Considerations When Renovating a Historic Building

07/08/2019 By Bahram Kamali

When it comes to working on renovation projects, there’s often a delicate balance needed between preserving the property’s past while providing the necessary updates and maintenance to ensure the property’s future.

Unlike new construction, historic renovation projects come with an array of challenges. Architects consider many issues while designing, including these three:

1. Matching and preserving existing materials
2. Incorporating local neighborhood elements
3. Navigating complex landmark approval processes

In the end, seeing a meaningful building restored to its former glory is truly worth it.

Historical Renovation Process

When first approaching a preservation project, it's important to understand the original design philosophy to draw inspiration from what already exists.

This can be one of the most exciting parts of the project, as so many of these buildings have fascinating histories and their design provides valued insight into the architectural style of that time period.

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Balancing the inspiration drawn from the existing structure with the specific needs for the renovation results in design solutions that preserve and enhance the property without compromising its architectural integrity.

Not only is preserving the building’s history important for the sake of protecting history, it can also have a financial advantage as it reduces costs by utilizing the existing structure. 

Special Attention to the Facade

Typically, historical buildings are most well known for their façade, therefore making it one of the most vital aspects during the renovation.

Façades can also be one of the more challenging factors of the renovation—as they are subject to the outside elements, facades are often more weathered and require extensive repair and replacement.

Maintaining the original architecture of the façade is also necessary to avoid disrupting the style of the surrounding neighborhood.

In cities such as Washington, D.C., many of the neighborhoods were developed in a similar time period and echo each other’s architectural style.

Therefore, replacing the façade would not only alter the property’s ambiance, but would no longer be in keeping with the architectural landscape of the neighborhood.


(Photo by Ron Blunt: In renovating The Watergate Hotel, the view and ambiance of the rooftop balconies have helped give the building its iconic feel.)

When planning for a renovation, its best to begin by studying the history of not only the original building, but the neighborhood feel overall.

The interiors, however, often provide a unique opportunity for innovation and breathing new life into the property. While some projects maintain their original intent, other historic renovations are adapted to fit a new purpose.

For example, we’ve seen historic schools turned into luxury condominiums, beautiful bathhouses repurposed into community gyms and churches converted to office spaces.


(Photo by Ron Blunt: The Watergate Hotel rooftop lounge features views of Washington, D.C., as well as the Potomac.)

While the interiors might not have the same stringent landmark requirements, it’s still important to be mindful of the original design intent and integrate a balance between modern elements and details. 

Renovating The Watergate Hotel

A renovation was recently completed of the historic Watergate Hotel, the site and namesake of the Watergate scandal. Originally designed in 1962, The Watergate Hotel was an architectural design flagship for its time.

Located on a 9.4-acre triangular parcel, the sprawling complex consists of six interconnected buildings in a bold modernist form. However, over time the hotel became rundown, losing its iconic luster.

When approaching the design for this renovation, it was vital to maintain the original exterior architecture of this historic hotel.


(Photo by Ron Blunt: In order to update The Watergate Hotel to achieve proper sound transmission class, new windows were matched to the existing profiles.)

The original design was preserved through a combination of repair, reconditioning and replacement of various elements, maintaining the building’s iconic shape.

To avoid altering the façade, new windows were matched to the existing profiles, while updating the quality to achieve proper sound transmission class for the surrounding helicopter noise.

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Inside, a complete gut renovation allowed for updated, modern layouts throughout the building. The resulting design features 348 guest rooms, an increase from the original 251 rooms.

An underground ballroom was added by raising the garden structure and transforming it into a green roof.


(Photo by Ron Blunt: During the renovation of The Watergate Hotel, an underground ballroom was added for additional entertainment space.)

Additionally, the property features multiple meeting rooms and hospitality suites, a luxury spa, three fine dining restaurants and a rooftop lounge with views of Washington, D.C., up and down the Potomac.

Following the extensive renovation, The Watergate Hotel has once again become an iconic destination.

Preserving for the Future

While renovating and restoring historic projects can be a challenging process, having the ability to preserve a property for the community to enjoy for years to come outweighs the various obstacles along the way.

About Bahram Kamali:

Bahram Kamali, AIA, is senior principal at BBGM, an architecture and interior design firm with expertise in the design of government facilities, office buildings, hotels, resorts, high-rise residential, retail, mixed-use complexes, master plans for development and renovation/restoration projects.

With over 30 years of experience, Kamali has been involved in many of BBGM’s projects from the conceptual design phase through completion.

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