Every major home remodel demands thousands of decisions…so how do you make those decisions for an historic home?

Do you restore the home?  Do you rehabilitate the home?  Or do you remodel the home?

All of those questions may sound the same to some people, but in fact they each offer a different perspective on the design process for an historic home.  The national standards for Historic Preservation are established in the United States by the National Park Service within the Department of the Interior.  Here is their take on the terms Rehabilitation and Restoration.


True Divided Lite Restoration WindowTo restore a home typically means that you would restore the home to the condition it was in when it was built.  This is no mean feat and can be very costly since it means that you must use some building techniques (like uninsulated wood true divided lite windows or lath-and-plaster walls and ceilings) that are no longer in common use.  To truly restore a home, you need to delve into the home’s history to learn what was there originally (floor plan, lighting, cabinetry, etc.) versus what was cobbled on later in its life, then go about the process of repairing, restoring, and reconstructing the home so that, at the end of the process, the home is as it was on the day it was “born”.

True restoration is very very expensive and is rarely undertaken by individuals for a home that they plan to use.  You lose the ability to insulate the walls or windows, to upgrade electrical or plumbing to modern standards, or, in some cases, to improve a foundation for seismic safety.  It is more typically used for properties with historical significance, like those on the National Register of Historic Places.  In such cases, dogma reigns supreme and dictates what lights you can use, what light switches, what flooring materials, what colors, etc.  Very little flexibility is offered to the restorer.


Unlike restoration, rehabilitation offers the homeowner way more leeway.  The word does not dictate that the work exactly replicate what was there, but it does suggest that the work would take what is there and bring it “back to life”.  Rehabilitation is typically used as a term to describe taking a home in poor condition and making it livable and usable again as home in good condition.  There are usually elements of restoration here as you would still take things that are savable and do so, as long as they don’t interfere with modern code updates, safety or, to some degree, efficiency.  Decent floors would be restored, nice original wood details might be retained and refinished, and special features like fireplaces might be kept.

Simulated Divided Lite WindowBut given that a rehabilitation is not as dogmatic as a restoration, floor plans can be tweaked to accommodate modern lifestyles.  Finish details like stair rails or wainscot or window and door casings can be period-appropriate rather than exactly matching what was in the home originally.  Insulation, electrical and plumbing can be upgraded to contemporary requirements and materials and windows can be upgraded from old single-pane uninsulated double hung windows to modern multi-pane insulated windows that may look just like the originals but use sophisticated contemporary construction techniques like simulated divided lites (like the cutaway at left).


The least dogmatic technique for a home project is remodeling.  The very term remodeling tells us nothing about style – the home can be “updated” in the remodel from historic to contemporary, or elements can just be changed at will to reflect the tastes of the remodeler.  Remodeling is, quite simply, open ended.  All it implies is that you start with house in size, condition and style A and end up with a house in size, condition and style B.

Dogma free.  Woof.