Tips for Renovating a Character House

Renovating heritage homes and character houses not only preserves historical buildings, it's also greener than buying new

Credit: Flickr/eternal keni

The True Colours program offers grants for restoring exterior paint

Refurbished older homes boast character that can’t be reproduced, and in today’s push for a lighter building footprint, renovating one can be a sound investment

Elana Zysblat, programming 
director at Vancouver Heritage Foundation, offers guidance on updating an old home

Why refurbish an old house?

Zysblat: Heritage houses were so well built that they have much potential. Good architects can update the interior for today’s lifestyle without changing the character of the exterior. This is a win-win situation resulting in relevant, upgraded character homes, while maintaining our historic streetscapes. People now realize that working with an existing building may be a family’s biggest contribution to the environment.

What is the difference between having your old home “registered” and “designated”? 

Zysblat: If the house is registered – identified by the city as a heritage building – you can arrange heritage revitalization agreements and become eligible for renovation grants through the Heritage Foundation. You can then have the home designated – legally protected on its title against future demolition. 

How can you determine if a house is listed with the Heritage Register and how it is designated? 

Zysblat: This information is available on the City of Vancouver’s website (search for “Heritage Registry”). Other historic information about the house is available to the public at Vancouver City Hall.

How can you add a home to the Register? 

Zysblat: Owners request nomination to be added to the City’s Register. This is the first step if you want to develop property through the heritage department. If the house’s zoning stipulates no laneway housing, subdividing the property, or adding units within the home (old houses are usually bigger than what codes would allow to build on the lot today, so they have multi-dwelling potential), the heritage department, in return for conserving the home, can relax zoning guidelines. 

What’s a Restore It! grant? 

Zysblat: The True Colours Program offers a grant for restoring paint to the exterior, and the Restore It! grant is for repairing or maintaining [the home’s] exterior to a maximum of $5,000 per project. We consult with the owner to hire someone with the heritage knowledge and experience required to complete the project.

How do you find contractors with experience working with existing materials or finding a product in an authentic style? 

Zysblat: We compile lists of companies within each trade that have been recommended by heritage consultants, architects and homeowners. Go to Vancouver Heritage Foundation, click on the “Resources for the Public” tab, and scroll down to “Trades and Professionals.” 

How do you educate would-be restorers who may otherwise find it’s too expensive and complex compared to building new?

Zysblat: Through our annual Heritage House Tour, people see the potential of their own home, recognizing that an owner of a similar house has solved the same setbacks, such as not enough storage, small rooms and kitchen layout separate from dining room. Our Old School brings experts to teach day-long courses on local building history, heritage styles and colours, electrical, masonry, window refurbishing, exterior and interior repair, and how to navigate City Hall. 

Do you have a revitalized home success story? 

Zysblat: We received an urgent call from prospective buyers of a house in Kitsilano, saying that the bank wouldn’t give them a mortgage because [the house] was “a tear-down.” They asked for an appraiser to confirm the house’s merit. The appraiser gave a rave review to the bank so they were able to buy and preserve the 1910 house, which had original siding, windows, walls, mouldings, porch and floors. When renovations began, they discovered that not only was the bank’s perceived dilapidation incorrect, the home needed very few repairs and the foundation was solid. 

Their electrician completed upgrades within the original walls; they kept the character kitchen (renovated in 1940), except for new appliances, updated plumbing, and sanded the fir floors. They received a True Colours grant to paint the exterior its original deep Hastings red body, buff trim and black window sash, and a Restore It! grant to replace a little of the wood siding.

Originally published in BC Home magazine. For monthly updates, subscribe to the free BC Home e-newsletter, or purchase a subscription to the bi-monthly magazine.