Before Starting Work

As owners of historic homes, what exactly are we protecting and preserving?

Fredericksburg’s historic buildings belong to the continuum of history spanning from the 18th century to the present day, and do not belong to a single period or style.

Change is an important part of the record, because tastes and techniques changed, and buildings have been expanded and even embellished over time.

The goal is to preserve the historic record (including changes made over time) of the forms, materials, and workmanship, as well as the underlying socioeconomic and cultural history of the town.

How Much Work Are We Talking About?

Might the work your property needs qualify for a financial incentive?

If you are investing a substantial amount of money into improving your home or another historic property, there is a chance that the work you are looking to have done might qualify for a few financial incentives that support the rehabilitation of older buildings.  While these incentives won’t cover the entire cost of rehabilitation, they can help offset the financial burden of deferred maintenance on a historic property.

Learn more about historic rehabilitation tax credits available for Fredericksburg’s older building stock here.

Hiring A Professional


If you are going to be doing a large renovation of your home or building an addition, consider hiring a professional architect. Their insight into design and the rhythm of buildings will be well worth the investment. An architect that is sensitive to historic homes will produce a better product if you yourself are historically minded. See the section, “Additions & Large Repairs” for more information on the design basics of larger projects.

You and your family will be looking at this work everyday, make sure it is the best it can be. Having two professional opinions, the architect and the contractor, can be invaluable.


It is best to hire a contractor or company that has substantial experience working with historic buildings. Historic buildings have different needs than buildings built today. The materials are different, the building systems are different, and if they are not treated as such, damage and a decrease in historic value can occur.

Contractors that have experience with older homes will know what resources to go to for the unique needs of historic homes. They have built connections with suppliers and craftspeople, and have years of experience working with the historic buildings.

Ask anyone doing work on your historic building for references, preferably references corresponding to projects dealing with historic buildings of similar age, materials, or style to your home.  Are they familiar with the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards? (See link below) Good contractors will happily send you to see their work and talk to prior customers. How do their projects look 5, 10, 15 years later? Have they held up over time? Quality materials and good workmanship will last and should be considered when comparing bids.

Ask potential contractors about a job they did where there was a problem. What did they do to rectify the problem? Was the client happy with the outcome? Ask for the name and contact information of a prior client such as this. Everyone makes mistakes—it is how they fix them that matters the most.

Also ask for:

  • Proof of Liability Insurance
  • License—What class are they? Is it an appropriate class for the scale of the job?
  • Listing with the Better Business Bureau
  • Membership in Professional Associations
  • Proof of Workman’s Compensation (If more than two employees)

If a contractor is licensed, you can go to to see how long he or she has had a license, when it expires, if there have been any complaints, etc. You can also file a complaint if you have a problem with a contractor.

It is illegal for someone to do work on your home without a license and unwise for you to hire him or her without one.
Before hiring a contractor it is your responsibility to do your research to know what you do and do not want.

Once you hire a quality contractor and begin work on a project let him or her do their job, but it is perfectly acceptable to ask questions. A good contractor should have no problem explaining their work or processes to a homeowner.

Online Resources

Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation codified as 36 CFR 67

Virginia Department of Professional and Occupational Regulations

What Are Your Project Expectations?

Decide on what you expect before meeting with contractors and salespeople so you have a firm answer for their questions and cannot be pushed around. Hold true to your project vision. Such planning will also reduce miscommunication.
Do not allow anyone to rush you through the planning process of a project—this is your home.

But remember to be realistic. You are sure to be disappointed if you are not.

What is most important to you about the work you are planning to do on your home? What is your goal?


  1. Historically accurate to a specific time period in the building’s history?
  2. Has a historical “feel”?
  3. A modernized version of a historic home?
  4. Unique details?
  5. Trim, light fixtures, and hardware that aren’t commonly seen?
  6. Doesn’t look like a new home built in the latest building boom?


  1. Does the project budget matter the most?
  2. Are you trying to do more than you reasonable have the money to do?
  3. Decide what you are willing to spend money on before you begin the project.
  4. Include an allowance to go over budget. Because you will.
  5. Expect the unexpected in older homes.


  1. Historic buildings have stood the test of time; they have been here for 200, 100, or 75 years. A commitment to continuing quality work will keep them here for many more generations.
  2. You get what you pay for. End of story.

Online Resources

Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation codified as 36 CFR 67

Preservation Brief 18—Rehabilitating Interiors in Historic Buildings: Identifying and Preserving Character-Defining Elements by Lee H. Nelson, FAIA

Responsible Re-Use of Building Materials

One person’s trash is another’s treasure.

The light fixture you no longer want may be exactly what someone else is looking for. You may need just one more drawer pull to make a set.

Architectural salvage yards and stores such as Habitat ReStore are just what you need.

*Re-use responsibly. HFFI does not condone the stripping of historic buildings for the benefit of architectural salvage sales.

  • Donate fixtures, cabinets, hardware, etc. to Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore
  • Visit architectural salvage yards to find unique details and hardware
  • Post on Craigslist
    • Contact HFFI if can’t find a home for a no longer needed item; we will try to find a recipient through our Facebook page or newsletter if time permits. 540-371-4504

Additions & Repairs

As owners of historic homes, what exactly are we protecting and preserving?

Fredericksburg’s historic buildings belong to the continuum of history spanning from the 18th century to the present day, and do not belong to a single period or style.

Change is an important part of the record, because tastes and techniques changed, and buildings have been expanded and even embellished over time.

The goal is to preserve the historic record (including changes made over time) of the forms, materials, and workmanship, as well as the underlying socioeconomic and cultural history of the town.

Understanding the contributions of your property to the historic record and its “character-defining features” are the first and most critical steps in being a good steward of it.  

  • Consider the factors that made you purchase your home
    • Convenient location, great neighboring houses, walkable streets, gracious porch, beautiful facades, wood floors, big wide staircase, rich details, big windows, lots of potential
      • These are easily identifiable and are features worth maintaining and preserving
  • Consider, also, some of the “features”’ you might appreciate less
    • Small windows, windows where you don’t want them and vice versa, small rooms, low ceilings, not enough closets, drafty rooms, no insulation, poor or no mechanical systems, deteriorating wood, missing details, etc.
      • Change can keep structures in continuous use and economically viable, but changes should not allow a loss to its historical record.


Your home is a piece of something much larger.

Start with the neighborhood or block: What do you see?

  • Are the houses/buildings on the block similar in size to one another?
  • Where do residents park their cars?
  • What do the structures have in common with one another?
  • How do they differ?
  • Do the buildings seem to have been built at the same time?
  • Is there a prevalent architectural style?
  • Can you see a rhythm in how far the buildings are set back from the street?

Now look closer at the details.

  • Do they all have front porches?
  • What kinds of materials are used?
  • What are the windows, doors, railings, shutters, trim like?
    • Is there uniformity?
    • Are there standouts?
  • Is there evidence of changes made to other buildings on the block?
    • How would you characterize the improvements?


Exterior alterations that change a character-defining feature of a building are discouraged; however, creative solutions may be possible.  For example, rather than infilling an existing window, exterior shutters may be closed, the sash left in place, and finishes added to close up the window from inside (a “blind window”).


Should you choose to add on to your historic home, these steps are critical:

      • Work in context, considering the neighborhood, block, and the house itself.
      • Consider the scale and proportions of the existing structure; ideally, the addition should be subservient in form, and set back from and lower than the existing construction.
      • Avoid interrupting or obscuring character-defining architectural elements such as roofs, cornices, and chimneys.
      • Construct the addition with minimal loss of original material so that the new construction could be removed in the future and the original structure restored.
      • Consider the scale and proportions of window and door openings, cladding, and trim.
      • Clearly differentiate between the historic structure and the addition, while at the same time, take cues from the original structure for proportions, rhythm of openings, cornice lines, etc.
      • New construction methods and materials may and possibly should be modern. Contemporary design aesthetics are often compatible if they are in keeping with the scale, massing, rhythm of openings, etc.

Maintenance and Repairs

Maintenance is critical to protecting any building.  There is no such thing as a maintenance-free building, and keeping the water out, broadly speaking, requires constant vigilance, from the rooftop to the foundation.  In all of its forms, liquid, gas, and solid state, water is perhaps the largest contributor to decay in homes today. Anything that compromises a building’s ability to keep the water out—whether it’s failing roofing, clogged gutters, or ill-fitting or broken windows—needs to be addressed in a timely manner.  Typically, wood surfaces are protected by paint, which needs to be maintained.

Materials and finishes have life spans, and there are instances when replacing materials is appropriate. It is important to replace with like materials, particularly on primary facades and main interior rooms, accurately reflecting dimensions and details. It is critical to use tradespeople skilled in the particulars of the material being replaced, especially when the material (slate roofing, wood roofing shakes) is no longer widely used.

Replacing some features can be more nuanced.

  • It is possible that the siding on your home has been replaced once before, with wood or imitative wood products.
    • Sometimes these materials were not properly installed or did not hold up to the elements either; sometimes, original trim at doors, windows, and corners was lost.
    • In these instances, replacement “in kind” may become more complicated, particularly if a clear record of original detail has been lost.
  • Replacing glazing putty, sash cords, and paint can repair windows that are even relatively intact. Assuming proper maintenance, the windows will last another 50+ years.
    • High-quality storm windows can improve energy efficiency and, when installed on the exterior, offer a measure of protection for the old windows.
      • Be sure to not over seal and plug up weep holes. These are necessary to clear condensation.
  • When building an addition or replacing non-historic windows, it is possible to purchase or make replacement wood windows with either single pane or insulated glass.
    • Windows with insulated glass are constructed differently than glazed wood windows and are therefore different in appearance; they sometimes have “grilles” applied to the exterior or sandwiched between layers of the glass to mimic wood muntins typically made of aluminum or vinyl.
    • Window options also exist that have dimensional muntins (molding pieces that divide individual panes of glass). See “Windows” section of this booklet for more information.
    • Replacement wood windows need to mimic the size and proportions of the original windows. Many modern windows boast low-E insulated glass and features to make cleaning and operating them easy, but are unlikely to last as long. 

Online Resources

Excellent Website – Highly Recommended
“Walk Through,” A step-by-step guide to identify a building’s character—National Park Service

Preservation Brief 14 – New Exterior Additions to Historic Buildings: Preservation Concerns by Anne E. Grimmer and Kay D. Weeks

Preservation Brief 17—Architectural Character—Identifying the Visual Aspects of Historic Buildings as an Aid to Preserving their Character by Lee H. Nelson, FAIA