The Three Rs of Preservation

Reduce, reuse, recycle.

Reading, writing, ‘rithmetic.

For some reason, Rs come in threes. In historic preservation, those three Rs are sometimes said to be renovation, restoration, and rehabilitation. So for this upcoming Earth Day, we thought we’d take a look at historic preservation’s answer to the three Rs.


To start off, renovation is probably the most well known of the terms. It means simply making a structure usable again, without taking its history into design consideration. Or it can mean updating a structure–taking out that asbestos insulation or rewiring to meet new codes.

Restoration, on the other hand, refers to making a structure look as it did at a certain specific point in time. Accuracy in form, function, features, and character are all vital to a true restoration project. Materials used on the project should reflect those used during the initial construction or period to which the building it being restored, and any features that do not date from that period should be removed.

The third R, rehabilitation, is somewhere in between. In a rehab, the rules aren’t as strict as in a renovation, but the final product sticks more closely to the original structure than it does in a renovation. Or, in the words of the National Park Service, “Rehabilitation acknowledges the need to alter or add to a historic property to meet continuing or changing uses while retaining the property’s historic character.”

Realtor Magazine has another way of thinking about it. Renovation is seeing all the possibilities, remodeling to fit exactly what the owner wants and nothing more. Restoration is “turning back the clock.” Rehabilitation projects involve redefining the function of a structure, often to restore the exterior while renovating the interior.

To learn more about the Rs, check out the NPS guide to historic preservation treatments or the National Trust’s list of 10 common preservation terms. To read about historic preservation and sustainability, take a look at our post “The Ultimate Recycling Project” from Earth Day 2014!

This entry was posted in Building Conservation, Historic Buildings, Historic Preservation and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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