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Homes and buildings can be updated without losing historic character

New Mexico is known for its history and culture, so it makes sense to consider those elements when purchasing historic properties.

People often say, “If walls could talk,” referencing the trials and tribulations, the joys and the sorrows, that played out across decades or centuries within a specific room or building. If those walls do talk, there are those who will listen.

“If you don’t want to respect the character of a historic building, then you should buy another building,” says Christopher Wilson, chair of Cultural Landscape Studies at the University of New Mexico. “That’s part of the value of the home.”

Wilson recognizes that homes approaching a century or more in age weren’t designed for modern lifestyles, saying that kitchens and bathrooms are usually the initial focus of modernization and remodeling. “It’s quite possible to make a historic building work well with a contemporary lifestyle, and to make additions, and still respect the historic character of the building,” says Wilson.

Original material

Richard Catanach, woodworker and adobe enthusiast who has worked on a number of restoration projects throughout New Mexico, acknowledges that numerous additions to historic properties over the years may necessitate the moving of windows and doors to accommodate practical usage.

He advises keeping historical practices when making alterations, and re-using as much original material as possible. “It’s really good to respect [the old building] and give it as much of the originality as you can,” Catanach says.

There are also environmental aspects to restoring or maintaining old homes and buildings, even the ones that need a tremendous amount of work.

“Many of them represent regional adaptation to climate,” Wilson says, adding that a number of older edifices are often better designed for passive solar heating, natural light and natural ventilation.

A buyer or remodeler should consider the investment of resources the building already represents, if considering demolition of an old property instead of refurbishing and adding on to the building.

Catanach agrees, and adds that demolishing an old home may make you unpopular in the neighborhood where people are personally invested in the history, and that can make life difficult.

He also says he believes in reducing the carbon footprint by reusing as much material as possible – he’s even working on incorporating recycled materials into adobe bricks.

Additionally, lumber used in the construction of old houses is of a grade rarely seen today, and much more durable, so should be restored or repurposed whenever possible, he says as we sit at his kitchen table he made from discarded church pews.

Tax credits

Wilson offers some recommendations and resources for people wanting to restore, maintain or add on to historic properties.

State and federal tax credits of up to 50 percent of repair costs are available for a variety of procedures in historic homes and buildings to encourage preservation.

Albuquerque’s Planning Department has a historic preservation planner that can offer advice and direct owners to resources, and the New Mexico Historic Preservation Division has information on state tax credits.

Internet searches can yield a wealth of information on remodeling and adding on to historic structures, too.

When building additions to historic structures, Wilson advises to avoid altering the public facades, and to expand toward the rear of the building, or less-public spaces.

He adds that historic preservation regulations suggest not trying to imitate the historic design, but to use the same materials.

Catanach says there aren’t enough of the old buildings remaining, and “the ones that are left should be taken care of, because so many have gone.”

Wilson says, “There’s history, cultural continuity bound up in those buildings.”

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