By Jenn Danko
When seasoned renovator Mark Wittig and his team aimed to move an entire heritage home across 12 city blocks, he knew they faced a daunting task. After extensive exterior measuring, he realised that height constraints would prevent them from transporting it down one of the neighbourhood’s main streets
“One of the key issues most municipalities have when restoring heritage houses is that we retain the exterior of the homes, including porches and rooflines,” says Wittig, member of the Greater Vancouver Home Builders’ Association (GVHBA), and owner of Basil Restoration, Ltd., an award-winning firm in Vancouver, B.C. But when removing the top portion of the roof to accommodate a push through traffic lights, Wittig and his team faced public backlash.
“Unfortunately, I immediately received several calls from people indicating that I was destroying the look of the house,” he says.
In response to the outcry, Wittig said he let the public know that in order to restore the roof back to its original form, there had to be some restructuring anyway, and that it would maintain the original look of the home once completed.
When it comes to heritage construction, looks certainly go a long way. Unlike renovating traditional buildings, renovating heritage structures—which can include homes, museums, landmarks and churches—require a different set of processes and standards. As a renovator, what do you need to know before reconstructing a piece of history?
Prior to starting any heritage project, most municipalities require that business owners meet with their local heritage planner and arrange a meeting with the Heritage Advisory Committee.
“There will always be people opposed to most projects, so you have to be diplomatic when dealing with these committees,” Wittig says.
In Vancouver’s historic First Shaughnessy neighbourhood, for example, a designated panel reviews all proposals to ensure that renovators are preserving historic aesthetic, says Gordon Wilson, president of G. Wilson Construction Co. Ltd., Vancouver, B.C. “Many architects and designers don’t like to work in these areas because of the restrictions imposed,” Wilson says.
Restrictions often define the nature of any heritage home or landmark renovation, which is why pre-project documentation is essential to every job.
“The key difference between heritage restoration and (traditional) renovations is the attention to detail prior to starting,” Wittig says. “A typical heritage restoration includes extensive research into original details including windows, doors, and interior and exterior moldings.”
The first thing both Wittig and Wilson do when arriving on a job site is photograph detailed shots of everything in the home and any items left inside the house. A hazardous materials assessment allows teams to check for asbestos, lead paint or other substances that may require special removal.
“Once we are given the green-light, we build protection around any key pieces that need to be retained, such as staircases or fireplaces,” Wilson says.
Once areas are quarantined, renovators must begin a meticulous dismantling process to preserve the former state of the house. The goal is to replicate the details closely to their original state.
“Original windows can be rebuilt with original glass weights and ropes,” Wittig says. “The siding details have to be custom-milled to match exactly the original profiles.” In one instance, Wilson’s team physically cut a large, 1940s heritage home in half, renovating one side and building the other out completely brand new. “When completed, it looked like it had always been that way,” he says.
Historical projects often come with a bigger building price tag than traditional jobs. Bob Rasmus, founder of RJR Construction Management Ltd., in Vancouver, B.C., says material costs ranging from wood to windows can be higher on account of the niche nature of the work. Time-related costs for labour may skyrocket if areas of the home require special carving or custom detailing staining.
“Be aware that there are going to be surprises,” he says. Opening walls, for example, can lead to the discovery of rodents, nesting animals or rotting frames, which may impact project timelines and costs.
“It’s important to spend the time to understand what was done before you and why it was done,” Wilson says of heritage restorations. “In some ways, I think of us as guardians of the home—you must respect what is there and what will be. Make sure the mark you leave is a good one.”
Mark Wittig launched Basil Restoration Ltd. in January 1990—the same month he moved into his first heritage home in New Westminster, B.C. The seasoned historic renovator shares his six tips for completing a renovation project of historic significance.