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Designing Historical Renovations

Designing Historical Renovations

Posted: December 28, 2020 | Project Management

Dohn LaBiche, Founder of LaBiche Architectural Group, Inc., brings a talent, energy, and passion in his work to repurpose older historical buildings and make them active participants in a vibrant modern community — essentially repurposing their history to a new demographic of participants. This takes a special skill as an architect, as it is often showcasing the work of the previous architect and requires some restraint so as to not overpower the past creation, but rather to work with it and enhance it. The LaBiche Architectural Group, Inc. doesn’t just design historical restoration work, one of Dohn’s contributions as an architect is showcased in the stunning remodel of the 5 Under Golf Center, the featured article of January/February issue, seen on page 9.

DCD Magazine asked Dohn a few questions on what inspires him to breathe new life into older historical buildings. We wanted to learn some of the techniques that go into making his historical renovations so successful, and the techniques he’s found useful in repurposing older buildings.

DCD Magazine: We’ve heard that The LaBiche Architectural Group, Inc. has just won an award on the Galveston Pump Station featured in the September-October issue of DCD Magazine. Can you share this with us?

Dohn LaBiche: Yes, actually The LaBiche Architectural Group won two awards: We won the 2020 AIA HOUSTON Award for Renovation / Restoration as well as the 2020 City of Galveston Planning and Design Award for Historic Preservation.

DCD Magazine: Does your company’s methodology on restorations of historical projects differ from other commercial or civic work? If so, how?

Dohn LaBiche: Our restoration of historical projects differs greatly from our commercial projects. Preservation work demands that the architect respect and honor the work of the original architect, so that the building — when completed — exactly replicates the original design, building methods, and materials. The work demands that the architect and architectural style be researched so that the restoration does not reflect a design detail that is not true to the original — including using identical materials, which sometimes are reclaimed for buildings from the identical era. We also engage specialists who can peel back layers of paint to identify the original colors of both the interior and exterior of the building. The architect constantly has to use restraint in their work. Historical restoration is not about telling the public what a good architect you are, but more about showing the public what a great architect the original architect was.

DCD Magazine: What is the most important element for you, as an architect, in bringing a historical project back to life?

Dohn LaBiche: The key to success is bringing together great craftsmen to work with original or reclaimed materials; to construct architecture which replicates historical buildings whose finished product is equal to or exceeds the original construction.

DCD Magazine: In rehabilitating a historical site, what are often the most important considerations?

Dohn LaBiche: Probably the most important consideration is how we can take a historical building and renovate it so that it continues to be a valuable part of its community; how it can be repurposed to serve its users so that it becomes more valuable remaining than being torn down.

DCD Magazine: Renovating a historical building must present unique structural as well as architectural challenges. Is there a key to your success?

Dohn LaBiche: The key to our success in the restoration of historical buildings is our team approach:

Historic Research: we employ a historian who researches the original architect, site and building style. We then have a team member who is an expert in removal of paint layers to determine the original paint colors and any finish details that might have been lost to years of repainting. From this information we design a plan that both replicates the original design and transforms the building to serve its new purpose.

Structural investigation: In almost every case, there are some building components that, through time, have lost their structural capabilities. This requires a structural engineer who is familiar with the materials and methods of the time period.

Construction Documentation: Care must be taken to provide quality plans and details based upon historic experience to provide the contractors with the information they need for accurate replication.

Construction Observation: I spend a lot of time in the field documenting actual conditions, working with contractors, and modifying details to respond to forensic conditions found during demolition.

Lastly, we love working with old buildings. They are all puzzles which require knowledge, respect, understanding, and love.

DCD Magazine: In remodeling these unique buildings you are, in a sense, offering them new dignity to better serve the community. How do you determine which features to change and which to leave alone?

Dohn LaBiche: Building features and details that represent the original style and design details which are constant with the original architect’s style are restored to the original construction date. We only change those components which are required for the new use of the building. When we make changes, we normally do so with materials, methods, and designs which — when seen by the untrained eye — are obviously not original building components. It should be easy to discern what parts of the building are not original. In some cases, as with replacing wooden components such as moldings, the new wooden moldings are stamped with the year that the molding was replaced.

DCD Magazine: Many older buildings are often architecturally different than the community that has sprung up around them. How can you bridge this gap through architecture?

Dohn LaBiche: Every community should celebrate their history. Even though the community around them is different, it doesn’t mean that the building can’t be repurposed to serve them. Many times the exterior of the building is replicated to its original design while the interior may have a modern design that supports its purpose. The old saying, “How do you know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been?” is appropriate here.

DCD Magazine: What advice would you provide to other architects when renovating, restoring, or rehabilitating historical structures?

Dohn LaBiche: My advice is to love what you do, respect the architects who came before you, and give new life to these old buildings. Pass your knowledge on to the next generation, so that we continue to inspire new architects.

About Dohn LaBiche Dohn LaBiche received his AA from McNeese State University and a Bachelor of Architecture from Louisiana State University. He serves as president, marketing representative, and project manager for the firm’s diverse work in housing, municipal, state, medical, and institutional projects. Dohn serves on many civic building committees and advising boards. Dohn is active in the Texas Society of Architects, where he served as a past chairman of the Texas Architect’s Committee (PAC), TSA Board Secretary, and TSA Vice President. He was also recognized as a “Hero of Architecture” by the Society in 2004. In 2011, Dohn was elected to the American Institute of Architects, College of Fellows, an honor bestowed to less than one percent of the AIA’s membership. He is only the third architect from Southeast Texas so honored. Dohn also served two terms as President of AIA Southeast Texas. Prior to starting the firm, Dohn was employed by Lamar University, where he was involved in numerous renovation projects, and assisted in the interior design of the University’s Montagne Center. Upon leaving the University, he was employed by Douglas E. Steinman, Jr., FAIA, from 1986–1999, before founding the firm in 2000. For more information visit