How to Get a Period House Renovation Right

When renovating period properties, certain familiar problems and pitfalls crop up very regularly. Some are common to all building projects but others are specific to heritage houses.

Most of these are caused by unfamiliarity or a lack of understanding of older structures, how they work and the legislation that protects them all of which can be true of homeowners, designers and contractors.

The overriding solution to these problems is to do your homework, plan carefully and take your time. Here are the basic principles you should embrace to enjoy a successful renovation.


Understanding the Structure

Old buildings often have different fundamental structural characteristics from modern ones. For instance, many of the internal walls – including stud partitions – might be load bearing. Removing or cutting through something without understanding how the structure works can have disastrous consequences. On top of that, most period houses have been altered in the past (possibly many times). These can impact on the structure, changing load paths and making it difficult to assess the safety of further changes without detailed specialist examination.

Conversely, old buildings are often more robust than they appear. They can look rather precarious to the modern eye but have clearly stood the test of time. It is a common mistake to make unnecessary or over engineered interventions to solve apparent problems and lose some of the building’s character as a result.

As a general rule, if something has stood unaltered for 100 years with no problem, it should continue to do so.

Material Matters

Most houses built before 1919 are considered to be of traditional construction. This basically means that they were built with soft, permeable and flexible materials. Because of this, they manage moisture by absorption and evaporation, which means they can also accommodate a degree of natural movement. It’s therefore vital that this is preserved in any period renovation project.

The problem is that modern materials, especially those incorporating Portland cement, offer pretty much the exact opposite qualities: they’re rigid, impermeable and inflexible. This makes them incompatible with older buildings, and using them in renovation work can result in serious damp, decay and structural problems. So before you get started, make sure you get to grips with the idea of breathability and the elements that make up your home.

Check for Listing

Listed buildings can bring with them their own set of problems the most basic being if you haven’t realised that the house is subject to this protected status. If you proceed with works on this type of property without first seeking formal listed building consent, it could cause some major headaches. At best, there may be serious implications for your budget and schedule; the worst case scenario is that you could inadvertently be committing a criminal offence by carrying out unauthorised work.

Get a Period House Renovation Right

Get a Period House Renovation Right

Thankfully, the solution is pretty straightforward: always research thoroughly before you proceed and make sure you understand how the listed building consent process works. You can find out if your house is affected by checking out the relevant heritage list for your part of the country; such as on the Historic England website.

It’s a common misconception that listing prevents you from making any changes. If your scheme is well designed, recognises what’s special about the property and looks to protect or enhance those aspects, it’s likely to be approved.

Work With the Building

Even if it’s not listed, working to preserve or enhance the elements of a period house that make it special will help to avoid (and solve) many potential difficulties.

Preserving character will protect the premium in the value of the house; but you can still do this and incorporate contemporary elements. Good design can juxtapose modern and historic features in such a way that both are enhanced, but this does take skill and care – so it may be worth bringing a specialist designer on board.

Misconceived renovations tend to involve wholesale replacement of old finishes, fittings and fixtures with modern alternatives. The result is an unsatisfactory conflict, leaving you with an awkwardly contemporary property in an old frame. The interest, character and much of its value will have been eroded.

My advice is that, if you want to live in a modern house, you should buy or build one. It will be easier, cheaper and the results will be much more satisfying. But if you want character and heritage, then renovate sensitively.

Familiarise yourself with traditional construction and breathability.
Take your time, do your homework and get to know the building.

Be flexible with your plans during the project and have a large contingency to cover any unexpected issues that crop up.

Think about the long term implications of changes and employ solutions that will work with the building.

Commission good specialist advice from someone who thoroughly understands old structures; don’t rely on anyone with an interest in selling a product or service.

Follow these key principles when undertaking works: retain the historic fabric; aim for minimum intervention; consider reversibility (so the original character can be reinstated in the future); and embrace imperfection.

Embrace Imperfection

Be aware that the aspects of an old house that give it character and value can, mistakenly, be seen by modern builders and surveyors as defects. And there is a natural tendency to try and remedy these apparent flaws by straightening them up and smoothing them out – thereby divesting the property of its charm.

Avoid this problem by redefining defects as only those issues that represent genuine structural or functional problems. Look at everything else as a valuable feature of the building, with a presumption that it should remain unless there’s a good reason for change.

Take Your Time

Most house buyers will only take a single look around a building before purchasing it perhaps spending no more than an hour in it before taking possession. The temptation then, especially if it needs major works, is to get on with a project as quickly as possible. I often meet clients who have developed detailed plans before they’ve even made a second visit to the property and this nearly always leads to major problems.

There’s a simple way to avoid this issue: take time to understand the building and what you really like about it. There will be plenty of features and interesting details that are important to the overall quality and atmosphere, which you didn’t notice on the initial viewing.

In my experience, many elements that at first glance could seem inconvenient or worn out will actually come to be the parts of the building’s character that you treasure the most as you get to know it. So if you can, I’d suggest living in the house for a few months before you start developing your plans. Even if it’s not habitable, it’s still a good idea to try to go through each room carefully over the course of a few weeks. Take notes, measure and even draw what’s there to get things clear in your mind.

Play the Long Game

The way old houses were designed and built is what has allowed them to survive for a considerable period in some cases hundreds of years so they have a naturally long timescale. By contrast, problems in renovation work can stem from a tendency to adopt short-term approaches.

The solution is to make sure that the work you carry out has a similar long-term quality as the existing house. Every time major work is carried out on a building, it has the potential to cause damage or erode its essential character. Thinking in very long timescales reduces that risk and generally leads to better decisions. If you expect your interventions to last at least 100 years, you’ll stand a greater chance of getting things right.

Set a Contingency Budget

It’s easy to make the mistake of budgeting on the basis of what you can see before you start, and assuming all will be well. When tackling a renovation, however, it’s very common for unknown issues to come to light once the project is well underway. This obviously makes it difficult to get a clear sense of exactly what work will be needed and therefore what it will cost.

If you’ve set a hard-and-fast budget and it turns out half¬way through that a wall needs to be rebuilt or roof trusses replaced, for instance, then your project could end up in serious jeopardy. The way to prevent this is to set and stick to a substantial contingency in other words, reserve some cash that’s genuinely available to spend on major issues if necessary. In most cases, this will equate to at least 20% of your initial budget for the works.

Property surveys on old buildings often recommend that homeowners and prospective buyers seek in-depth reports on issues such as damp or the condition of any timber. Unfortunately, many of the so-called specialist surveyors who produce these documents are actually agents for timber treatment or damp-proofing services which are often an unnecessary expense and can cause serious problems. Don’t ever commission advice from someone who has a financial interest in the outcome.

Treat Causes, Not Symptoms

A very common problem in the treatment of defects is to address the symptoms rather than the cause of an issue. For example, damp walls are often subject to damage and expensive work that aims to hide the visible effects, but doesn’t involve searching for the source of the water that is creating the issue. The correct approach in such cases is to look for leaking or defective gutters, high ground levels or inappropriate materials compromising breathability that might be precipitating the problem. Thanks for sharing of Alan Tierney.

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