From Start to Finish: What it Really Takes to Renovate a Historic Home
A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of leading a panel discussion at Access Design, sponsored by Diane Cowan and the Houston Chronicle. Our topic: historic home renovation.
As many of you know, this is a topic very dear to my heart, and for this panel, I brought in the wonderful team that helped me renovate my own home. I could not have successfully completed this renovation without:
- Gina Brown, Principal at Newberry Architecture
- Tylor Hearn, President at Blue River Custom Builders
- Carol Rowley, Real Estate Agent at Compass
What TV compresses into an entertaining 30-minute program is in no way an easy task. I want to set the record straight on what it really takes to renovate a historic home by sharing some of our panel discussion.
To Renovate or Not to Renovate?
That is the question! This isn’t my first home renovation and certainly won’t be my last. Whether I should be considered brave or crazy, I’m just not sure. So, I asked my Realtor, Carol Rowley, about what she has seen in the market lately.
How do you recommend taking on a renovation like this? Is it even a good idea?
Carol: The market is good. It’s an even seller and buyers market, so it’s not one or the other right now. When you take on a renovation like this, the first thing I tell my clients is that you need good people. When it comes to purchasing and building a home, there are certain “go-to” people, a builder, architect, and designer, you need to talk to.
You mentioned talking to buyers about renovations. Are there a lot of people open to renovating or am I just that crazy person who sees a horrible falling down house and wants to buy it?
Carol: Well for most people the reason this house hadn’t sold was because it was so scary! I actually did say I don’t think you should do this. But let me tell you, Laura had this vision and transformed the home. It’s amazing to me. If buyers can connect with the right architect, builder, and designer to get their end result, then they can they can accomplish the remodel. A lot of people don’t want to go through the process and I’m not sure many can handle it.
For Historic Home Renovation: Architect Required
I studied architecture and as a result, place a priority on functional, intentional spaces in my designs. For my own home, I not only wanted to enhance the current structure but make upgrades that honored the history of the home. This is why I brought in Gina Brown from Newberry Architecture.
Tell me a bit about your architectural practice and the type of work you guys focus on.
Gina: We really work in all spectrums of architecture, so your home is not an anomaly for us. Our portfolio includes new construction and remodels. We’ve done anything from 2,500 square feet to over 25,000 square feet so it really does run the gamut. We’re known for listening to our clients and honing in on what their vision is for their home, regardless of scale or scope.
From your perspective, do you prefer renovation or do you like new construction?
Gina: Hmmm…new construction. It’s not easier, but it has a more defined process. The budget expectations are easier to manage. Personally though, renovation is my favorite work. It’s challenging.
Architecture should speak of its time and place, but yearn for timelessness. Frank Gehry
There are people who have been there before you. You don’t know what their creative mind was thinking, so you’re in there trying to figure it out too. We can have the best plan there is, we can collaborate and the design can look glorious on paper, but when we start opening things up and discover the surprise steel column or plumbing line, that’s when things get interesting. That’s why I love it so much because that’s when we have to get really creative.
From the Bottom Up…
I live in Houston, where constant humidity and heavy rain can happen all year round. Weather can really wear on a home, and yes, my home has a basement. Bringing in a talented builder to assess the bones of this home (and maybe talk me out of this renovation!) was critical. And that’s where Tylor came in.
So what was the biggest surprise in this house?
Tylor: The cool thing about this house is that it was well built. They put a lot into it when they built it. But what you don’t know is if all the people that came along previously did what they needed to. You can see their plans, but you don’t know what got finished, what got abandoned.
I got a text from you early on and it said “are you scared easily?” and I’m like “oh well, this could be anything!”
Tylor: Yeah, we found an unidentified organism in the walls.
He tells me he opened up a wall in the kitchen and sends me a picture of what looks like a dinosaur with a little curled up skeleton. We sent the picture to my friend who’s a vet, and she says, “oh, that’s a possum”. I think, “Okay fine, but that was still in the wall!”
Anyway! Tylor, you began your career working on historic renovations. Tell us about that versus where you’re focusing your career now.
Tylor: That’s right. That’s where I cut my teeth and I think that’s why I’m not really scared when somebody presents me with a project like this. I see it for what it’s supposed to be, rather than what it is. The first house I did with you, we had three walls left and we went from there. The thing about renovations is that it’s like a facelift. You don’t always know where you were at the beginning and now you’re going in a new direction. People are just amazed at the transformation.
Renovation Red Flags
No project is without its challenges. And that is especially true in home renovation. My recommendation is, if you are in love with an older home, make sure that you get every inspection that you possibly can. Foundation work, pests, full electrical, the works. And even when you’re okay with the final reports, you never know what’s lurking behind the walls. I asked the panel what red flags they saw in this particular reno.
Carol: I’m going to jump in on this question because I did recommend that Laura walk away from this house. I mean, there were termites and mildew.
They were dead termites.
Carol: And the house needed a lot of remediation. There was water in the mix (Harvey happened just two weeks after reno started), so the longer it sat in the basement, the longer it created mold, mildew and the warping of the floors. There was also stucco on the back, which was very unusual for a historic home, that you eventually had to remove. There was a lot of work to do.
So I should have walked away?
Carol: No, I’ll never say that to you again now that we’ve seen this incredible home!
Gina, what’s a red flag for you?
Gina: You came to me with caution. I think you just wanted my blessing because like yourself, I could see the vision of what it could be. It’s all about the passion of the client and you know if there’s a connection to the home. Maybe it’s nostalgia, a memory, or something about it that evokes a personal feeling for them. If they’re willing to make the investment and have the time to get it right, we can help them get there.
And you, Tylor? Any red flags?
Tylor: When you have a bunch of concerns as a buyer, especially budget concerns, you have to decide where the threshold is – where you say “Hey, we could build a new house in place of this one.” With this house, you couldn’t do that. You couldn’t tear the house down because it’s in a historic neighborhood in a historic district. But luckily, we saw this house had good bones. It was just fixing some of those things that you have with any renovation.
The Society Weighs In
This is a historically protected home. Meaning if the house is salvageable at all, you cannot tear it down. Anything you can see from the street cannot be touched. Some people in the neighborhood have actually torn down everything behind the facade. They literally left the front of the house alone and then built a whole new back end on it!
Gina, since this home is in a historic district in Houston can you describe what that means and some of the upfront steps you have to take for a historic home renovation?
Gina: Sure. The first thing that we wanted to do is meet with the Historic Society and walk them through the concept of what we’re trying to do. If you can walk them through that you’ll make a better impression up front. But on Laura’s house, this was the first time I ever had to deal with this. We not only had to work with the City of Houston Preservation Society, but we also had to work with the Boulevard Oaks folks and their historic preservation. So even though we passed the City of Houston, we had to submit the plans again.
One of the big things here is that all the windows were rotting. They weren’t just rotting, they were pouring in water and causing a lot of damage to the structure. Gina Brown, Newberry Architecture
Normally, from a historical perspective, they want you to just rebuild the frame, install glass and repair them. But in order to get this home to perform where we needed it to be energy-wise, so that it wasn’t sucking an extreme amount of electricity every month and remediate the water infiltration issues, we wanted to replace the windows. We went with an aluminum cloud product, which is not what’s typically approved for use.
But we worked with the historical societies and met with them frequently to make sure we could get through those channels so they understood we weren’t trying to change the integrity of the home. We were just trying to make it the best it could be, so it could live on longer.
Does Renovating Really Add Value?
I think every potential homeowner has this question, but in a renovation of this size, where are the biggest opportunities for adding value to a home? I wasn’t too surprised on the answer for this one!
What’s one of the most important features someone renovating their home to sell should include? What should they be changing to give to bring the most value?
Carol: Kitchens. Without a doubt, kitchens and baths. Those things can make or break it. They want the kitchen, they want the bathroom. They don’t really care about the secondary bathrooms. They care about the power in the master bathroom and the kitchen. Then from there, everything else is an added bonus.
What are they asking for in kitchens right now?
Carol: Most of you know we’ve been spending a long time with graceful white on white – the Carrera marbles and white subway tile backsplash. It’s almost generic looking now. I think we may be moving away from that a little bit, but most people still want that bright white kitchen. Brass is acutely trending but people are funny. You walk through a house then they’re turning on the water because they want to know the pressure’s good. There’s more focus on function too.
The Baddest Rooms on the BLVD
I am a big picture kind of person. I looked at this house, initially falling apart (in some places, literally) and truly saw nothing but the stunning end result. Yet I can’t fool myself. There were serious issues with this home. When working on a renovation, there will always be surprises. Finding a dead animal in the wall, is one thing. Finding mold or structural issues is entirely another.
Tylor, what part of this project did you see as the big challenge at the onset? What was the thing that scared you most?
Tylor: The addition. This house had two major things: a basement and an addition. It has a big basement that’s under the center part of the house. You need to take off all that moisture, humidity and its effect on the floors and walls.
When you start raising the walls it improves the look of everything, but you have to watch out because everything is essentially connected. It also has an addition which was really unusual. It was just regular straight framing with two by four walls. There was no steel in the walls, just a single pane of glass, and a staircase. We walked on this staircase and it was terrifying. Who knows how that was being supported!
Not to mention when all the sheetrock came off and you pushed on those walls, they were squishy. We created this center wall which split the room, supported it, and made a big difference in the strength of the walls overall.
We pretty much cut the room in half. On one side, there’s a playroom with the family media room and then a study upstairs, where I put my Peloton. No one ever goes up there but me! Gina, have you ever seen a home in worse condition that someone wanted to renovate?
Gina: Oh yes. This other house had a whole basement as well, and basements in Houston need a lot of TLC and maintenance. The wife basically told her husband he was insane for purchasing this house, but he loved it. It’s about heart, you can’t put a price tag on it. In your home, the first thing we had to do was waterproof the leaking basement. It was a historic home, so there was a historic architect and historic landscape architect that did the original land. Part of our task was to go back to those original plans and study them. A lot of the work had never been finished or realized because the original homeowner ran out of money. He was a bachelor and liked to spend money. But anyways, if you have a vision to see your family and your girls raised in this home that’s what you’re investing in.
At least for the next two years until I want to start my next crazy project!