Conservation Begins at Home

Your Home is a Historic Building

If asked to name an 'historic building', most of us would think of a famous national landmark like the Tower of London or Buckingham Palace, or perhaps a great church like Westminster Abbey or St. Paul's. Few of us would think of our own house.

In most towns and cities however, the great majority of the buildings in which we live are now 'historic'. Most were built more than fifty years ago using traditional methods and materials, and together these streets and villages of older houses make up some of the most attractive and well-loved parts of today's urban areas.

Some of the very best and most rare examples of historic houses have been protected by 'listing' which means that demolition, extensions and both external and internal alterations are closely controlled. Listing, however, covers a very small percentage of all buildings. The architectural and historic qualities of a great many more buildings have been recognised by Local Authorities which have designated Conservation Areas. Conservation Area status helps to protect groups of buildings and whole areas which together have special character and interest. This is done not just by controlling demolition, but by promoting good design for new buildings, extensions and alterations.

For everyone in a traditional house, whether it is in a Conservation Area or not, the question of how to maintain, repair or alter a building can often be difficult. Of course it must keep us warm and dry, it should be easy to maintain and, it should also meet our requirements for modern living and may need modernisation, but it has to keep its resale value. At the same time it needs to retain its original character and charm, and to look as attractive as possible. We also expect our neighbours to maintain their properties to a similar standard so that our streets remain well kept, pleasant environments in which to live.

Often the choices about what to do, and how to do it can be bewildering. There is plenty of information available from firms selling 'home improvement' products such as new windows and doors, roofing materials, conservatories or other maintenance free products, but much of it is geared towards selling a particular product. Sometimes little attention is paid to whether the new product is 'right' for the character or appearance of our house.

A house dating from before 1919 is worth, on average, some 20% more than an equivalent house from a more recent era. This premium rises to 34% for a seventeenth-century period house; whatever we do to our house should preserve this value.

A house dating from before 1919 is worth, on average, some 20% more than an equivalent house from a more recent era. This premium rises to 34% for a seventeenth-century period house; whatever we do to our house should preserve this value. Of course, people who recently purchased new homes for sale should still do their best to keep their houses in good shape.

Unsympathetic Alterations

Replacement windows and doors, can significantly reduce the value of an older house. For example, in recent years double glazing with sealed UPVC units has become a popular trend in many areas. Superficially this may appear to be a good investment, but if it involves removing the original, carefully crafted Victorian sash windows or changing the size of the window openings, some of the traditional character and attraction of older houses is lost, and with it some of its value.

Architectural Details

It is seldom worth replacing an original front door with a new door of a different type as this can often upset the careful design of the whole frontage. Removing features such as porches and chimney stacks, or painting over brick details can also devalue the house for a potential purchaser. Independent studies show that houses which retain their original period features can fetch up to 20% more than those which have been modernised in an inappropriate way. All too often any financial saving gained by using cheaper off-the-peg items is more than outweighed by a reduction in the value of the property.

As a general rule alterations should preserve or enhance the character of the property as a whole. It is important to consider the way our property fits into the street. Front elevation and other parts visible from the street are particularly sensitive. Alterations should not change or destroy the overall shape and proportion of the house in particular its roof profile or the shape, design and appearance of window and door openings.

Finding good independent advice on the best way to look after repair and improve older houses can sometimes be difficult. However, there are a number of organisations which can help. A good place to start is your local authority's Building Conservation Officer or Heritage and Urban Design Group who will be able to provide further advice about design and repair. It is always a good idea to contact the Council Planning Division to discuss your plans in case any of the following are required:

  • Planning Permission
  • Listed Building Consent
  • Conservation Area Consent
  • Building Regulations Approval

Fines of £20,000 or more can be levied if work is carried out to listed buildings without consent. Note that listing covers the interior as well as the exterior of your home.

Eleven Golden Rules

Listed below are eleven golden rules to bear in mind when thinking about carrying out home improvements. If followed they should help to enhance the value as well as the appearance of your home:

1. Repair rather than replace

It is almost always a better investment to repair original windows, doors and other architectural features than to replace them. In so doing you will not only be preserving the character and appearance of your house, but also its value. If replacement is unavoidable, then the original details should be matched exactly using the correct materials and finishes.

2. Materials

Original materials such as roof tiles and bricks should be retained and re-used and matching materials used where necessary This helps to keep the traditional character of the building. Usually they last much longer than modern alternatives.

3. Ornamental Details

Ornamental details add to the value and character of your house. Original design features such as chimney stacks, moulded bricks, porches and tiles are often the most attractive and distinctive elements, and they help to interest potential buyers. If removed, they can be difficult or expensive to replace, so they should always be retained and repaired.

Internally, cornices, panelled doors and chimneypieces are important domestic features which enrich the house and help to sustain its value.

a damaged house

4. Windows and Doors

Nothing detracts from the appearance and value of a house more than the loss of its original windows and doors. Any replacements should copy the original designs for the house exactly using traditional materials and finishes. Avoid unpainted hardwood and UPVC windows and doors as they always look phoney. Keep the original size and proportions of openings as unconsidered changes can destroy the design of a whole frontage.

5. Roughcast render and stone cladding

Don't cover the walls of your house with render, pebbledash, paint or stone cladding unless it was part of the original design. This can detract considerably from its character and appearance and, if incorrectly applied, can trap dampness and lead to serious problems in the future.

6. Fences, Hedges, Walls and Gardens

Often gardens, fences, walls and hedges are part of the co-ordinated design of older streets and houses and they provide a pleasant domestic setting. Avoid removing original fences, walls and hedges and always think twice before paving over gardens for car parking. If you decide to proceed, reinstate an original surface treatment to mitigate the visual impact.

7. Brickwork

Poor re-pointing ruins many houses and can cause dampness. Pointing should always be done by a skilled specialist, and should respect the original pointing method. The mortar and joints should match the original and should in older houses always include lime. Flush pointing is usually best and 'weatherstruck' is almost always wrong.

8. Extensions

Extensions should generally reflect the style, proportions, materials and details of the house itself and should not be so large or prominent as to dominate or compete with the house. In a street of individual houses side extensions should not cause a 'terrace' effect. The spaces between the houses are important. Avoid extensions and free standing structures in front of the house.

9. Loft conversions

Care should be taken to ensure that the overall roof shape remains unaltered. Generally dormers should not be built on the front of the house, particularly in a group of uniform design, unless they are hardly visible and are designed to a size and style to match the house as a whole. Dormers should be placed away from the eaves, flank and party walls and below the ridge. Traditional flush-fitting roof lights may often be less obtrusive and cheaper than dormers on side and rear elevations, but more modern types should be avoided.

10. New Additions

New additions always require careful thought. Porches and garages should be designed to blend in with the original house. Smaller items like satellite dishes and aerials should be kept off the front of the property Often they can be hidden behind parapets, in roof valleys or in gardens at the rear of houses.

11. Trees

Many trees have Tree Preservation Orders on them, which means permission has to be sought before they can either be felled or trimmed in any way. All trees in Conservation Areas are protected in this way. A fine of £20,000 can be levied if work is done on protected trees without permission.

In Summary

Regular maintenance can dramatically cut the cost of repairing your house. Gutters and roofs should be checked frequently and small leaks mended as soon as possible. If you are thinking of carrying out alterations or improvements, get together with your neighbours to co-ordinate the work. This can save money and improve the appearance of the whole street.

Conservation does not mean that a house or area cannot change. It simply means that a greater degree of thought is required before alterations are carried out. It is worth bearing in mind that the areas with the strictest controls over alterations and new development also enjoy the highest property values.

Conservation makes good economic and practical sense, helping a house to look its best and be a good neighbour. More importantly it is an investment in the future by maximising the value of your property.

Remember:

  • Repair rather than replace windows, doors and other architectural features.
  • Original materials such as roof tiles and bricks should be retained.
  • Ornamental details add to the value and character of your home.
  • Avoid unpainted hardwood and UPVC windows and doors as they always look phoney
  • Don't cover your home with render, pebbledash, paint or stone cladding unless it was part of the original design.
  • Avoid removing original fences, walls and hedges.
  • Poor re-pointing or render ruins many houses and can cause dampness.
  • Extensions should reflect the style of the house, and should not fill the gap between one house and the next.
  • With loft conversions, care should be taken to ensure that the overall roof shape remains unaltered.
  • Smaller items such as satellite dishes and burglar alarms should be kept off the front of the house.
  • Trees are an important part of the setting of a house, and should never be felled or trimmed without permission in a conservation area.

Acknowledgements: This guidance is from a booklet published by the London Borough of Bromley