The Challenges and Rewards of Heritage House Renovation

There is a reason why most renovated homes are actually ‘newer homes’ 1980s – 2000* as “old homes” are more likely to be ripped down for a new house to be built in its place. However, somewhere in there lies the treasured Heritage House – protected or lucky to have been held onto for its character and sentimental appeal – these houses are an undertaking, and they can be a tricky one, when it comes to renovation.

Where to start…

Heritage renovation can be loaded with hurdles to jump, not only challenges found in the reconstruction or restoration of the house, but with the municipality regarding what is allowed to be done. The scrutiny a house of a heritage designation comes up against for permissible changes is amplified with consideration to maintaining its character, the integrity of its structure, and the neighborhood’s sentimental attachment to the house and its property.

It can be a wise choice to investigate if the house is a designated heritage property before you purchase it – as if you have extensive renovations in mind, this designation could put limitations on what you are allowed to do, as well as how you are allowed to do it. Intricacies that you may not even have thought about, right down to the colours that you are allowed to paint.

If you do not already have a design professional on board to help guide you through this part of the process, one source of very preliminary information could be the owners of neighboring heritage homes. Find out what kind of changes and upgrades they made and what they went through to achieve them. Prior to purchasing a property, you can have your realtor reach out to city hall regarding any documentation they have on file, these are great first steps to provide information on what you can expect. Once you have decided that you are ready to undertake the ‘adoption’ of this special sort of house, there will likely be a heritage consultant hired (often your design firm will do this on your behalf) to ensure that the direction you wish to take will be accepted in the form of support from the heritage advisory to the city in which the home is located.


When reviewing the house to identify upgrades and changes desired, be sure to take in the entire picture – all elements of the house and its surroundings that could/should be upgraded. The current state of condition will hint at what could be required once the ball starts rolling… and it could be more than you initially anticipated.

All areas of the house need inspection, hopefully the previous owner was proactive with taking care of the house and the property, but even in the best case, extensive upgrades could be required to the homes’ interior, exterior, and its systems. In the case of renovation in general, it is always better to plan to make these changes once – while the house is already opened up – so that you don’t have to repeat efforts down the road, putting good money after bad, when you have the house looking great, but then something big (plumbing, electrical, etc.) needs replacement.

The site upon which the house sits can also be tell-tale to how the building itself was cared for. If you see a neglected lawn, masses of overgrowth, a derelict shed, junk piled up – chances are that the house itself could have been treated likewise. Houses are always ‘spruced up’ for realty photos… but look deeper when you visit the property, and always have a thorough home inspection prior to making the investment in a heritage building.

Unexpected cost over-runs can happen in any project, but it is much more likely and can be more financially significant in heritage restoration projects.

Before photos of the exterior of the Baker House… currently under restoration to become SGDI headquarters.

Layout and functionality planning…

Once you decide that you are all-in to renovate this heritage house, you would be wise to work with a home design professional. There are so many considerations that go into renovations, but when it comes to homes of antiquity, often the changes desired to make the building a fit for the way we live at home today, can really use the input of a pro! Considerations to lifestyle for changes to the layout, while elevating the design to integrate without compromising the structure, takes a special level of skillful designer talent.

In times past, house plans were a lot more broken up – rooms small and divided when compared to today’s more open concept homes – and there are several reasons for these differences. The abilities of home builders 100 years ago might be the most obvious one – building technology and machinery – to create and hoist the large, engineered beams that allow for expanses of open space simply did not exist. One that may not have crossed your mind is heating and cooling – smaller rooms were easier to close off to contain the heat, which likely came at great effort and resource of a wood fire, and on the reverse spectrum, refrigerators were a completely different game, so keeping the kitchen located to the side of the home that received the least sun exposure was likely a consideration for maintaining food storage.

Aside from this basic functionality, the way that people lived in their homes was vastly different all those years ago as well. Traditional jobs were done outside the home, aside from perhaps a desk for writing letters, home offices were not such a necessity or consideration. Fancy indulgent bathrooms were not a priority – it would have been a luxury to simply have multiple tubs in the home. For ease or building and affordability of materials plumbing was likely stacked, therefore the location of the bathrooms and kitchen would have limited how the rest of the rooms in the house were arranged.

These points are not made for historical interest, but for contemplation into what it will take to make the desired changes to the floorplan of a heritage home.

Before and after kitchen images from our award-winning Vancouver heritage home renovation.


As you begin to plan your renovation, design documents will be created that illustrate what you intend to achieve. It is likely that you have taken upgrades into account, as you know that the home is dated; but it is unlikely that you will have considered all the necessary updates that will come to light, once the walls are opened up.

Considerations of compatibility with the homes’ existing systems – not necessarily tying into current plumbing or electrical, as that will likely be largely replaced, but whether there will be room to add the components that you desire, along the existing services path and within the existing framing. The likelihood that you are opening/removing walls will also mean that you may find obstacles that you did not expect hiding behind them.

These surprises can mean changes to the best laid plans – something like rerouting systems could require some re-design and/or some added costs. This type of change to the plans can cause a chain reaction – changing one thing requires you to change another, which can impact yet another, and on it goes – leading to what we call ‘Scope Creep’. Scope Creep is increased work, increased costs, and quite potentially an increased timeline as initially unanticipated work is added. So, as with any renovation, while you could not have possibly planned for any of these surprises, you are best to have a contingency fund, as well as a flexible mindset to compromise and problem solving when some issues inevitably arise.

Before and in progress inside of the Baker House, soon to be the new home of the SGDI office.

Health and safety considerations…

In addition to discoveries made regarding the functionality of the homes’ components, with a house of this age, there are also bound to be elements that need remediation. The construction practices and materials used to build houses in the era now designated heritage would not have gone through the rigorous safety testing of today’s standards, and therefore may contain elements that could be considered a threat to human health and safety.

This can include something as simple as the removal of a certain material itself or the products of its deterioration (rust or mold) as it could compromise the health of those living in the house. Or it could entail something more complex such as significant hazardous material abatement of materials like asbestos or vermiculite; changing a staircase as the treads are too shallow and the climb too steep; or old doors and windows and walls that don’t provide sufficient energy conservation to meet current codes.

These pieces of the bigger picture likely require a specialized professional to guide you through dealing with them. These consultants and disciplined trades are worth their investment, as the safety of the home will ensure it passes inspections and occupancy requirements, and most of all because the health of your family is priceless.

Design desires and dilemmas…

The aesthetic, likely very important to you if you were drawn to become the owner of a heritage house, is steeped in traditional finishes and fittings. It is important to select new materials that complement the parts of the home that you intend to keep. This can be challenging, as there are certain profiles, shapes, and colours inclined toward a house of certain era significance. Chances are if the house stands, it was well designed and built for its day – it has things in it worth paying homage to, and now the job of design is to find the new things that will best allow those old things to shine.

A dilemma can be found where the treasured elements that you wish to keep will touch the new materials that you are adding in – sourcing materials that coordinate and complement the beautiful old wooden floors, heavily framed windows and doors, and other treasured elements like fireplace surrounds and mantels or wooden paneling or bannisters is not a simple task.

Attention paid to tasteful selections of complimentary heritage appropriate colours, textures, and patterns will pay off in the elevation of the overall aesthetic of the house. A well renovated historic home will not appear renovated, so much as it will look like a very well-maintained house from a time long ago… a professional interior designer with access to a vast library of material options can make this process less daunting.

Before and after bathroom images from our award-winning Vancouver heritage home renovation.

Our Heritage Adventure…

As many of you probably know, SGDI has taken on a renovation project of our own! The very same process that we put our clients through, we have been traversing ourselves over the past few months in efforts to prepare for moving our office next spring.

Delta’s historic ‘Baker House’ will be the new home to SGDI headquarters, and we are so excited to be able to create a working home for our team. This heritage house that was previously used as a group home, and then bed and breakfast in historic Ladner village, needed several changes to make it suitable as an office for our team, and a lot of design improvements to make it reflective of the work that we do, so that it also serves as a great client experience.

Our office project too has experienced some scope creep (as renovations tend to do) when discoveries were made throughout the planning and deconstruction process, including the discovery of 2 missing load bearing walls! Yikes! Though this is a massive undertaking, we know that we will not regret the time and energy put into the restoration of this beautiful piece of our community’s heritage. You can follow along with our progress via our Instagram @sarahgallopdesign and stay tuned, as we will certainly have a reveal when the project is complete ????

Check out this article from the Delta Optimist for some more of the story of Baker House:


Tags: construction, design process, heritage house, planning, renovation, renovation design

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