Period dramas


Period properties are aplenty in Britain but with their age comes a plethora of issues for architects. Peter Daniel of The Rooflight Company discusses the minutiae that can’t be overlooked when working with historic buildings

There is no binding definition of what a ‘period’ property is, but properties of every past era will present their own challenges. The first thing you need to think about when working with period properties is the simple fact of when it was built.

Is the property a Georgian townhouse, Victorian terrace, or Edwardian red brick? You could even be lucky enough to be working with a Tudor or Jacobean country house. The typical problems of each period can vary quite drastically. Victorian terraces generally suffer from a lack of light and low ceilings, making natural light a priority, whereas Georgian homes were often constructed quickly so you may find yourself needing to fix poor construction work before any cosmetic changes can be made.

And that’s no mean feat, because even cosmetic changes can be a challenge in period properties. If your client has bought their period property thinking “a splash of paint here, knock a wall through, massive extension and it’ll be perfect”, you’ll need to warn them to think again. In most cases, you will need to get permission before making any changes at all to a period property, even for things as simple as a lick of paint, and relying on retrospective building control approval is a dangerous game that can result in serious consequences.

The Conservation Officer is the gatekeeper to any work, whether the property is Grade I, Grade II*, Grade II listed or even just in a conservation area, and you and your client really need to get your head around what level of permissions you need and how to go about it. The Listed Property Owners’ Club is lobbying the Government to seek the simplification of the planning process, but until that happens it is critical that these time delays are factored into the overall project and the local Conservation Officer is kept on side.

Another good reason to encourage your client to be on good terms with their local Conservation Officer is they may find themselves falling foul of the rules before they even make any changes. An unfortunate loophole in the rules means that the present-day owner of a period property that’s listed or in a conservation area is responsible for any and all changes that have been made without permission, even those made by previous owners. Putting in plans for a new extension might attract attention to problems neither you nor your client even knew existed. The best way to avoid this problem is through an early survey, but it pays to have the Conservation Officer on side!

In terms of the work itself, the biggest factor comes from changes in how we live. Period properties just aren’t built for modern living. Thermal efficiency is a consistent issue and one that does not have a quick fix, but even seemingly small things like getting the WiFi to spread throughout the home can be a challenge and need accounting for when you’re thinking of extensions.

Modern products address these issues; Mesh or Whole Home WiFi systems are designed for thick stone properties with odd layouts, for instance. Likewise, a great deal of work has gone into making modern rooflights look authentically traditional, while performing thermally like a modern window should. It’s a time and money saver to research and mitigate these problems at the start of a project, rather than retrospectively.

In terms of who should do the work, ‘normal’ contractors will probably not be the best option for period properties; often it’s safer to entrust the job to specialist craftsmen who have extended depth of knowledge and the specific skills needed for the job at hand. That’s not a criticism of modern contractors, it’s more that the way buildings are built has changed enormously over the years. For example, lead flashing is difficult on old roofs, even if they have been restored, and a non-specialist roofer may not have the required knowledge to tackle the challenge. A good tip is to encourage your client to ask their neighbours who they’ve used for their own period refurb projects.

All in all, renovating a period property is a balancing act, and meeting older structures and characterful features with a client’s modern lifestyle is no mean feat. Obviously open floor plans, concrete, steel, and smart technology – the cornerstones of the modern home – won’t work in a period property. But modern desires can be accommodated within the constraints, such as natural light. Bi-fold doors might be a contemporary trend that wouldn’t work for a Victorian property, but rooflights certainly would, after all, the Victorians invented them!

Our Conservation Rooflight is modelled after the original Victorian cast-iron skylight that will maintain a period property’s character while meeting the requirements of an Article 4 Direction. The version made by the Victorians had a vertical split bar to the centre to keep the glass panes in place which is no longer necessary due to developments in fixtures, which now means rooflights not only look great on the outside but also appear frameless on the inside.

Installing ‘modern’ features to a period home like rooflights isn’t difficult, it just takes the right person and the right product. Again, the Conservation Officer will have the final say, but the products are out there that will inject modern design into a period home. Working around rafters in the roof of an old building can be a challenge because over the years they may have warped, and were often not built parallel, which can prevent windows from sitting straight. But with experience comes the knowledge to work around these nuances and will result in a stunning finish.

Working with period properties certainly takes more time and presents more challenges than renovating, or building, a modern home. However, the payoff for the extra care taken is huge, and the end results will be stunning.

Peter Daniel is product innovation director at The Rooflight Company