The Hippocratic Oath. It’s something every doctor swears to when he or she becomes a doctor. It’s at the foundation of who they are as a doctor. They are healers, people who restore bodies to health.
Whatever unique or creative treatment they design for their patients, the Hippocratic Oath stands as the first and most important pillar to guide their decision. Do No Harm. The treatment maybe be routine or experimental but whatever it is, it should…do no harm.
I think the same oath should guide us in repairing and restoring old homes whether you are a professional or a weekend warrior. You may not be the greatest painter or glazier or carpenter, but if you can be guided by the premise to “Do No Harm” then whatever work you do is of immense value.
Thoughts For Homeowners
You don’t have to be Tom Silva to maintain an old house, but I do think you should have a sense of being a caretaker for the next generation. Your old house has already survived the generations before you and it is your responsibility to keep it intact for the next generation.
If you are the one who tears out the original windows and gets vinyl replacements, then that is like amputating your home’s hands and leaving it crippled for the next owner. Window replacement is not only dropping an architectural A-bomb on your house, it is also the financial equivalent of paydays loans. Read the facts about window replacement here.
If you are worried about doing something wrong, then thank your lucky stars for the internet. Go to Google or search right here on the blog for information about the work you need done. There are answers out there to be found if you look for them.
I will tell you that there are some places to be assured you will get the wrong answers. Rarely have I heard sage advice in the aisles of Home Depot, Lowe’s, or Menard’s. These are not historic restoration folks. They don’t understand old buildings and their quirks. Look elsewhere.
What can you do?
Do no harm. Extend the life, make a temporary fix. It may not be pretty, but sometimes the best solution is a band-aid or a tourniquet. That is what will keep the patient alive long enough to get it to the doctor. And there are old house doctors in almost every town across the country.
If you have trouble finding someone local, visit my Directory. I’ve listed hundreds of companies that know how to take care of old buildings to help you find the right person for the job.
The easiest way to keep something alive if you are completely un-handy is to put a coat of paint on it to keep it protected from the elements. Paint can always be removed or changed, so it’s a safe way to protect exterior elements.
Thoughts For Professionals
We should be held to a higher standard, shouldn’t we? We should also accept homeowners where they are. Maybe someone stabilized an old window with caulk and L brackets. Maybe they patched siding with spray foam. Homeowners make mistakes just like we did when we started and we should be there to help them learn and help fix what they don’t understand how to do.
We should also think about the next guy when we do a repair or restoration. Don’t use materials or techniques that make our work difficult to follow or repair in the future, because, yes, even our amazing work will need to be repaired by the next guy and he will either love us or hate us.
The carpenter that uses 60 nails along with a tube of liquid nails to put on a baseboard is no friend of mine. Don’t be that guy!
You may think you know better than all the rest of us, but think of the quality of work you did 5 years ago, or God forbid, 10 years ago! How good did you think you were then? Have you changed anything since then? Do you prep your paint jobs a little better due to what you’ve learned? Do you use better wood? Better paint? Better techniques?
I sure hope you are growing in your craft, so before you think you have perfected your techniques, think again and realize you, and all the rest of us, are still making mistakes that someone will have to fix later.
It’s all fine as long as you Do No Harm. I would say that if your work cannot be reversed, then you are doing harm. If you are throwing away an original piece of a historic building, then you are doing harm.
It’s time to hold ourselves to a higher standard and that standard is simple. Do No Harm.
Founder & Editor-in-Chief
I love old houses, working with my hands, and teaching others the excitment of doing it yourself! Everything is teachable if you only give it the chance.
6 thoughts on “Do No Harm”
I love your site! My husband and I are about to purchase our first home, a beautiful 1920’s craftsman bungalow. The only issue is the kitchen. It was clearly built for a woman of 5 foot stature, however, my husband and I are both 6 foot. I was hoping we could just build a pedestal to raise the cabinets and countertop but they’re built in! I feel like if we have the cabinets rebuilt in the same style, with the same material, just taller we will ‘do no harm’, but my husband feels everything must stay original. What’s your take on the issue?
Faith, all new cabinets can get very expensive. I would keep the originals and build a talker base to raise them up if possible. Much cheaper and saves the originals if they are in decent shape.
I love it. Thanks for putting this together!
I will say, this is a really difficult issue to sort through. We are in the early stages of restoring our 1915 home and we’ve faced this trial with every decision.
For example, our home was not built with a central HVAC, but our hot water radiators were long ago replaced with a retrofitted forced air system. Our first project was to replace the 50+ year old furnace in the basement. Replacing the furnace was not a big deal, but in order for the furnace to work correctly we needed to triple the duct-work going up to the main and second floors. The duct work led to a lot of construction, and unfortunately, destruction.
One of the ducts needed to go up a wall that contained an old whole-house vacuum system. It was totally useless, but the brass fixtures were beautiful and definitely contributed to the character of the house. Do we keep a useless vacuum and sacrifice our modern HVAC system?
We ended up siding with our need for an updated HVAC system in that case, but my point is that I don’t think we have made a single decision so far that hasn’t touched on this issue.
Great article. Thanks for putting it together.
Christopher, mechanicals are one of the few things where I feel updating is not a crime. Go ahead and bring it up to current standards for what you need.
Sorry, The Hippocratic Oath does NOT say, “First, do no harm.” Despite the fact that most people think that it does. It just doesn’t. :o) Sorry.
Kathleen, I understand that it does not specifically say Do No Harm, but that is the generalized thesis. I’m not quoting it especially in the original Greek. 😉 “I will use treatment to help the sick according to my ability and judgment, but never with a view to injury and wrong-doing.” -from the original text translation