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Renovating and Restoring a Historic Building? Here’s Everything You Should Consider

While renovating and restoring a historic building may come with challenges, there are many advantages, including the ability to give a building new life while preserving its unique history.

If you’ve found the perfect historic building to restore for your business, you’ve come to the right place. Below, we walk you through everything you need to consider. The difference between restoration and renovation, government approval for your historic building restoration project, beneficial research of your building, potential project challenges and how to choose the best construction partner to make your vision a reality are all aspects we cover.

Keep reading to learn more!

Restoration vs. Renovation 

The terms restoration and renovation are frequently used interchangeably when talking about bringing a historic building back to life, primarily because a successful update may often involve a combination of both. However, it is important to understand the difference between restoration and renovation to ensure a smooth project.

What Is a Restoration? 

A historical building restoration aims to rejuvenate a historic structure to its original state, with the ultimate goal to preserve the building's heritage and original construction methods. By complying with historical renovation requirements, your project may become eligible for grant programs and financial incentives offered by local governments or at the federal level by the National Park Service (NPS).

Examples of a restoration include:

  • Preservation of original building materials: A repurpose or repair of original building materials such as wood, brick, and stone is performed to maintain historical authenticity. An example of a repurpose involves relocation of original interior wood walls from a basement to a more visible area upstairs. Meanwhile, the restoration of original materials encompasses tasks like sandblasting a painted-over, original brick wall to return it to its initial condition.
  • Historically accurate paint and finishes: The modern paint colors and drywall finishes currently present in the building may not match the colors and textures from the era when the building was constructed. This might necessitate the application of new painting and finishing techniques to meet historic requirements. Nevertheless, these situations are sometimes handled on a case-by-case basis, depending on your historic reviewer and their expectations.
  • Facade reconstruction: Façade restoration assumes a significant role in your historic preservation because it is the most publicly observed aspect of your building. To align with historical requirements, anticipate the recreation or restoration of intricate details on your building's exterior, including decorative cornices, elaborate façade elements like terracotta and metals, brick revitalization, and the reuse or replication of existing historical windows.
  • Structural reinforcement: If your building is of historical significance, it implies it has aged, and in certain instances, additional structural reinforcement might be necessary to preserve its structural soundness. These enhancements may need to be subtly integrated to preserve the building's original architectural features.

What Is a Renovation? 

While a restoration aims to restore the original structure and beauty of the building, a renovation includes an update and modernization to a historic structure to make it suitable for contemporary use.

Examples of a building renovation include:

  • Interior remodeling: Modernization of an interior space or conversion of the building’s usage. An example might involve converting a vacant factory into a residential loft, a brewery, restaurant, or event space. Be aware that when you switch the general usage of a building, the occupancy classification of the building will change and thus require compliance with current building codes.
  • Energy efficiency upgrades: To enhance sustainability, modern insulation materials and methods, new HVAC systems, and energy-efficient windows can be installed. Occasionally, it might be possible to furnish new windows that adhere to historic requirements and prevent altering the building's exterior appearance.
  • Accessibility improvements: Include accessibility features that adhere to current ADA standards, like new restrooms, ramps, railings and elevators, to align with the latest building codes and create an accessible space for everyone.
  • Technology integration: Integrate modern technology infrastructure, such as wiring for high-speed internet and security systems with an emphasis of concealment within the historical framework.

Check out how we successfully renovated this 1800s building into the trendy Waterfront Wine Bar!

What To Consider When Renovating and Restoring a Historic Building

Research and Documentation 

The first step is to confirm your building is registered as a historic building by checking the National Register of Historic Places, which is an official list of the nation’s historic buildings. If your building is in Wisconsin, you can also check the Wisconsin Historical Society. Furthermore, investigate the historical renovation initiatives offered by your local municipalities, which could include grants and financial incentives aimed at building facades or interior renovation projects.

Next, a deep dive into research to understand the building’s history, original design, and architectural significance will be beneficial. This research will help you make informed decisions throughout the renovation process. Here's what to do:

  • Historical documentation: Dig into archives, local libraries, and historical records to gather as much information as possible about the building's past. The information you collect will help determine the design requirements for the building and identify any potential hazards you must consider. If the building was a factory, there could be hazardous wastes or unsuitable soils that require further investigation.
  • Architectural and structural drawings: Locate or recreate architectural and structural drawings to understand the original building layout and details of the structure.  Old plan sets can be recreated as new plan sets, which will streamline the drafting process. These plans can help pinpoint load-bearing walls, provide mechanical and electrical information, and offer inspiration to align with the original design if the building has previously undergone renovation."
  • Photographic records: Collect photographs or illustrations of the building from different periods to visualize its evolution. Photographs, similar to plan sets, are valuable to guide the building's design. The closer you can align with the original construction, the greater the likelihood of approval from the various historic organizations that may review your project.

Compliance with Regulations

Historic buildings often come with specific regulations and preservation guidelines. Familiarize yourself with these regulations, as non-compliance can lead to project delays and legal issues. Key considerations include:

  • Historic preservation boards: Determine if your project falls under the jurisdiction of local historic preservation boards or agencies.
  • Building codes: Understand how modern building codes apply to your renovation and how you can comply without an impact to the historical integrity of the building.
  • Permit requirements: Before the project begins with construction, ensure you obtain all necessary permits and approvals. Aside from the normal state plan approvals and building permits you may need on any project, there may also be permits required for historical work. For example, if you want to make any exterior changes to the building, you will likely need government approval from your Historic Preservation Commission (HPC). You must also get a Certificate of Appropriateness (CoA) before being granted a building permit.

Assess Structural Integrity

An in-depth structural assessment is essential to identify any weaknesses or damage that may have occurred over the years, which will help determine the scope of necessary repairs and reinforcements. Consider these steps:

  • Professional inspection: Hire experienced structural engineers and architects to inspect the building thoroughly. There may be architectural or structural issues that are unseen to the untrained eye that a professional can more easily identify.
  • Foundation assessment: The foundation system plays a crucial role in your project's feasibility and the building's long-term durability. In certain situations, when it's established that the foundations are in a state of failure, you may need to conduct further studies beyond structural engineering, such as geo-technical engineering, to offer a structural remedy.
  • Roof and walls: Thoroughly examine the roofing, masonry, and exterior walls for any indications of deterioration or water damage. Things to look out for are water pools on the roof, peeling paint on interior or exterior walls, large cracks in masonry and water stains or mold on any surfaces.

At A.C.E. Building Service, we are equipped with an in-house licensed structural engineer. We have the expert knowledge and resources needed to thoroughly inspect the structural integrity of your building. Learn more about how we can assist you with your historic restoration project. Contact us today!

Unique Project Challenges 

A renovation and restoration to a historic building poses many distinctive challenges. While these challenges may appear formidable, thorough planning and collaboration with a trusted contractor can equip you to address any obstacles that arise during the process.

Here are some key project challenges to consider:

  • Permit approvals and regulation hurdles: Historic preservation requirements can be intricate and a challenge to complete. Necessary approvals from local historic preservation boards or agencies can be a lengthy process with unexpected permit delays, which can slow down your project timeline.
  • Longer project planning phase: Unlike new construction projects, the architects and designers may need extra time to research the building’s history and develop renovation plans that respect the building’s historical integrity.
  • Custom-made materials: Historic buildings often feature unique architectural elements and materials that are no longer readily available. This can lead to procurement challenges or issues to recreate these elements. Custom-made materials can be expensive to produce and may have longer lead times, which could delay your project if not accounted for. What’s more, artisans skilled in traditional craftsmanship can be a challenge to find to perform some scopes of work.
  • Unforeseen Issues: Hidden problems may surface during the renovation process, no matter how much you plan, including structural damage or decay, hidden hazards like lead paint and asbestos, and foundation issues that may not become apparent until excavation or structural work begins. All these can add expenses and time to your project, so it’s important to develop a budget that accounts for these types of issues and setbacks. 
With over 60 years in the construction business, A.C.E. Building Service has seen it all, and we are ready to tackle any project challenge. Learn more about our award-winning renovation services here!

Project Finance and Budget

While a historic building renovation may seem more cost effective to construct compared to new building construction, this is sometimes not the case. Renovation of a historic building can be cost-intensive due to the unique challenges we highlighted above. However, there are several grants and tax credits available that can help fund your project.

What’s more, a reputable construction company partner can ensure you create the most accurate project cost estimate and construction timeline. If an issue arises, you can work as a team to shift costs around to make sure your project timeline continues to move forward and your budget stays on track.

Hire the Best Team for Your Project, Not the Cheapest

When it comes to a historic building renovation, your choice of professionals can make or break the project. Select a contractor with the best overall value as a whole rather than a sole focus on cost. A cost-first mindset may lead to compromises in quality and the potential for costly mistakes during construction.

To ensure the success of your historic building renovation, prioritize expertise and experience over price tags. Seek out architects, contractors, and craftsmen with a proven track record in historic preservation.  A skilled and dedicated team is an investment in the longevity and authenticity of your project. Their knowledge and commitment will help you overcome the unique challenges of historical restoration and help bring your vision to life. 

At A.C.E. Building Service, we bring extensive experience to every historic renovation project. We are your trusted construction partner, helping you bring your unique renovation project to reality. Request a quote today!

Mastering the Art: A Successful Historic Building Restoration and Renovation Project

A.C.E. Building Service had the privilege to participate in the renovation and restoration of a 113-year old building that stood vacant for 30 years. Located in the heart of historic downtown Manitowoc, this project involved an extensive overhaul of the original building into the vibrant PetSkull Brewing Company.

The project members from Petskull Brewing Company and the A.C.E. team overcame project challenges and successfully delivered a beautifully restored building, staying true to its distinctive history.

Project details include:

  • Detailed project planning: The renovation of a century-old building posed several challenges. As a result, the project team engaged in one year of planning before construction. This comprehensive preparation ensured the thorough consideration of all building codes and specific brewery requirements, which ultimately led to a successful project outcome.
  • Preserving interior elements: Original building elements were preserved and refurbished with the goal to coincide seamlessly with modern amenities such as a new commercial kitchen and cooler, brewery equipment, a tap room, mechanical and electrical systems, and ADA accessibility improvements to the brewery.
  • Exterior restoration: Due to decades of dirt, grime, and dust, the exterior brick façade was blasted with baking soda to revitalize its appearance. Historically accurate window and door units were installed in line with the original construction methods. Additionally, an outdoor patio was constructed to provide patrons with outdoor seating and sunset views.
  • Optimizing space: The renovation maximized space for the taproom with accommodation for the brewery essentials. Code-compliant restroom facilities and mechanical systems were incorporated and integrated into the interior design of the building.
  • Wood floor restoration: The original wood floors were rehabilitated with floor sanding and filling techniques and finished off with several layers of polyurethane to become a stunning focal point of the interior.
  • Preserving historical accuracy: The building’s parapet walls, an essential architectural feature, were reconstructed using cream city brick salvaged from nearby demolition projects. Additionally, a low-slope standing seam metal roof, complemented by black roof trim accents, was installed. To add the finishing touch, a custom-made faux parapet cap, crafted from prefinished metal, was added. These elements collectively restored the building's exterior to its pristine original state.
Petskull Before


Petskull After-1


The historic renovation of the Petskull Brewery Co. included a complete overhaul of the building’s interior and exterior.

Get a more in-depth look at how the award-winning PetSkull renovation and restoration project went from conception to completion here! 


Why Choose A.C.E. Building Service? 

As an award-winning industry leader in commercial and industrial building renovation and expansion, our team at A.C.E. Building Service possesses the design and construction skills needed to maximize your investment, improve functionality, and enhance the visual appeal of your historic building.

If you’re a small business owner looking to transform a century-old historic building into a new functional business space, A.C.E. Building Service is here to assist you. We pride ourselves on delivering top-tier renovation and expansion services tailored to any existing building.

With over 60 years of experience in commercial and industrial construction services in Manitowoc, Sheboygan, and the Lakeshore area, our team is here to help make your historic building renovation a reality. We are proud to be a Butler Builder and are dedicated to delivering exceptional results.

Contact us today! 

Design-Build Buyer's Guide | ACE Building Service

Topics: Construction and Renovation

Written by Chris Herzog

Chris is a graduate of The University of Wisconsin - Platteville where he earned his Bachelor of Science degree in Construction Management. In addition, he is a LEED accredited professional (LEED-AP). He began his career with A.C.E. in 2005 as an estimator/project manager and later held the responsibilities of business development and marketing before assuming the role of President in 2021. In addition to the overall management and leadership of the company, he continues to build relationships with clients, serves at the board level in several community organizations, and ensures that the company's core values are upheld and at the center of every project.