The charm and character of a period property can be irresistible, conjuring up idyllic domestic scenes in the imagination. Nevertheless restoring a period property presents particular challenges for those contemplating carrying out the work themselves. Anyone considering purchasing and renovating a small piece of our architectural heritage should be fully aware of what they are taking on.
The amount of work required will depend on the condition of the property; on whether it is just dilapidated or derelict. Another factor that needs to be considered is the possible necessity of employing traditional building crafts and materials in the renovation. This could take the form of a thatched roof, a distemper wall covering, wattle and daub walls, timber beams, building lime and metal frame windows with traditional glazing such as rolled glass.
It is already becoming clear that renovating a period property is a major undertaking that requires considerable expertise and commitment. For those possessing these qualities, restoring a run-down building to its former glory is an extremely rewarding experience.
For those seriously thinking about buying and renovating a period property, but have limited knowledge of architectural styles of the past, we’ve put together an introduction of the features that characterised property in Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian Britain.
The sixty-four year reign of Queen Victoria saw many changes in architectural and interior design with inspiration drawn from diverse sources. Among the most enduring characteristics of the period included ceramic tiled flooring in geometrical patterns. Generally found in hallways and kitchens, many of these highly decorative floors have been destroyed, but for those fortunate enough to find a property with one still intact, repair and cleaning will produce a striking feature.
The Victorians used both plain and patterned – also called encaustic – tiles. The pattern of encaustic tiles is inlaid into the tile rather than being produced by the glaze, so as the tile wears down the pattern remains.
Brick or stone Victorian houses were built using lime mortar and any re-pointing should be carried out using the same material. The Victorians also favoured the angled face of the weatherstruck jointing method.
The Victorian period coincided with the beginning of the mass production of plate glass. Consequently houses built in this era were designed with windows with larger panes, as illustrated by the popularity of the vertical, sliding, sash window with four or six panes. Windows of this type could be rectangle or arched.
Staircases underwent quite a transformation during this period. At the beginning of Victoria’s reign staircases were generally elaborate in design with twisting balustrades and carved from a single piece of wood. Later, simpler, less ornate designs became fashionable.
Other features associated with the Victorian period include cast iron fireplaces in ostentatious designs; deep skirting boards; and interior doors with stained or etched glass panels.
The Georgian period is often associated with the building of large town houses in a neo-classical style. Most people, however, lived in far more modest buildings, which were still characterised by the prevailing trends of proportion, symmetry and elegance.
The double-hung sash window is typical of the period, but in contrast to similar windows from the later Victorian era, the Georgian model was a fitted with more panes of glass, usually six-over-six or eight-over-eight panes. Windows nearest the roof were generally smaller than those on lower floors.
Another identifying feature of Georgian properties will be the parapet hiding the roof. Houses were built of brick with a lime mortar. Repairs to the pointing should always be carried out using lime with a traditional flush joint, with the mortar finishing flush with the brick face. The ground floor walls of Georgian houses were often stucco-faced, where a decorative render or plaster was applied to the wall.
Panelling on internal walls remained popular at this time, but the panels only reached dado height and the plaster above was either painted or papered.
Fanlights fitted into the doorcases of front doors and pillars either side of the front door were also a common feature during this period. The Georgians love affair with classical architecture is demonstrated in the use of entablatures, pediments, consoles and either pilasters or columns in building design.
Finally, a modern misconception has arisen about Georgian door furniture due to many products purporting to replicate Georgian door furniture being made from brass. Authentic Georgian door furniture was made from cast iron and painted black.
A shorter period, the Edwardian era ran from 1901-1910. This was a time marked by an explosion in speculative house building, which spread beyond the city limits and saw the creation of the suburbs. Consequently, Edwardian houses are far greater in number than property from other periods.
Although early Edwardian houses are similar in style to Victorian property, as the era progressed notable differences began to appear. As domestic servants were no longer needed houses were built with fewer rooms and stories. Eschewing the cluttered approach to interior design of the Victorians, rooms often appear bigger, entrance halls larger and staircases wider giving the overall impression homes were more spacious.
Sash windows, though still commonplace, were beginning to make way for modern casements, particularly in the front of houses. Another distinguishing feature of Edwardian property was the timber-framed porch topped with red tiles, which tended to be more elaborate in design than its Victorian predecessor. While many larger houses were constructed with balconies or verandas: the highly decorative wooden balustrades reflecting the growing influence of the Arts in design.
Similarly, entrance hallways, the walls of porches and front paths were decorated with tiling that displayed a strong Art Nouveau influence. Other interior features that became prominent during this short but eventful period are decorative mouldings in the form of architrave, dado and picture rails. Parquet flooring also became fashionable.
If an old farm labourer’s cottage sounds idyllic or a Georgian, Victorian or Edwardian property is more to your taste, the first step must be to determine that the building is structurally sound. As with any property purchase this involves a survey of the property prior to contracts being exchanged, but it is worth engaging the services of a surveyor with specialist knowledge of old buildings and who is familiar with Section GNA 2 of the RICS (Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors) Appraisal and Valuation Manual (also known as the Red Book).
Not only will the surveyor’s report offer professional assurance of the building’s stability, it will highlight other problems particular to older properties which can include damp, dry rot, infestation by death watch beetle or a “mundic” problem. All these problems can be serious, but it is the latter that can have the most serious consequences.
“Mundic” problems largely occur in South West England and affect properties built with concrete using mine waste as aggregate, which has now been found to accelerate concrete degradation.
A test is carried out to discover whether a “mundic” problem exists or, if there is a problem, the degree of concrete deterioration or the potential for deterioration occurring in the future. The test results will classify the property: Class A and AB indicate a pass, while B and C signify the property has failed the test and you’ll be unlikely to find a mortgage lender willing to finance the purchase. Concrete construction of this type was prevalent prior to 1950 and so testing any period property for a “mundic” problem makes good financial sense.
Furthermore, a surveyor with specialist knowledge of older properties is unlikely to make the mistakes common to colleagues with limited expertise in these types of buildings.
The most frequent mistakes include:
- Misdiagnosing a damp problem and recommending chemical treatment. Period buildings often have naturally higher moisture content than modern ones because traditional construction techniques rely on evaporation to control the moisture levels.
- Advising the re-pointing of lime mortar with cement – lime should always be used.
- Signs of structural movement also cause problems for those uninitiated in the quirks of older houses. Older buildings move more and consequently cracks and fissures may have occurred over many years. They don’t necessarily indicate a serious structural fault.
- Insect infestation is frequently misdiagnosed, resulting in unnecessary and costly timber treatments. Only in cases of active infestation should treatment be recommended.
- Replacing damaged joinery when repair offers a less expensive alternative and also preserves the integrity of the period feature.
- Applying modern building standards to period properties can lead to seeing problems where they don’t exist. For instance, by today’s standards roof trusses can appear weak but function perfectly.
Surveyors with knowledge and experience of older buildings not only find the problems that need to be rectified, they save you money by not recommending unnecessary repairs.
Once you have bought the period property of your dreams, the real work begins. Some jobs will need professional help. Thatching is a traditional craft requiring high levels of skill and expertise. Similarly, stained glass in leaded lights in need of cleaning or repair to the leaded lights itself – such as re-leading – are jobs best left to specialists. But plenty of work remains for the DIY property renovator to carry out.
As with all major DIY projects plan your renovation. Renovate one room at a time, and be prepared for the property to look much worse than when you first bought it, before it begins to look better.
The work involved in renovating a period building will vary considerable depending on its condition and there are quite simply too many jobs to describe here. Remember, restoring a property is more about using the original features as much as possible rather than replacing them with modern day imitations.
Salvage what you can from the property. When replacements are necessary search for period originals at reclamation yards.
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