Victorian houses are known for their elegant architecture and ornate detailing. But these generously proportioned homes also tend to be sturdily built. With clever additions, an exterior makeover, and a rework of their layouts, they make fine homes for the 21st century.
To do your Victorian home renovation justice, you need to consider two major factors. Firstly, which major changes or additions would you like to make? Popular alterations include:
- knocking through front and back reception rooms;
- converting the loft;
- adding a side return or back extension with large rooflights;
- installing more bathrooms upstairs;
- fitting a downstairs cloakroom beneath the stairs;
- and converting the basement to provide living space.
Secondly, you must think about how much original detail you want to retain. It’s better to restore than remove things that give your home character, which can mean buying costly authentic – or authentic-looking – products and materials.
Read on to find out what type of work can be done to the exterior and interior of your Victorian home.
Repair brickwork and pointing
If your outside isn’t too badly damaged, it’s best to try to restore it. Breathable lime – rather than cement – should be used for the pointing, while the odd brick can either be patched with lime mortar coloured with brick or stone dust, or its face cut out and replaced with a matching brick slip.
Failing that, and exterior render could be applied and painted – again using a breathable lime render rather than cement. For extensive repairs, you’ll get the best results by appointing a company that specialises in restoring the exterior of period properties, such as Bonsers or London Repointing & Restoration.
Upgrade sash windows
If possible, it’s best to restore the originals, particularly when they contain coloured glass. If not, replace with timber-frame double-glazing that looks just like the old windows (like-for like replacement may be a condition if you live in a Conservation Area).
For a contemporary finish try a darker colour for paintwork, such as grey or black, rather than white. ‘Paint frames or ledges to make them stand out,’ says Cato Cooper, co-owner of The Emporium Somerset. Use a sash window specialist, such as Ventrolla, which works nationwide.
Replace the front door
If the original front door has been swapped for a cheap or out-of-character replacement at some point, it’s well worth installing a new door. The neighbourhood may offer clues as to how your original door might have looked; then you can shop for – or have made – a sturdy new one that’s as near to original as possible.
Think solid, panelled doors, perhaps with glazing in the upper half. Stained and etched glass was usually included in Victorian designs, so installing this in your new door will add to the authentic look of your exterior.
Mend the roof
Your original roof will almost certainly have been Welsh slate – and ideally, you should try to replace it like-for-like. If this is beyond your budget, you can try repairing your old roof instead; imported slate may be cheaper and is a decent match. Avoid artificial slate lookalikes if you can, unless the pitch on your roof is very shallow and it will remain largely unseen.
If it’s just a case of replacing a few broken slates here and there, you may be able to pick some up at a salvage yard, or source from salvo.co.uk, where you may also find authentic roof fittings.
Restore the front path
It’s highly unlikely you’ll be able to unearth an entire encaustic path at a salvage yard, but if you only have a few damaged tiles to replace here and there, these are good places to start your search. If your original path is long gone, take a style cue from any remaining encaustic tiles.
Add space with an extension or loft conversion
To allow you to get that much-desired open-plan kitchen or kitchen-diner, perhaps with a utility room or cloakroom included, a smart investment would be a side-return for a terraced house, or full-width rear extension for a semi-detached or detached house. Typical costs would be from around £1,700 per square metre for a single storey extension, or from around £1,500 per square metre for a two-storey extension. Much of your family time will be spent in this generous space, with the cosier, original rooms at the front of the house reserved for evenings.
‘The cost of upsizing has also resulted in an increase in loft conversions, which can cost anything from £25,000 to around £70,000 (or around £1,000 per square metre). Not every house is suitable due to the pitch of the roof or a lack of space for a second staircase. But the best include high vaulted ceilings, an en suite bathroom and a guest bedroom or master suite.
Basement conversions have also become popular recently. If you have an existing cellar with tanking, insulation, running electrics, heating and plumbing already done, then improving ventilation, plastering and decorating will cost around £1,500 per square metre upwards. Expect to pay more for minor digging out to improve ceiling heights. Constructing a brand-new basement conversion, including light wells, will cost upwards of £2,000 per square metre.
‘If you’re thinking of extending, it is important that you are clear what the boundaries of the property you want to buy are,’ says Sarah Slade, senior residential property executive at solicitors Barlow Robbins. ‘This can be checked against the title plan. Consider whether any adjoining walls are party walls, as if you are proposing major structural work to a terraced or semi-detached property, you may need to enter into a party wall agreement, so seek a surveyor’s advice.
‘Ask your solicitor to check the title as there may be restrictive covenants that prevent you from extending or changing the physical appearance of the property without the consent of another party. The searches can also reveal entries such as any restrictions on planning, whether the property is within a Conservation Area, and if any drains and sewers exist within the boundary that may need a “building-over” agreement or other consent from the water company, were you to erect an extension over the drains.’
Add bi-fold doors for a contemporary look
‘Bi-fold doors will give a contemporary feel with the large expanse of glass,’ says Neil Ginger, CEO at manufacturer Origin. ‘They’ll create a light-filled, seamless transition between garden and home. ‘For existing architecture, aluminium bi-fold doors offer both strength and weight, allowing for slim, aesthetically pleasing frames. Stick to muted shades of cream, dusky greens and blues in keeping with a period property, with powder-coated aluminium doors offering a range of colours to blend in or match.
‘Bi-fold doors are available in two-door options through to large eight-door configurations that can open up the side of a house.’
Restore period features
Restoring or reinstating original architectural details, such as ornate plasterwork cornicing, ceiling roses, deep skirting boards, dado and picture rails, interior doors and fireplaces, all add character, even if the remodel as a whole is modern.
‘It is integral to respect what you have to work with in order to get the most out of a renovation,’ continues Will Herrmann. ‘Original brickwork, corbelled cast-iron columns and timber sleeper beams can all be incorporated into a design.’ Try The Victorian Emporium for authentic light switches, ceiling roses and coving, radiators, door handles and window fittings.
Avoid unnecessary work
‘People sometimes carry out misguided ''improvements” that turn out to be damaging,’ says Ian Rock of Rightsurvey.co.uk, and author of the Haynes Victorian House Manual. ‘Avoid ripping out original features such as fireplaces, cornices and sash windows. Worst of all, covering old brick or stonework with artificial stone cladding can instantly knock thousands off the value.
‘It’s not unusual for Victorian houses to have the odd damp patch or boreholes in floorboards from woodbeetle. The main worry with damp in the walls is that nearby timber floors could be at risk of rot. But there’s a lot of hype about “rising damp” – the solution is to fix any leaking pipes and gutters, worn windowsills, and excessive indoor condensation. Also, make sure the outside ground levels are at least 200mm below the internal floor, and that there’s a good air flow under the ground floor via air bricks in the main walls. ‘With shallow foundations, old buildings tend to move as the seasons change; as modern cement and plasters are brittle and rigid, they’re prone to cracking, so use traditional lime-based materials that are more flexible, and salvage and reuse Victorian materials where you can.’
Improve the layout
The typical layout of a Victorian house features generous-sized, but separate rooms, so the most obvious way to change it is to knock through, turning small, dark spaces into larger, brighter ones. A through-living room, makes a great family space that’s lit from both ends. You can put internal doors between the two parts of the room to make the spaces more versatile.
Removing the wall between the hallway and front reception room can make a smaller, terraced house feel both more spacious and lighter. You could also consider removing part-walls, swapping solid walls for internal glazing or interior doors, or replacing ugly post-war bannisters with glazed ones.
‘One of the biggest challenges of renovating a Victorian house is maximising natural light in the deepest parts of the property,’ says developer Will Herrmann. ‘Try glazed partition walls to share light between adjacent rooms, and introduce double-height spaces with rooflights to bring daylight into every part of the building.’
Clean up original flooring
Repairing minor damage to original encaustic tiles in a hallway needn’t be expensive; it might be possible to replace them with the odd salvage yard find. If you can’t discover what you’re looking for there, modern-day encaustic tiles come in convincing Victorian-style colours and shapes.
If it comes to laying down an entire an encaustic floor and you want it to look as authentic as possible, ask neighbours if you can see their original tiles and source a similar design. Or, you could add a new twist with a modern encaustic tile design.
‘Often, the floors in the reception rooms of Victorian homes were wooden floorboards, so check under carpets, sand and reseal the floor to show off the bare boards,’ says interiors expert Cato Cooper. For a light, contemporary finish, lime the floorboards; for a more dramatic look, apply a dark, nearly-black stain, and finish with a matt varnish.
Before starting any work, consult a local estate agent to ensure you maximise any spend on extensive building works. ‘It’s important to consider the ceiling value of your house, particularly if it is a smaller property or Victorian terrace,’ warns Martin Walshe, director of estate agents Cheffins
Choosing the right kitchen and bathrooms
Whether your choice of kitchen and bathroom furniture is contemporary or traditional, highlighting your property’s architectural features as part of the design will give the rooms both character and a unique, bespoke feel.
‘High ceilings, chimney breasts, alcoves, beams and stunning cornicing can all be incorporated into a kitchen design for dramatic effect,’ advises Tory Summers of Benchmarx Kitchens and Joinery. ‘For instance, using alcove space to house essential appliances or pan drawers can give you the convenience of a modern kitchen while enhancing unique features. To make the most of beautiful period coving and ceiling features, you don’t have to choose traditional-style kitchen units with a period feel; instead, crisp lines and curved cupboards can work perfectly to give the room balance and texture.
‘Sash windows will be a natural focal point, and can be emphasised by using cupboards as a frame to draw the eye. If you are lucky enough to have wooden beams on show, teaming these with solid wood work surfaces effortlessly pulls the kitchen and room themes together,’ says Tory. ‘To further highlight the beams, stick to lighter cupboard shades as these will inevitably give the overall scheme a real lift.’
Get the interior decor right
‘Where possible, choose to replicate original fixtures and fittings,’ says interior designer Rebecca Hughes. ‘It’s about making your period home functional while still preserving the character. It’s possible to find some amazing products – like fireplaces or bath fittings reminiscent of the Victorian period, but which offer today’s level of efficiency.
‘The moody, dark hues so on-trend today also look amazing when combined with Victorian features. When choosing paint colours stick to English heritage shades. There are a number of suppliers who have great authentic collections; try the National Trust range from Fired Earth, or the Heritage collection from Paint & Paper Library. Combine these with modern wall art for a dramatic look.’
On generously sized Victorian windows, minimalist shutters can often look more fitting than bulky curtains or blinds. Plantation shutters will look smart inside and out. ‘Proportion is key,’ adds Rebecca. ‘We commonly now have larger pieces of furniture. Create scaled furniture plans to confirm the layout before making big purchases. You could also source inexpensive Victorian pine furniture and update by painting or reupholstering it.’
Victorian house renovation costs
’The specification will affect costs,’ says experienced home renovator Michael Holmes. ‘Although the cost of many of the construction elements doesn’t vary based on quality, the cost of joinery, flooring and fittings does. Character bricks cost £1,020 to £1,140 per 1,000, compared to stock bricks at £420 per 1,000. Welsh roof slates can cost £95 per square metre against £24 per square metre for modern large-format concrete interlocking tiles. Decorative roof details will also add to the labour and materials costs. And if you have windows that need replacing, you’ll need to get a quote from a joinery supplier for bespoke designs.
‘Standard ceiling finishes cost around £20 to £24 per square metre, but if you’re adding decorative coving, ceiling roses and other decorative plasterwork, you will need to budget for extra.
‘A radiator system with gas boiler and basic controls costs around £22 to £28 per square metre, while you’ll need to allow £36 to £48 per square metre for underfloor heating. If you’re extending a Victorian property or converting a loft, use these tables to get an idea of finished cost per square metre (£/m2). Because this is renovation work, VAT at 20 per cent has been included: