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Top Tips For Renovating Your Historic, Listed Or Period Property

Follow our guide to restoring your period property’s historic features with care and sensitivity. Renovating a property with a rich heritage history can be hugely rewarding… yet it can often be a very daunting prospect. Plus, with a wealth of considerations to make, planning permissions to adhere to, period feature terms to understand and design options to wade through along the way, it’s no wonder it can seem overwhelming.

When it comes to keeping your budget (and your sanity) in check, a little forward planning can go a long way, as does hiring the right professional for the job.

To get you started, we’ve pulled out our top tips on how to restore a period property sympathetically and stress-free.

Understand the process

The brief. All successful projects start with a clear brief. Your chosen architects, designers and/or project managers should attend a meeting at your property to assess the feasibility and costs of what you would like to achieve. Your designers should be able to advise you on what sort of colours and materials would feel historically appropriate and any period features like cornicing or ceiling roses you may want to restore or reinstate. Together, you will clarify the project’s design goals and identify any major hurdles. You should also discuss budget and potential costings at this stage, before designs are developed in more detail.

The design. Next comes the design stage, in which you, your architects and/or designers will develop your design concepts and a complete package of  pre-construction information. It is at this point that the legal status of your period property – whether it’s in a conservation area, Grade I or Grade II-listed, or even a scheduled monument – becomes of paramount importance. All the requisite planning permissions, listed building consents, License to Alter agreements and any other statutory requirements must be acquired or satisfied before any construction work begins. Different grades of listing come with different responsibilities to preserve the architectural and historic integrity of the building. 

The build. Period properties are by their very nature idiosyncratic, so every project will be slightly different. However, the normal outline of the construction schedule starts with demolitions and strip out. This is the point at which one sometimes discovers that the building has some surprises in store. For example, taking up old floorboards can reveal old pipework that requires careful reconfiguration. When embarking on a period renovation, you need to be able to roll with the punches to some degree! However, very large and expensive projects will incorporate some project investigation ahead of the design phase, which helps everyone plan ahead more accurately. The contractors will then start the actual building work, putting up brick and steel work to support new extensions or facilitate the removal of load-bearing walls, constructing staircases and reconfiguring internal space with new stud walls and doorways. After this, what’s known as the ‘first fix’ begins, comprising the installation of all electrical wiring and pipework for plumbing. The walls and ceilings are then closed up and plastered, with cement board installed wherever there will be tiling. The ‘second fix’ comprises all the work that’s done after the plastering, including installing lighting, plumbing sinks, baths and showers, fitting doors to doorframes etc. 

Completion and snagging. Once your contractors consider the project to be finished, either you or your project manager must make a thorough inspection to ensure that both aesthetics and functionality have been achieved. It’s crucial to ensure that any planning stipulations intended to manage and protect the special architectural and historic interest of your building and/or its surrounding area have been adhered to. You or your project manager should compile a snagging list of issues to be resolved before the deadline for completion and ahead of final payments to the contractor. The formal handover of your period property should include all installation certificates (Gas Safe, NICEIC, FENSA etc) as well as Building Control certificates.

Start with your flooring

If you’re restoring a period property (or any other design scheme for that matter), always start with the flooring. Not only will it influence the colour scheme and underpin the general look and feel of the room, but it can be a costly addition if left unconsidered until the end.

Start by assessing the existing floor to know what you’re working with. It might be a case of peeling back a corner of carpet or laminate to see what’s underneath. Bring in a professional to see what can be restored and what has to be replaced  – this is where the difference in cost lies and where you should start.

If there are boards underneath, just be mindful of the fact that these original floorboards were always meant to be covered, so even if they can be restored, you’ll have to invest in filling the gaps between them and adding new sealants. That said, the results are often wonderful. Either go for an original-style stained dark look to resemble mahogany or warmer tones for a lighter look.

If you have to install new flooring, then the advantage is you’ll have way more options to work with and, by working with the right professional, these can be as true to the era as you like – ranging from perfectly laid parquet that’ll add interest, to bold encaustic tiles which provide more opportunity for colour.

Bonus tip: If you have a smaller area to work with, use your flooring to create the illusion of more space. If you’re going for wood flooring, opt for narrower boards and lay planks parallel with the longest dimension of the room. Use the same type of flooring throughout to create a ‘seamless’ look that ties one room into another. Prefer tiles? Choose oversized options to make the space feel bigger.

Know your period property trims

Originally used to break up large, blank expanses of plaster, decorative trims are a key part of period properties and, as well as adding interest, texture and subtle historic impact, they are also there to provide useful lines of alignment with which to design your scheme.

Picture rails. This kind of trim was originally used for attaching hooks to hang pictures from, and by adding them naturally set a line above which pictures were a no go zone, and where the ceiling plane could take centre stage instead.

If you have high enough ceilings to add a new rail  (2 metres and above), leave about 30cm space between the picture rail and the ceiling. If your ceilings are lower, try and avoid them in favour of a cornice or dado (more on these below) as they will pull down the room somewhat.

Dado rails. These were historically used to prevent walls being scuffed and knocked by the back of a chair, but decoratively speaking are a nice way to divide a wall in two. Dados should be set at hip height (regardless of the ceiling height), and either feature panel moulding below them or wallpaper if you’re feeling adventurous. Your artwork will sit above the dado and a bold paint shade behind it will make a statement.

Architrave. An architrave is the wooden trim used to frame doors, windows and built-in cupboards; designed to protect areas where plaster would crack with repeated opening and closing. The corner joints are mitred – a joint achieved by having both slabs cut on a 45-degree angle and joined together at a ‘point.’ – and the wood is usually painted.

Panel mouldings. These are decorative details that are fixed to the wall creating frames; usually under dado trims but can cover the wall and replace the dado altogether. Either paint the whole wall one colour (as pictured) and allow the moulding to create subtle interest, or for ultimate luxe wow-factor infill the frames with a textured wallpaper.

Skirting boards. Skirting boards were originally designed to mask the join between the wall and the floor and block out gaps (and so draughts). With more sophisticated building techniques available now, they’re less necessary in modern spaces, but are a great addition to a period space; whether you keep them white and traditional, go for a bold colour or match the paint to the wall colour.

Cornices. Basically a skirting for the ceiling (though often more decorative), a cornice can be a wonderful feature in a period property that adds an unexpected detail – especially if you’re lucky enough to have high ceilings.

If you have lower ceilings, you’ll need to allow enough distance between your cornice and your picture rail, so you may need to choose between one or the other.

With the right expert, these original decorative trims can be restored to their former glory, or brought into the modern century with clever decorating techniques. For example, you can choose between painting a cornice white to blend it in with the ceiling, or match it with your wall colour for a modern twist.

Bonus tip: Try not to mix eras. The main thing to remember when choosing mouldings (mouldings catch any type of raised plaster work, from skirting trims to ceiling roses) is to make sure they match. For example, a two-step Edwardian cornice might not go with a Victorian ceiling rose. Do you research, or hire an expert who can help you source them correctly. Plus, if you’re not sure where to start as yours have been removed – you could always ask next door if you can take a look at any remaining features in theirs.

Restore a period fireplace

Fireplaces have traditionally occupied a special spot in the home, as centres of heat and warmth and as ambient gathering places. Today they form a fantastic design opportunity with which to celebrate your period property.

Whether you’re restoring a fireplace or adding a new one, you can choose from a wide range of manufactured designs, have it custom-made according to your requirements, or source one from an antique dealer. Marble, stone or cast iron were the most popular materials of the day.

Modern upgrades. If your disused fireplace is draughty, invest in inflatable chimney balloons that attach to the inside of the flue, and if the idea of wood-burning fireplace upkeep is not up your alley, there are many period-style electric options to discover.

Update sash windows

Period properties often feature windows that are extremely old and, as a result, can also be quite draughty. If your period property still has its original windows, it is probably time that these are replaced – or at least restored by a specialist with draught-proofing and a cord for easy opening.

If your period property is listed, you might need to retain the single-glazed originals, but these days it’s possible to source sympathetic secondary glazing that doesn’t hide the original windows.

Introduce modern heating

While period properties would not have had radiators, heating is an essential component of home life,  and modern radiator designs can be a great opportunity to either nod to your period home’s history or introduce a modern decorative twist.

Cast iron radiators nod to the era of Victorian grandeur and will alleviate the need for garish white steel radiators often found in newer builds.

If you’re looking for a more modern look, either paint your radiator the same shade as your walls or go for bold contrast such as a modern matt design pictured against white metro tiles.

Have fun with lighting

Updating lighting in a period property can be costly, so it’s important to create an electrical plan before you start, considering ambient, task and accent lighting at the same time. It’s wise to consult a professional on this, as it will most likely involve rewiring.

On the whole, be consistent with the style of your lighting choices, while adding one or two statement pieces to draw focus. Bold modern statement shades can add wonderful juxtaposition in traditional spaces, or scour the antique shops for traditional ideas from your chosen era.

Bonus tip: Don’t forget the switches. These days, light switch features offer yet another opportunity to either celebrate your home’s period essence or add playful modern updates, from aged-brass plates and dolly switches to rose gold dimmers.

Be brave with colour

Many period properties share a certain set of characteristics – high ceilings, large windows, deep skirting boards, wooden floorboards and well-proportioned rooms – that make them the perfect canvas on which to express your flair for colour if you wish.

Start by researching the era for inspiration – the Victorians favoured deep colours such as browns, burgundy, chestnut, ivy green and inky blue, for example – yet apply common painting principles based on the position of the room; warming tones in darker rooms, for example. You can also brighten the look with bright white trims and ceilings and thoughtful lighting.