Renovating the Historic House

Renovating the Historic House

Expert Murray Bonnitt says be prepared for extra and unexpected delays and expenses when renovating a historic property.

One of the many design projects Bonnitt Builders has worked on.

One of the many design projects Bonnitt Builders has worked on. Photo courtesy of Bonnitt Builders

Renovating a historic home is a labor of love and can be a test of real patience.

Do you think renovating your own modern home is a challenge? Try one from the 19th century.

With so many homes in the region from the 18th, 19th, and early 20th century, a significant commitment to maintaining them comes with a desire to make them compatible for our time. According to the Department of Historic Resources, there are over 140,000 historic buildings and structures that have been identified since 1966. Virginia is in the top 10 for registered resources and has the most listed historic districts in the nation surveyed annually. According to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources’ “Comprehensive Historic Preservation Plan,” the number of registered Virginia historical landmarks has surged since 2001.

With so many identified historic properties, what factors should be considered when attempting to restore such a property while preserving its historic integrity?

Murray Bonnitt, owner of Bonnitt Builders in Alexandria, has worked on many of these properties and explained some of the extensive procedures that go into a typical project.

“Work on historic properties is just more tedious. You don’t have a clean slate to work from within historic buildings, so the projects are going to be more challenging.”

A renovation of this type can become a real labor of love with many challenges along the way. It’s important to manage these expectations. Bonnitt recommends lots of communication. “I find that a face to face meeting with the clients early on, to set expectations, and then weekly or bi-weekly to help manage those expectations, is the best policy.”

Communicating is important especially since you will probably be dealing with more than the usual number of contractors. You may need to also hire historical consultants and undertake additional research. Bonnitt said why this makes such a difference.

“A historic preservation specialist might identify a significant artifact that others overlooked or didn’t think of any significance. If a significant item can be protected and remain during the construction process, then it will stay. Often times an item will need to be refurbished, and we will remove them and take them to our shop, make the repairs, and keep it until it’s time to reinstall it.”

But there are difficult decisions along the way as well. “If a significant item is damaged and beyond repair, then we will remove it and replicate it at our shop.” Unlike a custom-built, modern home, the closest you get to working with a “clean slate” with a historic property is gutting out the inside completely and as Bonnitt explained, “we typically gut everything shy of any significant architectural artifact. This is the one chance to bring everything up to date. Gutting an historic building is as close you can get to creating a clean slate, so removing antiquated plumbing, electrical and heating and cooling systems is more efficient in the long run.”

Some of the most difficult decisions include what to remove and what should be retained as a historical artifact or functional structure. Helping in these decisions are historical records of the structures. There are several resources to turn to in your research efforts including the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. Many historic property records can be viewed at the Department of Historic Resources; Library of Virginia; and the Virginia Historical Society. Knowing a home’s history and physical conditions is integral to the preservation process and can illuminate your decisions to stabilize and restore the modernization process.

Getting these tactical changes approved only adds to the stress. Murray Bonnitt explained the preservation requirements process. “We do a lot of work in conjunction with the Virginia DHR, which has stringent requirements which have to be met in order for property owners to qualify for tax credits. In Old Town Alexandria, everything needs to go through the Alexandria Board of Architecture Review (Alexandria BAR). “Any changes to virtually every square inch of a building can be seen from the public right of way, must be approved by the BAR.”

And the approval process can be quite extensive.

“I remember being at a BAR hearing once where the Board debated the merits of a certain type of screen door a resident wanted to install on their house, longer than they debated the changes we were proposing to the exterior of an 8,000-square-foot building. We were approved at the hearing, whereas the homeowner’s item was deferred until the next meeting while he sought to find a door more in keeping with the architectural styles in Old Town.

On projects that require Virginia Department of Historic Resources approval to qualify for tax credits, the process can be even more tedious, as that body has to sign off on anything you want to do to the exterior and interior of the building. Virtually all phases of construction and installation of finishes must be approved, and thoroughly documented, for the DHR, in order for tax credits to be issued,” said Bonnitt.

The cost saving in tax credits can be substantial (sometimes as much as 25 percent of the construction costs) since historic home renovation budgets are often exceeded. As Bonnitt recalled, “One of my clients once told friends of his that he gave me an unlimited budget on a project and I managed to exceed it! I would say that the possibility of exceeding a budget on a historical renovations is higher than on new construction because of all the unforeseen issues that will invariably pop up during the renovation.”


The Alexandria Board of Architecture Review meets on the first and third Wednesday of every month at 7:30 pm (except for August). There are seven board members, including five citizen and two architect. Each serves a three-year term.

Find links to aid in historic research here:


This is why many experts recommend building in a contingency fund in the overall budget to with the inevitable surprises that spring up when undertaking a historic restoration.

There are several conditions that often cause project delays as well. According to Bonnitt, “usually the great delays come if there is an unforeseen structural issue, or if what has been designed is in conflict with unforeseen existing conditions.”

Often those unforeseen conditions are discovered when getting behind the walls and discovering rot, structural damage, and toxic substances that now need to be built into the schedule and the budget.

When it comes to a historic home renovation, homeowners should prepare for the unexpected.