This Is The Hardest, Most Controversial Decision I Make When Renovating

This Is The Hardest, Most Controversial Decision I Make When Renovating

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Cathy Poshusta
Oct 15, 2016
(Image credit: Cathy Poshusta)

Some rooms are blessed with really great bones. Things like original wood cabinets, brass hardware, and hexagonal tiles to name a few. But even when these features are in great shape, it can be hard to incorporate them into a modern remodel — especially when your contractor, your mother, and your neighbor are all telling you to gut the space. So how do you decide what to keep and what to toss?

Well, if you're like me, you default to saving every original feature you lay eyes on. Old houses are gold mines for everything old, beautiful, and charming, and I just can't bear to take any of it out. But if you're like my husband, you see original cabinets and immediately start looking for the pry bar. Miraculously, my husband and I have been able to navigate our differences into some pretty great remodels. Here are a few factors we use when deciding which old features stay and which go:

#1: STYLE

A sea of pink.
(Image credit: Dabney Frake)

If you're reading this article, you're probably similar to me and like to integrate original features into your designs. But sometimes those old cabinets or floors just aren't your style. Case in point, pink tiles. When we bought the Ravenna House, the bathroom was a sea of pink. Pink floors, pink walls, and pink tiles. While the linoleum and paint weren't likely original to the house, the tiles were. And yet I didn't hesitate, not even for a second, to remove all three. I'm sure pink tiles have their place somewhere, but they just aren't my style.

Expert tip: Before demolishing tiles and plumbing fixtures that look dingy, try cleaning them first. Sometimes a good scrubbing is all they need to shine again.

#2: COST

The pink bathroom, $1500 and a lot of work later.
(Image credit: Cathy Poshusta)

Saving old finishes isn't all about the nostalgia. It's an economic issue too. Keeping existing features can save you thousands of dollars, which can be shifted elsewhere in the budget (why hello there SMEG). During the renovation of the pink bathroom I just mentioned, my husband and I downscaled the scope from gut-job to a budget-friendly refresh. We kept about 70% of the original finishes including the hexagon tile floor (found under layers of linoleum), walls, and the cast iron tub. In the end, the room cost us under $1,500 to transform, a fraction of the cost of a full-gut bathroom remodel.

And there's another cost to consider too: the environmental cost. Removing things from your home usually means more waste in the landfill. While this is often just the ugly side of renovating, it's not always necessary and shouldn't be the default.

Expert tip: if you decide to remove original features from your home, take them out carefully, and sell them on Craigslist or to a salvage shop. It's true what they say, one home's trash is another home's treasure.

#3: FUNCTIONALITY

Making room for the new dishwasher.
(Image credit: Cathy Poshusta)

Sometimes keeping original features is more of a headache than they're worth. Designing around historic layouts or finishes can be like opening a Pandoras box of problems. At one of our old houses, I wanted to keep a long bank of original cabinets, which included the sink base, during the kitchen renovation. But the 100-year-old cabinets were only 20" deep, meaning they were too shallow to accommodate a modern dishwasher. A dishwasher is an essential part of our marriage, so installing one was non-negotiable. After rearranging the floor plan, we had to remove most of the cabinets from the long bank, but we were able to accommodate a dishwasher and the original pantry cabinet. A win-win.

The renovated kitchen, with its new dishwasher and the original white cabinets.
(Image credit: Cathy Poshusta)

Expert Tip: when using both old and new cabinets in a kitchen, blend them by painting all the cabinets the same color, add matching pulls and knobs, and use the same countertop material.

#4: CONDITION

The kitchen with its old windows.
(Image credit: Cathy Poshusta)

After getting over the initial excitement of finding an original feature, I try to use a critical eye and assess its condition. Does it still function as intended? Is the item going to last another 10, 20, or 50 years? If the answer is no, then the original feature should go. But, for me, that's easier said then done. When we first bought our Ravenna House in Seattle, I was dead set on saving the 90-year old windows, despite the fact that they were in rough shape. After a couple days of scraping paint and replacing sash cords, the windows were no closer to being functional than when someone had painted them shut 30 years ago. I briefly looked into having a professional refinish them, but really I was delaying the obvious. These poorly-maintained windows weren't worth saving. We cut our losses and installed energy-efficient, double-pane windows — exactly what we should have done from the start.

The remodeled kitchen with new, efficient windows.
(Image credit: Cathy Poshusta)

Expert Tip: Even if you're not planning to hire out restoration of an original feature, it doesn't hurt to talk to a professional. Ask for a quote and get some DIY pointers. Sometimes you'll realize that the job is better left to a professional.

Have you ever kept original features while renovating? We'd love to hear about it! Please share in the comment section below.

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