Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Older House or Modern House? – ‘Quirky’ can come at a cost!

Opinions are often divided between those wanting to live in an older building, compared to the relative comfort that a more modern building can offer.  That is not to suggest that older/quirky buildings cannot be warm and comfortable, however in these types of buildings this can come at a cost.   
Source: Google Images
‘Quirky’ is a word often used by people to describe features in a house that are unconventional compared to ‘the norm’, particularly when compared to modern houses.  The term is used frequently by those viewing or living in cottages, Tudor or medieval houses or in fact any house that exhibits unique features or characteristics compared to the more standard features of modern houses.  These features could include things such as low ceilings, narrow doorways, exposed timber beams, out of plumb walls, uneven and creaky timber floors, inglenook fireplaces, window seats and so on…… Opinions are often divided between those wanting to live in an older building, compared to the relative comfort that a more modern building can offer.  That is not to suggest that older/quirky buildings cannot be warm and comfortable, however in these types of buildings this can come at a cost. 
It has been a requirement for many years under UK Building Regulations to construct buildings with high level of thermal efficiency and this is something that is constantly being amended to make buildings even more thermally efficient and air tight than ever before.  So, the decision to live in a more ‘modern’ building will often revolve around this higher level of thermal comfort and modern facilities that these buildings offer.  Many seem to be prepared to accept these, sometimes characterless, standardised houses, with perfect right angles and flush plastered walls, which seems to be the conventional ‘norm’ which is referred to at the beginning of this article.  Accepted, there will always be some exceptions where those constructing new houses will try to incorporate architectural and period features however these are few and far between.  The reason this is so rare is usually because of a desire to squeeze as many plots onto a site as possible, to be built as cheaply as possible and to therefore maximise profit.  There is also a general reduction in available traditional craft skills, which are being lost as older craft workers retire and colleges fail to teach new ‘apprentices’ these craft skills.
Source: Google Images
When undertaking surveys of older houses I was always disappointed when someone had refurbished an ‘older’ house and in the process removed many (sometimes all) of the features and characteristics that gave it its identity.  Once refurbished, internally, it would often look like any modern house and it made me wonder why the new owner  had not purchased a modern house in the first place and just left the original features alone.  Seeing a building treated in this way could be likened to watching your grandad trying to rap – completely inappropriate, uncomfortable and just not right! Nowadays many of our older buildings have been given listed status and are protected.  There are however many others that do not have this protection and are vulnerable to the army of future property developers who are likely to pay little regard to maintaining the original features and place more priority on simplicity and profit.
If you are lucky enough to have the opportunity to live in an older house and want to maintain it and enjoy it for the purposes it would have been originally constructed for, then there are a number of things you need to be aware of.  Firstly, find out if the building is listed (protected) and if so what type of listing it is.  It is against the law to undertake any work to a listed building without first obtaining permission.  The type of listing will determine what type of permission you need and also the type of work you can do to the building.  You can contact your local authority to find out this information.
I recently moved house and purchased a cottage.  The main entrance to the building leads directly into the old cottage and at the rear there is a large modern extension.  It is quite fortunate that we have a modern extension at the rear, as the main front entrance door is fairly small.  Also, the stairs in the cottage are quite narrow as is the head height on the stairway.  On the day of the move we soon realised that our wardrobes would not fit up the stairs and that our three piece suites were not going to fit through the door openings. It was necessary to bring everything through a large set of patio doors at the rear and leave them in our kitchen.  The following day I had to dismantle the wardrobes, piece by piece, carry then upstairs and re-assemble them in each bedroom.  In order to get one of our three piece’s into our front lounge it was necessary for us to pay a glazier to remove half of our UPVC double glazed bay window and then put it back when we had lifted the three piece through.  This may have cost us £120, however the three piece was fairly new and it was much cheaper that having to buy a new smaller one!
The timber floors in the cottage are creaky, we have a log burner in the front lounge and the cottage have a real sense of history too it.  Having lived in a modern house, I honestly would not swap this new one for the world. When I undertake any work to the cottage I have no intention of taking away its ‘quirky’ features, in fact it is these features that makes it what it is!  I appreciate that not everyone will have the same taste as me, however, the more people that can understand the significance of the heritage of our older buildings and also appreciate the craftsmanship that is part of the fabric and structure of these buildings, then the more people that will experience the same privilege as I do by waking up each day in such a quirky house! Older house or modern house - What would you choose?

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  1. It seems I too have the same taste as you and live in a very similar cottage with a large modern extension on the rear (that I built). I totally agree that the traditional features should be kept and changing them can some times have a detrimental affect on the house. If the "old house" has lime mortar and plaster it is essential only that is used. There has been a damp problem just above the skirting boards for years, I have tried all sorts including trickle vents on the windows etc. Finally on reading deep into the benefits of lime, I stripped back the modern plaster skim and exposed the original lime, hence the walls dried out nicely.
    Sand and cement pointing to the outside walls also stops the building being able to breath and if it is sandstone eventually rain and frost will damage the face of the stone and it will crumble like a digestive biscuit.
    Steel beams with cement based bedding will eventually move as the lime built wall is always moving with the seasons.
    Cement is just not usable in old building and in the long run it is cheaper to use lime. Modern materials and old buildings don't work in harmony.

  2. This is a really interesting article. I love quirky but at the same time the constraints of a building with listed status is not something i'd wish to take on! Old houses cost a lot more in their upkeep and are more likely to need things replacing. I tend to go for new builds myself, i'd rather sacrifice the quirkiness of the building I live in and fill it instead with fun, quirky things to make it look funky and individual but I still have the benefits of a brand new property that will have very minimal upkeep costs - having a 10 year NHBC building certificate gives new home owners real piece of mind and i'll take that any day of the week over an unpredictable older property.

  3. We also live in an older property (circa 1850) and when we bought it, we refurbished it and actively sought to retain and repair any original features that we could. I'm not sure everyone would have done this, but i also think that it is important to retain the original features of all older buildings, whether listed or not, to allow future generations to experience and enjoy.

  4. I live in a property built 1890. It's a nightmare to heat and there is a real sense of age in it. Not everyone's cup of tea but I wouldn't change it for the world. Looking for opinions - the living room has a Berkeley-style cast-iron gas fireplace. I am considering replacing with a log burner. Should I or shouldn't I. I know most will tell me to do so, as the fireplace is not original, but nonetheless, it seems a real waste to lose such a key part of the building as it stands now... Thoughts?