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Q&A: Renovation pro Jonathan Herman talks maintaining a home's historic charm

For Baltimore at Home
How can you bring a historic home up to date without compromising on character? This reno pro shares advice.

Jonathan Herman, the president and owner of Herman Woodworking and Herman Construction, and former mayor of Sykesville, is a fan of the saying, “Do less; accomplish more.” In his decades of experience in woodworking and historic renovation, he has applied this motto countless times, most recently in his renovation of a Victorian home in Sykesville.

“A house that’s been lived in for 100 years has some intrinsic value,” he says. “They’ve stood the test of time. The materials they used were simple and techniques were good.” Herman recognizes, though, that older buildings need updates to bring them up to code and make them livable for modern families.

Here, Herman shares tips for people seeking to renovate historic homes without destroying their charm.

How can renovators incorporate new technology into older homes without compromising the historic value of the home?

People contact me and say they want to modernize their houses. As far as kitchens and baths go, remodeling is just something people want to do. [Usually] they end up putting on an addition. Additions to old houses can be done quite easily, and you don’t have to impact the whole building. It’s a good way to get modern conveniences.

What about specific updates — like energy-efficient windows and HVAC systems?

Old windows can be repaired, and new storm windows can be applied in an old building, so you haven’t remodeled the whole opening. It’s a simple thing.

Another thing that’s becoming popular are HVAC split systems — like a wall-mounted fan device. Outside are these very energy-efficient condensing fans. They’re highly effective and quiet. You don’t have to use ductwork, just a couple wires. They’re relatively low-impact, somewhat inexpensive and a good return for your money.

Many old houses lack storage and have small closets. How can homeowners tackle that challenge?

We can easily incorporate new closets into old houses with careful planning. You just have to pick carefully where you want to put them and how to arrange. In some old houses, you have rooms so small they could become walk-in closets.

What is the best way for homeowners to find experts in historic renovation?

I recommend really taking your time and doing thorough research. Go see the work they’ve done. Make sure you’ve spoken with their clients.

If you see a house you like and it’s being remodeled, talk to the owners and contractors. Go on historic home tours. Call historic societies, like the Maryland Historic Trust. Sometimes, I call roofing companies to ask who is doing a lot of a certain kind of roof and ask what companies they recommend. You can do the same thing with a plumbing or electrical supply house. Talk to people. I like word of mouth.

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