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Staying True to a Property's Origins: How to Complement Historic Style

When you become the proud owner of a historic home, you gain more than just walls and floors – you become the latest steward of a piece of cultural heritage.


Historic houses reveal the architecture, design and even lifestyle of days past. As alluring as it is to renovate them for modern needs, it’s important to preserve their legacy through thoughtful modifications that honour rather than upend their origins.


Approaching changes to an older home can seem daunting. How far can you go with updates before they’re considered too drastic?


Thankfully, there are plenty of techniques for adaptations that uphold a property’s historic integrity while seamlessly weaving in contemporary comforts. The key lies in complementing rather than competing with existing elements.


In this article we explore



 


Complement Historic Property Style


Understanding the Property’s History and Architecture


Before drawing up any designs, first take time to get to know your historic house on a deeper level. Having background information about the property will help your decision-making process run more smoothly.


Researching its background and analysing its existing architecture will provide insights into the integral details that enable it to tell its unique story. This process will reveal the essence you aim to honour rather than upend through sensitive modifications.


It’s also important to do your due diligence and have a period survey carried out on the property, for specialist insights into the quirks and eccentricities of the property’s construction and materials.

Begin by uncovering more about how the house functioned in earlier eras.


Consult records to learn names of past owners and what occupations or lifestyles they had, and dig into permits, contractor orders or architecture files to potentially uncover information about the original build.


Next, conduct a room-by-room assessment of the property’s existing built elements across both interior and exterior.


Methodically catalogue features like windows, doors, trim, hardware and other permanent fixtures, capturing their materials, finishes and any ornamentation. It can help to photograph these components from multiple angles as a helpful visual record later on.


Complement Historic Property Style

Image credit: Davonport


Design Principles for New Additions


Location, orientation and other design factors all allow additions to feel smoothly incorporated rather than haphazardly tacked on. Respecting a few key principles helps modern spaces and features blend seamlessly with heritage homes.


First, situate additions out of sight from the public right-of-way so as not to alter the property’s original streetscape. The rear or side façade often provides the most sympathetic location.


Secondly, the proportions of your extension significantly impact perceived size and relationship to the original structure. So, keep dimensions lower, narrower and simpler in size so as not to dwarf what exists.


While matching the footprint precisely risks seeming like a clone, extreme differences jar as well, so seek a happy medium between the two. Using the same wall materials, or ones common to the era the house represents, also makes new sections feel like natural extensions versus detached appendages.


Complement Historic Property Style

Image credit: ATELIER ND


Interior Renovations and Updates


Modifying the interiors of heritage homes for contemporary comfort can prove tricky. But spaces need to evolve to our modern lifestyles, so sensitively introducing reconfigurations and modern elements takes finesse.


Honour the existing architecture by keeping any refreshed areas secondary to original details and floorplans.

It’s also important to think about energy efficiency and draught-proofing to ensure the property is warm and comfortable year-round. Perhaps most arduous are concealing modern essentials like wiring, insulation and HVAC equipment within heritage homes never meant to house them.


Strategically place infrastructure along original joists and ducts, through unobtrusive new wall voids to minimise invasiveness.


While creating open concepts may be desirable, it’s important to understand that radical demolitions can permanently damage evidence of how families used to live day-to-day.


Compromise by removing select non-load-bearing walls that embellish main living zones without totally gutting floor plans. Adjust thoughtfully, retaining primary halls, staircases, fireplace surrounds and signature built-ins that reflect earlier eras.


Complement Historic Property Style

Image credit: Eddie Maestri, Maestri Studio


Sympathetic Colour and Lighting


Proper lighting proves essential for additions to feel like natural extensions of historic homes, versus conspicuously tacked-on illuminated boxes.


Match warmer-toned light bulbs to avoid a starkly modern contrast and select period-appropriate lighting fixture styles that align with predominant features elsewhere in the home, like chandeliers and sconces for formal areas and minimal exposed-bulb pendants in casual spaces.


Dimming systems also help balance brightness for user needs while retaining vintage charm.


Outdoor lighting choices also greatly impact how noticeable an addition reads at night. Opt for low-wattage incandescent or warmer LED lamps, to replicate gas or early electric exterior lights of heritage architecture eras.


It’s also worth positioning lighting to selectively highlight architectural details in the addition that complement main house traits, instead of brightly broadcasting the new wing.


The woodwork, floors, tiles and plasters holding histories seldom come as commodities today. But before replacing these finishes, see if it’s possible to repair, resurface, reglaze or repurpose original materials first.


Also, consider your colour schemes – you may want to be inspired by the era the property was built for; décor that’s sympathetic to the period. Rich jewel tones match a Victorian aesthetic well, while a ‘50s property suits a pastel palette.


Accessibility Considerations


When planning new landscaping, select plants, pathways, arbours and lighting that fit with the architectural era, region and your tastes. Formal English designs, for example, suit Victorian homes while casual meadow scapes match country bungalows. This grounds your home in the past while still bringing it up to date.


Perhaps most at odds with preserving integrity are accessibility considerations, such as ramps or lifts, which are needed to facilitate generational living in homes.


Work creatively with historical architects to fulfil codes and inclusion in the most discreet ways. Strategically placed elevators or subtle exterior grading adjustments often satisfy without permanent impact.

  

When heritage homes survive eras largely intact, their walls become time capsules recounting how previous occupants lived through the decades.


Before transforming these dwellings to your present tastes, consider how adaptations could diminish the environment's ability to immerse future generations in bygone days and instead find ways that protect the narratives of the property.


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