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THE VILLA RENEWED | Architects Challenge 2015 Showdown Winner

Renovating History

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When you are living in a historic home and want to remodel and renovate, there are some special considerations. Today, Mark Nelson of David Heide Design Studio tells us the architect’s perspective on this. If Mark’s name sounds familiar, you are probably thinking of last year’s People’s Choice Winner from the Architects Challenge, the Villa Renewed. This grand old St. Paul house was given new life (and made more efficient!) through some careful renovation. Below are Mark’s tips for success when remodeling your historic house.

Q: How do you advise homeowners who want to add more space onto their home, while keeping it historically appropriate?

A: Seek the services of an architect, designer and contractor who are knowledgeable with renovating houses of a particular type and vintage. Remodeling and adding to a historic home requires knowledge of design, materials and building practices that are different from those employed in modern structures and which also differ widely among the various period styles. A well-executed project will ensure the building is viable well into its next generation of use, while am ill-designed or constructed project will necessitate the building undergoing another remodeling to correct unintended deficiencies caused by the renovation. Keep in mind that quality design and construction is enduring and if done well adds value to a property. If not done well, the work can have negative effects on the value. To protect the value of your property and the investment being made in the renovation, remember two things: 1. Do the project well and 2. Don’t try to make the house into something it isn’t. A good renovation will allow the house to change, but will do so in a thoughtful and respectful way.

Q: Are there any special considerations that homeowners should think about before they start to remodel their historic home?

A: Respect the proportion, scale and detail of the existing building for a successful project. Remodeling or adding to a Four-Square house involves a different set of rules than does a similar project in a Queen Anne style house. Style is the language in which the design is spoken. Understanding and employing the vocabulary of your building’s style is critical to the design of a successful renovation. The proportion, size and relationships of rooms differ between the various styles as they reflect the current thinking of the time in which they were built. The same is true with the scale, locations and proportion of window and door openings. Maintaining the sizes and relationships of the existing building rooms, exterior openings and building materials in the new construction will unify the new with the old and create a project which will be both satisfying as well as enduring.

Q: What about windows and doors? They are such an important part of a home, visually. How do you decide what windows to spec in a historic home renovation? How do you advise homeowners?

A: When replacing, or adding windows to a building, it is very important to respect the sizes, proportions, configurations, muntin patterns and details of the original. For most buildings the windows are one of its most defining characteristics of the design. Of course we turn to Marvin for windows and doors for all our project needs, but especially for renovations. Marvin offers a wide range of window sizes and details which are based on historic precedent. We have often engaged the services of their Signature Series windows to match existing units, or to create specialty windows to complete an important design element for a renovation project.

Q: When renovating and adding on, homeowners want energy efficient products. How do you balance that in a historic home?

A: Most building products available on the market today are energy efficient in and of themselves. The proper use of these products in a historic building renovation is critical to the success of the project. One approach for determining their use would be to test the building to identify energy deficiencies and then use appropriate materials and construction methods to mitigate the problems. This approach would minimize the impact of new materials on the existing building, while providing maximum rewards for the investment.

From our point of view, there is nothing ‘greener’ than revitalizing an existing house. The environmental impact of an existing building is already greatly diminished due to the duration of its existence and the benefits it has already provided to its users over the years

Q: Is there a story you can share about a challenge you had when working on a historic home renovation?

A: Our firm has had the pleasure of being involved in the continuing restoration of the only remaining single family townhouse in downtown Minneapolis. Built in 1888, the house served the original family for several years. However, as the city grew the neighborhood fell out of fashion and the building was remodeled into a twelve unit rooming house. To the credit of those making the changes, original materials were reused in different locations and matching materials were fabricated to continue the style of the house. We have been engaged to return the house to its original configuration while introducing energy efficient materials, mechanical and electrical systems and modern conveniences.

The first step of this renovation was to determine what was original to the house and what had been changed during the remodeling. This process involved documentation of the existing building and selective demolition to understand how what exists now differed from the original. For us the big clue became “nails”. When the house was built in 1888, buildings were constructed with square nails. Round nails were introduced before the building was remodeled into a rooming house. By observing the framing and the type of nails used we were able to identify the age of the walls and better understand the original configuration of the house. Our continuing studies of other materials such as plaster, paint, wallpapers and millwork have provided a window into what this house was when it was built 130 years ago.

Thanks Mark! To see more of his work, visit Do you have a historic home you want to renovate soon?

THE VILLA RENEWED | Architects Challenge 2015 Showdown Winner