplace flue if the damper is not opening and closing, to see if there is an obstruction (you should be able to see daylight at the top of your chimney)
    • Clean creosote buildup from your flue every other year – a professional chimney sweep will charge $300-$500
    • Missing or cracked bricks in firebox – request a professional fireplace and chimney inspection if you see any damage (professional inspections run between $160-$500)
  4. Clean your gutters and downspouts. If you are not comfortable using a ladder, be sure to hire someone who can help with this important task. 
    • Clogged gutters may allow water to pool which can damage your roof or siding – remove leaves and debris 
    • Flush gutters with water, inspect joints, and tighten brackets if necessary
  5. Direct water drainage away from your foundation. 
    • Soil that is too flat near the foundation of the home may soak and cause leaks or cracks – make sure soil slopes away from the house at least 6 vertical inches over 10 feet to prevent this
  6. Check the foundation and entire exterior for cracks and gaps. Both animals and natural weather forces can enter and destroy your home. Loss of heat can also increase your heating costs.
    • Cracks or unsealed areas – caulk around areas where masonry meets siding, pipes or wires enter the house, and around windows and doorframes. Do NOT use small cans of spray foam at wood contact areas – it will cause rot
  7. Conduct an energy audit. 
    • DIY – instructions can be found at energy.gov
    • Professional – trained auditors can assess your current energy efficiency and provide a list of recommended improvements like upgrading to Energy Start appliances, adding insulation to your attic or adding more weather-stripping ***The caveat is you should pay for their service – otherwise their “solution” will be what they are selling, including replacement doors and windows which we do not generally advocate for older homes. Also make sure they are familiar with historic buildings and their unique concerns
  8. Increase warmth in your house. 
    • After you’ve installed storm windows and doors (and removed all screens) adding weather-stripping around windows and doorframes can not only keep your house warmer during the winter months, but also cut energy costs
    • Drafty doors – place door sweeps at the base to keep the cold out and the heat in
  9. Shut off exterior faucets and store hoses inside. 
    • Shutting these off can protect pipes from freezing
    • Drain hoses before storing indoors
  10. Check walkways, railings, stairs, and driveways for winter safety. 
    1. Loose, slippery, or uneven surfaces – make sure to tighten loose railings, correct uneven walkways, and free drains of debris
  11. Check safety devices. 
    • Test smoke and carbon monoxide detectors – replace dead batteries
    • Check the home for radon (you can find radon monitors here) – with cooler weather, windows are shut more and radon can become trapped inside the home – hire a professional to address radon issues  
    • Check expiration dates on all fire extinguishers – replace if expired 

 

For further resources and reading:

  • Read our previous post – here – on the importance of maintaining a historical home
  • Read our previous post – here – on how maintenance IS preservation, and find a myriad of additional resources related to home maintenance in that post
  • Sign up for our free Maintenance IS Preservation Report here

ADDING ON TO A HISTORIC HOME – You’ve found your historic or old home. And it’s nearly perfect…..BUT, maybe it does not have enough room for you. Or maybe you need to make adjustments to age in place. Maybe you want to add a room on your first floor, or even expand a tiny historical kitchen. Most of us want to protect our old homes’ historic fabric. So…HOW do we do this sympathetically in a way that is not distasteful, intrusive, destructive, or irreparable? Because additions can change the historic character irrevocably, consideration of an addition is one NOT to be taken lightly. 

Photo of a sympathetic addition on the rear of a 19th century home in eastern Lancaster County; work by Keperling Preservation Services.

 

WHAT ARE SYMPATHETIC ADDITIONS?

A sympathetic addition is a newly built addition to an old house or building that is harmonious with and corresponds to the original part of the home. These additions may be attached to the side, or include an extension from the roof. If following the general guidelines of the Secretary of the Interior for New Exterior Additions to Historic Buildings and NPS, the key is to preserve the historic character or fabric of the original building, particularly if that building is listed on the National Register. An easement would likely have stricter limitations and may even prevent an addition, particularly if the easement is written so that you must maintain the exterior as when the easement was granted. Although there is a shared feeling between old and new, NPS guidelines and standards indicate that the new addition should still be differentiated from the original. This differentiation may seem counterintuitive, but since additions fall under rehabilitation vs. restoration or preservation, and since NPS emphasizes protecting historical character, integrity and significance by making a visual distinction between old and new, there must be a difference so one can still identify what was newly added and what is original. 

 

IS A SYMPATHETIC ADDITION NECESSARY?

Reasons NOT to add on. Some reasons not to add on include cost – sometimes an addition is so cost prohibitive it would be cheaper to move altogether! If you are not willing to move, you must consider other alternatives. Also, if you anticipate selling in the future, or even just want updates to essentially give you a return on investment if you do not plan to sell, you must consider market forces and make sure the change is worth the cost. Another reason not to add on is zoning restrictions. If you’re project plan cannot be adjusted to meet these, the restrictions will make the decision for you. You may also be restricted by National Register Status and an easement, as noted earlier.

Reasons to add on. NPS recommends that sympathetic additions only be completed if one has already considered (and ruled out) other options, including altering non-significant interior spaces. Although many homes before central heating and cooling were built with small interior rooms for efficiency, today we often prefer larger spaces to accommodate our lifestyles, and also because modern heating and cooling allows us to. However, smaller rooms can not only be charming, cozy, and private, but they also often contain much of the historic fabric – moulding, fireplaces, plaster ornamentation, pocket doors, built-ins, etc. – and destroying these distinctive irreplaceable features for the sake of a modern “open concept” trend is not advisable (in fact, if you insist on that, you probably need to buy a new, modern house instead and leave the old house to someone who will protect the historic integrity). 

Even so, sometimes change is necessary. Maybe you have examined your interior spaces and realized there are not any non-significant ones. Or, if there are, even altering those will not suffice to meet your needs. In such cases, additions – even a small vestibule or other entry modification – may be required. Justifiable reasons for additions may include helping you age in place, meet code requirements (especially if the building is a business), or for general adaptive reuse, including expanding as you raise children and their needs change. It’s important to be able to enjoy the space you live in. 

 

PLANNING YOUR SYMPATHETIC ADDITION

Zoning and Codes. One of the first things you should do is reach out to your local municipalities to find out what zoning restrictions exist. For instance, generally you cannot build all the way to lot lines, and sometimes there are height limits on projects. Knowing the lay of the legal land can save you a lot of time and money by preventing you starting something that you legally cannot finish. A design professional and/or contractor well-versed in historic buildings can also help with this. 

Budget. As we’ve said before, planning ahead allows you time to save money for the project. Put money aside to save for a project as soon as you start seriously considering the project. Before consulting with professionals, make a list of your wants and needs, how you plan to use the space, and your ultimate goals so that you can prioritize what to pay for first. You should also have an estimate of the square footage. All of these will help contractors and other necessary specialists determine approximate cost. You should also determine which professionals and specialists you will need based on your lists.

Getting Help. Once you’ve determined that a sympathetic addition is appropriate, you can begin your plan. If it’s anything bigger than a dormer, you should definitely get the help of a professional contractor. If it is an intricate design, you should also consult with a design specialist or architect – most building permits for modifications require a design professional to essentially stamp/sign the drawings under the modern building code. 

Design. As always, the emphasis of any update should include being as harmonious and unobtrusive to the original design as possible (with the least possible loss of or damage to historic, character-defining materials). Specifications are listed below (and NPS has more information):

  • VISIBILITY
    • An addition should not be highly visible to the public, and is preferably placed at the rear of a building, or other “secondary elevation” (i.e., anything that is not part of the front façade and is not visible from the streetscape).
    • If the addition does not fit the above conditions – for instance, a side addition – it is best to recess it a bit from the main structure, possibly using a breezeway to connect it.
  • MATERIALS
    • An addition’s color and content should be in keeping with the historic part, but not match it exactly (as discussed earlier about differentiating to distinguish the addition from the original building). This often contentious and confusing point has been debated, and is really a matter of personal judgment (outside of situations that are restricted by National Register status or easements). We recommend keeping the addition similar enough to the original building so as not to detract from the historic building (a standard that is decidedly different than is seen in many European cases, as can be viewed here and here). 
  • SCALE
    • The addition’s size in relation to the original building should be smaller, with a lower roof and smaller overall footprint (an exception being a rear addition artfully designed to be unseen from the streetscape).
  • MASSING
    • Massing can be complicated to explain and understand, but it is essentially the perception of a building in shape (1 dimension perspective), form (3 dimensions), and size. Ingenious designs for additions may make them appear less significant than the original structure, while inside they may be superior in space and capacity. 
  • RHYTHM
    • Rhythm in architecture refers to repetitive use of visual elements to establish a pattern. If the original structure has a rhythm including windows and doors with a decidedly vertical feel, this rhythm should be repeated in the addition as well. 

 

For further resources and reading: 

  • NPS’s Preservation Brief on new exterior additions to historic buildings can be found here.
  • Our archives on sympathetic additions can be found here