The difference between renovation and restoration

People often ask what the difference is between a renovation and a restoration and the answer entails a lot of shades of gray.

An example of a pure restoration is James Madison’s Montpelier located near Orange, Virginia. Montpelier started out as Madison’s personal house. Over the years, it was expanded significantly, both by Madison and subsequent owners. In the full archaeological restoration which commenced in 2008, the decision was made to restore the building back to its 1820 appearance. The restoration involved everything from paint analysis to ground-penetrating radar and the result was as accurate a restoration as possible. One of the first principles of restoration is that as much as possible of the original material – or “fabric” – be preserved. The Montpelier project went to great lengths to find all the original pieces of the house puzzle. For most of us, our projects may involve a bit of renovation and restoration. My current project is a good example. It’s a small shingle-style Victorian built in 1905. The house needed some serious TLC – plumbing, electrical, HVAC, new sills, reframed back wall, kitchen, baths, plaster, etc. But it was basically in good shape and was in its original condition, making it a perfect candidate for what you might call a layman’s restoration/renovation.

Renovation and Restoration before and in progress photo

I decided to keep the exterior fully intact, replacing the cedar shingles on the gable ends with new ones and the clapboard siding on the first story with new cedar clapboards. I’ll replace the round columns, which you can barely detect in the historical photograph, with new ones and the porch railing, too. The house needed a new roof and I would have liked to use cedar shingles like the original, but at more than twice the cost of asphalt shingles, it was not in the budget – so asphalt it was. Still, the exterior renovation will “restore” the house pretty much to its original look, which you can see in the photo here.

Inside, it’s all renovation. We are keeping the room configuration the same as the original, but the Victorian kitchen was long ago replaced by another owner and we are replacing it with a modern kitchen. Same with the bathrooms, lighting, plumbing, HVAC and so forth. In the end, it will look and feel like an old house, but it will function like a new one. I think it is worth encouraging renovators to keep the look of their houses as original as possible. Of course, everyone has their own balance of time and money to consider, but for me, the satisfaction of keeping the streetscape of this little Maine fishing village just that much more historically in tune is worth it. Plus, well, I fell in love with the house, and I just had to return it to the way it looked in 1905!