Renovation Renovation and use of old buildings

For the Renovation of old buildings you need Know How - that is paying off.

by Jürg Zulliger 20 Oct 2015
A 125-year-old house in Appenzell is fitted with wooden flooring again during renovation.

Mr. Hostettler, what surprises can old houses offer?

An old house is usually good for more than one surprise. Some people tend to be afraid of that, but it can be very exciting! For example, when you renovate ceiling, floor and wall coverings from past decades, exposing the original material, you can feel the authentic character of the house after you’ve finished the restoration. I had a remarkable experience with an old Emmental farmhouse from 1805, which had survived over 200 years and had a fully furnished bedroom level that hadn’t been used for 100 years. The Bible in old German script and the petroleum lamp were still on the bedside table. That was a stunning journey back in time.

Today, many people think new buildings are better.

I think the opposite is true. Many new buildings are constructed with questionable quality. Within a few years it becomes obvious that they’ll never reach the age of buildings put up before 1930. That’s why I tell my clients, perhaps in an exaggerated way, but actually quite seriously: “If you like taking risks, buy a new house; if you want to make a good investment, buy an old one.”

What qualities do older homes have that new buildings lack?

Many old buildings display architecture and craftsmanship that we’ve lost in the meantime unfortunately. Original building materials like wood, stone and lime are durable, absorb humidity, and age with grace. These few materials were crafted into a host of objects, and bear witness to a living architecture. The craftsmen of times past designed and finished openings like doors and windows with great care. Solid materials revealed their simple beauty both inside and on façades. It’s rare to find this timeless art today. Now it’s common to pack buildings with plastic and install synthetic floors like laminates, although they’re neither durable nor beautiful – not to mention healthy.

One often feels that older homes have more ambience.

The charm of older houses comes from the harmonic range of materials used, the sophisticated and loving design of the various components, the authenticity and simplicity of the materials, the aesthetic aging process these undergo, and the traces left on the floors and walls giving testimony to people’s lives. This sense of being alive is also due to the careful craftsmanship that builders put into their work.

Are there old houses that you can still live in like in the past?

The modernization efforts of the past decades have left their unmistakable mark. Particularly in the booming 1960s and 1970s, some of the most valuable building elements were in the best cases covered up, in the worst carelessly thrown away. A staircase made of oak in an apartment house built in 1890 will easily last another 100 years, and delights more people than ever today with its workmanship. I encourage homeowners to do everything they can to return their old houses to their original state – not out of a misguided sense of nostalgia, but to try to conserve these powerful and harmonious dwellings of bygone eras that have so many stories to tell. Living in these kinds of spaces gives you daily inspiration and food for the soul.

How can you tell if it’s worthwhile maintaining a house from an earlier time?

Over my 30-year career I’ve only come across a few cases where I had to advocate demolition. Old houses are much easier to renovate than is generally believed. The problem is that many craftsmen and architects lack the specific know-how you need to renovate older homes and do justice to the materials they’re built of. You need to understand the craftsmanship and materials used in the past, which is unfortunately no longer taught at our universities. People who have this knowledge would be wary of using synthetic materials, for example, when working on insulation, plaster, or with paints. Otherwise humidity and aging damage are inevitable. A holistic building analysis is an important prerequisite for assessing the existing building and treating it properly.

Where can you seek advice?

You need someone who knows their way around old buildings, for example an architect who’s been dealing intensively for some time with the peculiarities of older homes and craft techniques.

Restoration can easily become costly …

It can get very expensive for buildings built before 1850. But it doesn’t have to. What people do with buildings dating between 1850 and 1930 is too radical much of the time, which becomes pricy. There are usually much more gentle ways that are far cheaper and also very sustainable. Even large amounts of money can’t recreate the unique ambience of an old building.

But the technology in old buildings is no longer up to standard.

Of course, many technical installations must be renewed in old houses. Electricians and plumbing and heating professionals usually replace these components in their entirety. But a waste pipe cast in 1895 can still last a long time. And so can a heat distribution system from 1930. Electrical installations are trickier. Current regulations and requirements, not to mention needs, generally mean a new installation can’t be avoided.

However, older buildings are seen as energy wasters.

We need to distinguish very precisely between masonry and wooden buildings, and also consider the year of construction. Masonry buildings from 1870 to 1920 are considerably better than their reputation allows when it comes to energy. It would be wrong to install exterior insulation. In contrast, buildings put up in the booming 1970s are often awful in terms of energy consumption. It was only some time after the oil crisis that we began protecting houses more effectively against heat loss. Energy-saving measures in old buildings require familiarity with the construction’s substance. If you know the trouble spots, you can achieve major savings in energy costs at a fraction of the cost of a complete renovation.

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