Guidelines for Rehabilitating Historic Buildings

When repair and replacement of deteriorated features are necessary; when alterations or additions to the property are planned for a new or continued use; and when its depiction at a particular period of time is not appropriate, Rehabilitation may be considered as a treatment. Prior to undertaking work, a documentation plan for Rehabilitation should be developed.

Choosing Rehabilitation as a Treatment

In Rehabilitation, historic building materials and character-defining features are protected and maintained as they are in the treatment Preservation; however, an assumption is made prior to work that existing historic fabric has become damaged or deteriorated over time and, as a result, more repair and replacement will be required. Thus, latitude is given in the Standards for Rehabilitation and Guidelines for Rehabilitation to replace extensively deteriorated, damaged, or missing features using either traditional or substitute materials. Of the four treatments, only Rehabilitation includes an opportunity to make possible an efficient contemporary use through alterations and additions.


Identify, Retain, and Preserve Historic Materials and Features

Like Preservation, guidance for the treatment Rehabilitation begins with recommendations to identify the form and detailing of those architectural materials and features that are important in defining the building’s historic character and which must be retained in order to preserve that character. Therefore, guidance on identifying, retaining, and preserving character-defining features is always given first. The character of a historic building may be defined by the form and detailing of exterior materials, such as masonry, wood, and metal; exterior features, such as roofs, porches, and windows; interior materials, such as plaster and paint; and interior features, such as moldings and stairways, room configuration and spatial relationships, as well as structural and mechanical systems.


Pr0tect and Maintain Historic Materials and Features

After identifying those materials and features that are important and must be retained in the process of Rehabilitation work, then protecting and maintaining them are addressed. Protection generally involves the least degree of intervention and is preparatory to other work. For example, protection includes the maintenance of historic material through treatments such as rust removal, caulking, limited paint removal, and re-application of protective coatings; the cyclical cleaning of roof gutter systems; or installation of fencing, alarm systems and other temporary protective measures. Although a historic building will usually require more extensive work, an overall evaluation of its physical condition should always begin at this level.


Repair Historic Materials and Features

Next, when the physical condition of character-defining materials and features warrants additional work repairing is recommended. Rehabilitation guidance for the repair of historic materials such as masonry, wood, and architectural metals again begins with the least degree of intervention possible such as patching, piecing-in, splicing, consolidating, or otherwise reinforcing or upgrading them according to recognized preservation methods. Repairing also includes the limited replacement in kind–or with compatible substitute material–of extensively deteriorated or missing parts of features when there are surviving prototypes (for example, brackets, dentils, steps, plaster, or portions of slate or tile roofing). Although using the same kind of material is always the preferred option, substitute material is acceptable if the form and design as well as the substitute material itself convey the visual appearance of the remaining parts of the feature and finish.

photo of corner storefront with inappropriate 1960s alterations, prior to rehabilitation photo of corner storefront following rehabilitation, with its distinctive transoms preserved

This two-story brick commercial building–with its corner storefront–was originally constructed ca. 1876, then remodeled in 1916 in the Craftsman style and given a new, distinctive roofline. It served a number of uses, including a hotel, boarding house, saloon, restaurant, liquor store, warehouse, and office furniture showroom. The red brick walls had been painted several times over the years. Rehabilitation work included removal of multiple paint layers using a chemical stripper and thorough water rinse; spot repointing with matching mortar; and appropriate interior alterations. The building is now being used as a retail shop. Photos: NPS files.


Replace Deteriorated Historic Materials and Features

Following repair in the hierarchy, Rehabilitation guidance is provided for replacing an entire character-defining feature with new material because the level of deterioration or damage of materials precludes repair (for example, an exterior cornice; an interior staircase; or a complete porch or storefront). If the essential form and detailing are still evident so that the physical evidence can be used to re-establish the feature as an integral part of the rehabilitation, then its replacement is appropriate. Like the guidance for repair, the preferred option is always replacement of the entire feature in kind, that is, with the same material. Because this approach may not always be technically or economically feasible, provisions are made to consider the use of a compatible substitute material. It should be noted that, while the National Park Service guidelines recommend the replacement of an entire character-defining feature that is extensively deteriorated, they never recommend removal and replacement with new material of a feature that–although damaged or deteriorated–could reasonably be repaired and thus preserved.


Design for the Replacement of Missing Historic Features

When an entire interior or exterior feature is missing (for example, an entrance, or cast iron facade; or a principal staircase), it no longer plays a role in physically defining the historic character of the building unless it can be accurately recovered in form and detailing through the process of carefully documenting the historical appearance. Although accepting the loss is one possibility, where an important architectural feature is missing, its replacement is always recommended in theRehabilitation guidelines as the first or preferred, course of action. Thus, if adequate historical, pictorial, and physical documentation exists so that the feature may be accurately reproduced, and if it is desirable to re-establish the feature as part of the building’s historical appearance, then designing and constructing a new feature based on such information is appropriate. However, a second acceptable option for the replacement feature is a new design that is compatible with the remaining character-defining features of the historic building. The new design should always take into account the size, scale, and material of the historic building itself and, most importantly, should be clearly differentiated so that a false historical appearance is not created.


Alterations/Additions for the New Use

Some exterior and interior alterations to a historic building are generally needed to assure its continued use, but it is most important that such alterations do not radically change, obscure, or destroy character-defining spaces, materials, features, or finishes. Alterations may include providing additional parking space on an existing historic building site; cutting new entrances or windows on secondary elevations; inserting an additional floor; installing an entirely new mechanical system; or creating an atrium or light well. Alteration may also include the selective removal of buildings or other features of the environment or building site that are intrusive and therefore detract from the overall historic character. The construction of an exterior addition to a historic building may seem to be essential for the new use, but it is emphasized in the Rehabilitation guidelines that such new additions should be avoided, if possible, and considered only after it is determined that those needs cannot be met by altering secondary, i.e., non character-defining interior spaces. If, after a thorough evaluation of interior solutions, an exterior addition is still judged to be the only viable alterative, it should be designed and constructed to be clearly differentiated from the historic building and so that the character-defining features are not radically changed, obscured, damaged, or destroyed. Additions and alterations to historic buildings are referenced within specific sections of the Rehabilitation guidelines such as Site, Roofs, Structural Systems, etc., but are addressed in detail in New Additions to Historic Buildings (see nav bar, right).


Energy Efficiency/Accessibility Considerations/Health and Safety Code Considerations

These sections of the guidance address work done to meet accessibility requirements and health and safety code requirements; or retrofitting measures to improve energy efficiency. Although this work is quite often an important aspect of Rehabilitation projects, it is usually not a part of the overall process of protecting or repairing character-defining features; rather, such work is assessed for its potential negative impact on the building’s historic character. For this reason, particular care must be taken not to radically change, obscure, damage, or destroy character-defining materials or features in the process of meeting code and energy requirements.