Repair Restore Renovate

Repair, Restore or Renovate

When we started on this journey we used the words repair, restore and renovate interchangeably. We just wanted the house to be warm, dry and shine like it had in its heyday – we weren’t really aware of any difference in approaches;

  • To repair is easy, that is to fix what is broken, preserving as much original material as possible.  An example would be patching a rotten window sill.
  • To restore is to take back to a point in its former past – this may not be the same as making it as ‘good as new’. An example would be uncovering and stripping back an existing floor, whilst retaining it’s aged patina.
  • To renovate is to bring back into use.  An example would be turning an old derelict church into a home or flats.

Subtle but important. We have learnt that the key is not to fake it but be true to the building.

During or journey we joined SPAB  – the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings.  Their mantra is very much around repair – you could say that they shun restoration and renovation.  In the words of their founder William Morris:

“Put Protection in place of Restoration, to stave off decay by daily care…to show no pretence of other art, and otherwise to resist all tampering with either the fabric or ornament of the building as it stands.”

It is good advice and if you have a period house we would recommend buying the Old House Handbook it is full of practical tips.

“(it) shows clearly how old houses can be repaired and adapted for the world of today, and indeed tomorrow, without sacrificing those subtle, fragile qualities of age and beauty. The golden rule is to do as little as possible and no more than necessary”

You can read the full SPAB Manifesto here – it’s tough talk!  Here’s an excerpt:

“For what is left we plead before our architects themselves, before the official guardians of buildings, and before the public generally, and we pray them to remember how much is gone of the religion, thought and manners of time past, never by almost universal consent, to be Restored; and to consider whether it be possible to Restore those buildings, the living spirit of which, it cannot be too often repeated, was an inseparable part of that religion and thought, and those past manners. For our part we assure them fearlessly, that of all the Restorations yet undertaken, the worst have meant the reckless stripping of a building of some of its most interesting material features; whilst the best have their exact analogy in the Restoration of an old picture, where the partly-perished work of the ancient craftsmaster has been made neat and smooth by the tricky hand of some unoriginal and thoughtless hack of today.”

So what do SPAB mean?

Well, it’s generally ‘sympathetic repair in place of clumsy restoration’. Wilton’s Music Hall in London’s East End is a good recent example of repair.  The repaired space can be used for what it has been intended but it has not been overworked. It has been mended with all the requirements for lighting and fire regulations taken into account to bring the building up to date but not destroying the patina of age.  In contrast the ‘refurbishment’ of Leeds City Varieties to it’s original 1890’s condition is not very SPAB. We love Leeds City Varieties and it has been in continual use so maybe it is repair but is it overworked?

Wilton’s Music Hall…post-restoration

Leeds City Varieties…post restoration

City Varieties Leeds

So when are we repairing and when are we restoring or indeed renovating?

We have pondered this and we are happy with what we have done. We have repaired all woodwork where possible (window frames, door frames, dado and skirting) we have put new leaded glass back where it had been removed so perhaps this is restoring, we could have put plain modern glass in but instead we chose to get new leads made with old glass. However we have also reinstated the vestibule from scratch, replaced concrete flat roofs with modern fibreglass.  We have documented this and our purpose is not to fool.

We have been watching the new Channel 4 series about the Landmark trust restoring their buildings and they often comment on how they try to ‘repair not replicate’.  However, they do then go on to make fireplaces which look old but are in fact new copies or from other houses, SPAB would not approve!  SPAB would insist that any replacements are clearly identified and are not meant to fool.  In fact SPAB would champion modern architectural additions to period properites over any attempt to replicate the original, the clearest expression of this is at the Landmark Trust’s much lauded Astley Castle property with its modern NOT new faux-period development.


Our other challenge is tradesmen. They would rather clear it all out and start again, why patch a piece of rotten joist when you can take it out and replace with an RSJ?  We are still feeling our way with all this.  The solution perhaps is to draw a line in the sand and keep to that.  So the kitchen, pantry, scullery remain as three rooms (despite raised eyebrows from tradespeople and visitors), the flooring will be repaired and brought back to its former glory, but we will chase in the pipework for the new boiler. We have taken the air raid shelter back to being a coal store as the reinforced concrete roof was causing drainage problems and was ugly, but all stone repairs to the house have been done in local stone or stone salvaged from round the garden and fitted with lime mortar and we have used limewash to paint the wall that was previously rendered.

So our conclusion?  Repair what you can, restore what is practical (and economical) and only renovate where there is no alternative.  After all, this house is a quirky jewellery box and we don’t want to lose anything that is special.




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