Expert Advice: Updating a Historic House

You’ve seen the house you want – it’s architecturally significant, full of character and very beautiful. But what happens next? If you buy an old house, you’re in for a far more complex refurb or restoration than if you’d bought a modern or contemporary one. There might be unexpected surprises behind walls from pre-planning days, and the government will take an interest if your house is of particular note. But then, that’s half the fun: living in an old house means you’re part of the very fabric of your nation’s history and you’re keeping that flame alive. But your build experience will be much more pleasant if you bear various facts in mind when updating a historic house.

Know what you’re getting into

UK houses are grade listed, and while many people think they know what that means, it’s easy to get into trouble. Historic England (and Scotland and Wales) says that all buildings built before 1700 which survive in anything like their original condition are listed, as are most of those built between 1700 and 1840. Listed buildings can be altered, extended and even demolished – within government planning guidance. However, planning consultant Tim Miles says,The things that can make an historic building special are not always obvious. The layout of rooms, internal joinery, even an alteration made by a famous past owner.” His partner Chris Miele adds, “When a building is listed, all of it, inside and out, is protected, and that protection even extends to structures in its curtilage, like boundary walls and garden structures.”
In the US the National Register of Historic Places provides a similar function, as does ANABF in France, but be aware rules and applications are different in each country. Listing (or similar) can be a headache but it comes with an upside: some countries, including the US and UK, offer tax credits or grants for those restoring homes with notable historical significance.

Updating A Historic House Article

Speke Hall is one of the most important timber framed manor houses in the country, dating from the 15th century and with historic later additions including William Morris wallpaper. With a Grade I listing, planning permission would be onerous in the extreme. After London, Liverpool has the most listed buildings in the country.

Get planning buy in

The next stage is to follow the correct procedures if you plan to make changes. It’s not always easy to know what is possible, so a planning consultant can come in handy. Chris Miele says: “The planning system has become increasingly complex. Planning requirements change frequently and every Council has its own policies. London alone has 32 different Councils, and the Mayor of London has his own policies.” Tim adds, “Consultants work closely with members of the design team, using their specialist knowledge to advise on what may or may not be accepted by the planners. They prepare and submit the application to the planning authority and negotiate with the planners if it’s required to obtain planning permission.” You can go it alone, but make sure you research your authority’s development plan thoroughly before submitting.

Restoration vs rehabilitation

To restore a house means to return its interior and exterior appearance to a particular era or style. To rehabilitate a house means to make it work for contemporary living while preserving important historic and architectural features. If you are restoring a historic house then you may have to work very cleverly get the kind of mod-cons that enhance modern living. When restoring the 16th century Palazzo Papadopoli in Venice and turning it into a seven-star jewel of a hotel, architect Jean-Michel Gathy had to box clever. “The biggest challenge was to incorporate the mechanicals and electricals. As the existing architecture with its old master frescoes was untouchable, we worked very closely with engineers to integrate air-conditioning systems and lighting directly into custom-made contemporary furniture, ensuring a visually neat design outcome.”

All the mod cons in Aman Grand Canale Venice are hidden in the furniture.

All the mod cons in Aman Grand Canale Venice are hidden in the furniture.

Expect the unexpected (be flexible)

Historic houses come with challenges. Built before planning regulations, you can open a wall or pull up a floor and find… almost anything, as James Barnett of JB Architects illustrates. “We started developing a 250-year-old farmhouse in Northamptonshire, and pulled up the carpets to find both the ground and first floors were completely rotten. Half of the ground floor had been built without foundations, while the other half revealed a large and very deep cellar, which was news to the previous owner as well as the new one.” This story is by no means unusual: it is vital you build in a contingency fund of 10-20% to your build.
Sometimes surprises can be good. When Patrizio Fradiani of Studio F found the medieval Mazzini 31, it had been abandoned for decades. The residence had belonged to one of the richest families in town and had extensive frescoes. “The frescoes span almost four centuries and there are layer upon layer of them. Some of them like old paintings under layers of plaster, or sketches made on the walls by painters before they painted the ceilings. We cleaned up everything and restored all the frescoes, but we also added new elements that didn’t intervene with the walls and ceiling yet felt architectural – like glass ‘shields’ of different colours to provide separation and provide reflective surfaces. We also eliminated lots of doors and created new ones to change the flow between rooms and make it a modern airy residence, but still respectful of the old.”


Glass walls lightly break up the spaces in Mazzini 31, not interfering with the existing historic fabric.

Assess later interventions and review the house’s history

Houses are ‘living’ things, in the sense that each generation takes what they need from a house. It’s sometimes necessary to unravel layers of historic alterations to work out what original fabric remains and what elements are of significance. Chris Dyson says, “Many of the Georgian houses we have worked on have changes effected over many years, and often we argue that our iteration is just another well-considered adaption to bring the building forward in usefulness to the 21st century. A good historical appraisal of the building is essential before forming fixed ideas, as often one needs to negotiate change, even if it seems blindingly obvious.” So you don’t have to stick to one era – it would be sacrilege to, for example, tear out the William Morris wallpaper in Grade-I listed Speke Hall to restore it to 15th century-style plastering. Work with what you have, not against it.

Chris Dyson-White Row_07

Chris Dyson’s rebuild at White Row. “A glazed observatory forms the new dining room and allows the clarity of the original Georgian plan form to read.”

Accentuate the historic features

When working on Les Haras in Strasbourg, Jouin Manku decided not to interfere too much with the building and instead took a more minimalist approach, with a limited palette of raw and natural materials in neutral colours such as blackened raw steel, patinated zinc, unfinished oak, beech, quartzite, brick, brass and saddle leather. Subtle equestrian references define the site, from stitched saddle leather headboards in the bedrooms, to the wood and leather furniture in the restaurant. So while the furniture and interventions were contemporary, the colour palettes and materials accentuate the sense that this was a former stud farm.

Adding extensions: go with a contemporary flavour

Old houses are old because they have stood the test of time and the countless families have lived in them, so they have rarely stood still. As Hannah Obee, Curator of stately home Chatsworth says, “There are layers to the collection – the family has been collecting for 15 generations. Every piece might now be hallowed and revered, but at the point it was created it was often ground-breaking. Take the windows that Bess Hardwick put in Hardwick Hall, or our collection of 1680s silverware.”
So it’s not sacrilege to put a modernist masterpiece in a 16th century house – but there is an art to it, as Tom Croft of TCA knows: “I think that’s where the interest lies: the tension between the two things often produces an interesting result. The difficulty is in not letting one thing overpower the other, and it all comes down to experience.”

mansion architecture design

A new steel extension meets early Victorian architecture in this Notting Hill mansion by Tom Croft: old balances with new, without one overpowering the other. © Richard Davies

Or echo the original

An extension ‘in the style of’ does not have to slavishly copy the original building, as Nash Baker proved when creating a contemporary interpretation of the Kentish barn style. “The oast house had an existing barn, so the black-stained timber is appropriate and the two asymmetric low-rise structures that make up the new house blend in to the environment, their green sedum roofs and eaves lowering towards the neighbouring boundaries.”

Dr Archie Walls of historic specialists GQA agrees: “Whilst conservation is about the reanimation of the old, it is also about animation as change takes place and has to be factored into conservation. Great Fosters is a Grade-I-listed 17th-century property, but it is also a hotel and has to work as one. The hotel had an Orangery that they wanted to utilise more effectively, so we created a conservatory; a solution that was acceptable to English Heritage because we designed it in such a way that it qualified as a garden building. It really looked the part…as if it had been standing alongside the house for years. It’s all about working within a context.

Great Fosters-conservatory-Giles Quarme Associates

Archie Wallis at GQA was able to build a conservatory next to the Grade 1-listed Great Fosters by making look like so ‘right’ it was as if it had been there for years.

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