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What Is Renovating Historic Homes Like And What To Splurge On Via ARCIFORM’s, Anne De Wolf (Plus The Reno Formula She ALWAYS Uses)

Emily’s team, Jess and Mallory, suggested I write about my experience as a renovator. We typically use the word “remodeler” but I like renovator too. However now I think of myself as an appliance, like a refrigerator or generator.  Hmmmm.

What is fun about this profession is that you learn something new every day.  This is my favorite part, but it is also often very nerve-wracking.  

But before I go into my experience as a renovator, I want to tell you a little about my background as it relates to my journey of becoming a renovator. I grew up in Germany and after finding out that I have a learning disability, my parents decided to enroll me in our local Waldorf School after grade school. I loved it there. The curriculum included many trades like woodworking, gardening, smithing, sowing, as well as many languages, theatre, orchestra, and literature. It was not big on sports, which I am eternally grateful for, as I am the least competitive person I know and the second most clumsy one. 

My dad was a big sailor. If you wanted to hang out with him, you either sailed or work on his wooden boats. The two of us always dreamed of sailing off into the sunset to worlds unknown. So when I graduated high school, we ended up on an old wooden boat in Charleston, SC which we were going to sail across the Atlantic. For 1 ½ years, we spent restoring this boat while living on it. This is when I met Richard, my husband and business partner, and ended up moving to Portland with him.

After I graduated from Marylhurst University, I realized that my love for old things could be made into a career. So, when Richard and I decided to partner up, we chose to make structures built prior to the 1930s… ARCIFORM’s niche market. It is very important to focus on what you love and want to learn about when you decide to start your own company. We created a business plan including 1 year and 5-year goals and budgets, which helped us stay focused and kept us in line. It also makes you good at what you do. You become the expert that people turn to.

flooring is reclaimed 100-year-old fir from a silverton school

ARCIFORM prides itself in preparing for as many eventualities as possible to prevent our clients from getting sucked into an emotional and financial renovation vortex. We are lucky in that we can bring questions to the table and have the many awesome craftspeople that are part of our team and share their knowledge. Case in point: Yesterday I was meeting with Adam, Stephyn, and Jamie about Emily’s and Brian’s roof framing details. I had thought I had figured out all the connection details with our engineer, but of course, Jamie pointed out that there are unusual connections where the new beams join in corners… Had he not pointed this out, we would have been scratching our heads and hustling for answers while in the middle of hoisting up large beams. Thank you, Jamie!  

It is super important to have as many team members on board as early as possible. Start with an extensive list of what your project might look like, figure out who can help make that a reality and get them on board for feedback right away. If you want to change your structure, get an engineer on board; if your systems need to be updated or changed, invite in the electrician, plumber, and heating and cooling subs. There is a skill to this though–you do not want your experts to be inundated with having to review many options, (that is what your designer is there for), but during key decision-making moments, have them give you their feedback. 

Build relationships and respect those relationships. It can make or break the success of your project. In fact, the number one trade we try to teach our staff is good communication. Keep your team members up to date with quick check-ins. Do not write novels, just a quick “hello, this is where I am at,” goes a long way. Too much information is overwhelming and gets ignored, too little information causes anxiety and misunderstandings. Do not just point out a problem but suggest a solution right away.  Renovation is about problem-solving. We are hired to think creatively based on our many years of experience.   

ARCIFORM is very diligent about the project development process, which includes navigation of the client’s expectations. Every client is different. We all like to splurge on some things but not on others.  Renovation is not necessarily the most glamorous, as a lot of effort is invested in fixing what is already there. 

all of the surfaces were restored and we upgraded the electrical

I will first outline how we tackle fixing and addressing what is there from a renovator’s point of view, and then I will give you a little insight into what people like to splurge on from the perspective of a remodeler. Here is typically how the initial process works:

  1. We make sure the foundation is sound. Homes built prior to about the 1940s in Portland (which is the only area I am familiar with) rarely had footings below foundation walls. This is not bad if the house sits on stable ground, but if the ground shifted and settled, and if there is a lot of moisture in the ground, this can cause challenging issues. I check if the ridge is straight and the line between the siding and the foundation are straight. I also check if the doors and windows open well and or if there are large cracks in the walls. Of course, if you get dizzy while walking around a house is also a good indicator of uneven floors. A marble rolling around on a floor on it is on accord can also tell you where settling has occurred.  
  2. Second in the lineup is fixing or replacing the roof, the siding, the doors, and the windows. You want to be sure that whatever you do inside the house does not fall victim to the elements. As Emily will likely share with you in her posts, there are many wonderful products out there for period-appropriate siding, windows, and doors that also meet current energy codes and are great performers. Here, the devil is in the details. Proportions and installation methods are key when the goal is not to lose the charm of the old home. 
  3. We use this rule of thumb: foundations first, then go from the outside in and the top down. We like to fix upper levels before we look at the main level and lastly, we do the basement remodels if that meets the client’s needs. We do this so that we can access and route plumbing, electrical, and ducting through spaces that we have not spent months making perfect. If the clients need their basements remodeled first, we make sure we have a plan in place for any future projects above, so we can prepare structural changes, adjust plumbing and ducting, and can account for electrical upgrades to save money in the long run. 

Ok, now a quick look at top splurges. I do not consider renovations splurging as you really invest in what you have and will get a great return on your investment if you did it right. “Right” is the key ingredient. But even that can be very relative.

this is an added the conservatory off the library & kitchen which supports a balcony above

The top splurge that ARCIFORM experiences is space. We build many additions and remodel many basements because people want more elbow room. If you can afford it, purchase a little bigger home, as adding onto a small home can be costly. Single story homes are not meant to support a second story, systems need to be in perfect working condition when covering them up during a basement remodel and building additions that meet the material and detail standards of the first half of the last century are complex and costly. In the long run, this can also be a good investment though, as adding space generally increases the value of your home exponentially. 

in this kitchen, we refurbished most of the original cabinetry and removed an old double oven and reconfigured the space for storage. 

ARCIFORM is known for our great kitchens that we build with longevity in mind. Over the last 100 or so years, kitchens have become many people’s favorite space for their communal and creative pursuits. So here is where we splurge. Many of my clients love every detail: beautiful cabinets, lovely tile, stunning counters, and sparkly hardware, and let us not forget the awesome appliances on the market today.

design by arciform

And of course… bathrooms. If it is the main bathroom or adding a bathroom for each kid or having a bathroom in the basement,  bathrooms are a luxury that we all like to splurge on. Here, as like what is happening with the kitchens, the suppliers have really upped their game. Fixtures, fittings, tile and counters, everything is just becoming more and more beautiful, inspiring us all in creating spa-like spaces for ourselves and sweet privacy for our children and guests. 

My personal splurge is tile. The funny thing is my current house has all the original tile still in place, so I cannot create my Turkish bath dream.  But if I could, and I am more than happy to splurge in my head, I would tile the entire inside of my house. 😊

When renovating historic homes, include the experts to help you spend money wisely, splurge on things that add comfort on a daily basis, and prioritize planning over rushing through the process. That’s my advice to you:)

Opening Image Credit: Design by ARCIFORM

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2 years ago

Thank you for a look into your world Anne!! My daughter has attended Waldorf schools since she was 4 and we love it so much. She does not have a learning disability but we prefer the teaching methods and sense of community! I always love to hear about another successful adult who had a Waldorf education! I love your values as well when it comes to salvaging and restoring what you can. And your relationship with your father sounds very special!

2 years ago

Thank you for this!!! We have a fixer and just trying to decide where to start and what to prioritize is making us crazy! This gave me a much needed outline and a way to start tackling this huge project!

2 years ago

Such an interesting and fun viewpoint! I work in tech and the ideas here relate surprisingly well to building great software, which also has lots of unknowns and requires various forms of expertise.

2 years ago

I love hearing from Anne because of her vast experiences! I would also love a post about keeping the character of the house while updating rooms (like the bathroom and kitchen) where modern amenities are so much better. For example, we are looking at an 1870s farmhouse. Obviously we don’t want to recreate a 19th century kitchen – do we make it look like it was redone in the 1940s? Make it more modern and ignore the age of the house so there aren’t multiple decades present? I’m not sure how to tie in the character of anything older than 1920, really.

Jessica Nevins
2 years ago

Another delightful and informative post, Anne. Thanks!

2 years ago

Wow, that conservatory! Giving me lots of inspo for my dream mudroom/potting room addition.

2 years ago
Reply to  BW

That conservatory pic made me laugh at myself. When Emily & Brian were talking about getting a conservatory roof on the dining room and having a balcony over it, my head just couldn’t compute anything but seeing people’s underwear all the time. Then I read this post and go “OOOOh, the balcony part of the roof wouldn’t be see through”, lol, how could I not figure that out?!
Even though I’m not in the market for an addition, I’m bookmarking that pic. I have started a secret project to get my husband out of the house since it looks like his pandemic-induced WFH is going to be permanent (he’s in programming and his boss discovered how much *he* loves working from home now that he’s tried it). It’s driving me and the kids crazy as we have an open floor plan (bought our house at the peak of flippers making everything open, there were no other options in our market). I’m looking at “garden offices” that have a whole wall of windows/glass doors on one side, are ready for up-to-date in-wall wiring, and are beautiful on the outside. Something reminiscent of that conservatory would be right up my husband’s alley.

2 years ago

Thank you, Anne, for sharing your story. I love your outline for how to approach a whole house renovation. Your advice for communication is great, too. Concise with adequate detail. If there is a problem, offer a solution.

2 years ago

So interesting! We were considering a 100 year old Tudor on the east coast, but there was an awful smell. Awful just to me — others noticed it, but thought it was an “old house” smell, and said paint or ventilation or cleaning could fix it, but my first thought was mold. Is that something that can be fixed? Do most old houses have a smell?

2 years ago
Reply to  Lee

Old houses often do have a smell – the ventilation needs to be increased to regulate humidity levels from being too high or too low (either one can cause problems and increase the rate of breakdown of organic materials used in building a house – that creates a smell). It could also be mold, although mold is not always a problem. We all had that huge scare when “black mold” made the news nonstop for a few years, but there are other colors of mold that are bad and there are black molds that aren’t bad. The thing to remember is that mold is all around us all the time, doings its best to help us have a healthy planet. Sometimes growth gets out of whack, but there are plenty of mediation plans you can follow to fix that – and most of them are not the expensive, tear-your-house-down process that all the morning news anchors squawk about. My personal experience was with a brown mold that got into our ventilation ducts and spread throughout the house. It was coming in through the HVAC and then getting blown everywhere. Our house smelled like old cigarettes, which was one of the… Read more »

2 years ago
Reply to  Lee

I bought an old house with a very definite unpleasant old house smell. We cleaned and repainted everything, refinished the floors, poured concrete over the dirt floor in the basement, and put in a new HVAC system that controls humidity. Now the smell is totally gone! The key to stopping mold is getting rid of the moisture that allows it to grow. The most important change that made the house go from stinky to pleasant was covering the dirt floor in the basement. A huge amount of humidity seeps out of the ground and that was causing most of the must/mold/whatever bad smell in the house. Even if there isn’t a dirt floor, stone and brick foundation walls can leak moisture and be a source of dampness and odor. You can dig around the foundation and spray waterproofing to reduce this.

2 years ago
Reply to  Emma

This is so helpful thanks! Our new old house also has a smell and we just bought an air purifier but will look into sealing the floor in the basement as well.

2 years ago

Great to hear your perspective, Anne! Thanks for sharing! Tile is also one of my great weaknesses 🙂

Jenny B
2 years ago

What an informative and interesting post! I actually learned a lot! thanks

2 years ago

Really enjoyable informative post and I think it’s a combination of the straightforward, useful advice and the clear writing style. A pleasure to read a post not jammed full of hyperbole with constant interruptions mid-sentence. I found this oddly very soothing. Thank you Anne. One to bookmark.

2 years ago

Thank you for sharing your useful guide. We get the keys to our Irvington dream house tomorrow. And, where to start? Finish the attic? The main floor pocket doors? Spruce up the basement? Repair all of the non operable sash windows? Exterior paint? I genuinely hope you have room in your client list in a year or two.

2 years ago

We finished a renovation of our home (built 1732!) last year. Our first apartment was in a building from 1880, which we also renovated. Pretty standard ages for Boston area! So this is right up my alley… There are 2 main things I noticed with our 1732 place vs even 1880 or newer homes we’ve renovated in the past: First, almost ALL the issues with older places come from modern additions and renovations. We only had foundation problems because someone circa 2000 drilled through supporting beams to install radiant heat, for example. The old, untouched part of the house? Solid as a rock. So, so, important to get the ‘bones’ right when you renovate an old home, because you can easily do a lot of damage. Second, you have to be insanely careful hiring contractors for a historic home. We found that one of our contractors basically used the age of the house as an excuse to massively overcharge us and do shoddy work. For example, he claimed our range couldn’t be put flat against the wall because the “wall isn’t level or straight because your house is old” – forgetting that THEY were the ones who installed said wall… Read more »

2 years ago

Surprised there’s not more comments/discussion on this wonderful post. We live in an 1860’s New England house on a hill with a fieldstone foundation, and the house has settled unevenly over the years. Some rooms look and feel a bit like a funhouse with obviously out-of-square doorframes…a marble would pick up so much speed it might dent the baseboards. I worry that making some of the investments we’ve made (kitchen/bath renos) aren’t smart since we’ve haven’t addressed the settling (and have no plans to, bc: budget). We’ve had a couple structural engineers come take a look and both said: yep, old houses settle but things were built to last back then and this house isn’t going anywhere. So, we’ve embraced the funhouse look, and hope for re-sale’s sake, the next owners will be charmed by them too?!

2 years ago

This is sooooo helpful & practical–thank you so much! I am so glad to get this wonderful professional, insider info! Hope to do some home reno this year so this is priceless–thank you again!

2 years ago

Can you recommend foundation/retrofitting companies you like in Portland? I just bought a 130 yr old home and I want to get it all fixed up…THANKS!