Sunday, 17 October 2010

12 Things to know about Victorian Houses

Victorian houses were often built with attractive detail rarely seen on modern properties.  But don’t be fooled!  Many were built cheaply to house workers in town centres and fall well short of today's building standards unless updated.

  1. Walls - usually solid brick with vertical timber studs nailed to the brick at 16” (400mm) centres.  Thin slats of wood ‘Laths’ were nailed horizontally to the vertical studs and lime plaster was pushed onto the laths. 
  2. Plaster is soft and absorbs moisture eventually breaking away from Laths.  Some houses have been re-plastered on to new Gyproc Plasterboard.  If you want to fix anything to the walls you will need to find the original studs to screw into as the plaster and/or plasterboard is not substantial enough to hold anything – even a toilet roll holder.  You can occasionally screw into one of the old laths if you’re lucky enough to hit one but on its’ own this will not give you a substantial fixing.
  3. Chimneys (or Draft Shafts!) – the lime mortar may need re-pointing and the chimney re-lining.  A Chimney Sweep can check the condition before using.  Victorian fireplaces should have a shutter (damper) – if you push this open and mortar falls down then you probably need a new liner.  Damp can work through the cracks in an old chimney breast causing damp patches and eventual damage.  Re-lining the chimney can solve many problems but drafts are harder to cure.  A woodstove can reduce chimney drafts. If you board a fireplace ensure you install a vent.
  4. Floors – more drafts!  Airbricks in the outer walls allow airflow below floor level to stop floor joists (supports) rotting. So when you uncover those lovely floor boards you will also uncover lots of drafts.  There are ways to deal with these but none are perfect – mix sawdust with PVA glue or flooring oil and use it as a filler before the final sanding, clear silicone or wood colour decorator’s caulk can also be used to fill the gaps.
  5. Heating - installing central heating pipes under floors will usually mean cutting some of those precious boards.  Take care of those delicate ‘lath and plaster’ ceilings – a few nails banged into timbers to support the central heating pipes can cause the soft plaster below to shatter, leaving you with cracked ceilings. It is difficult to bury heating pipes in to lath and plaster walls so be prepared for vertical heating pipes to be on show.
  6. Electrics – rewiring a Victorian house can be a delicate operation.  Many houses will have surface mounted sockets on skirting boards but this is no longer recommended.  Rewiring can often lead to stripping out the old lath and plaster and reboarding/plastering.
  7. Gutters and downpipes – usually cast iron.  These will need clearing and painting regularly to avoid rust.
  8. Windows – often sash windows and if your house is in a Conservation Area you may not be permitted to replace them, unless you have replica’s made.
  9. Roof – often had no roof felt or felt that doesn’t ‘breathe’.  Central heating can cause condensation build up in the loft leading to rot in the roof timbers. Slates were nailed on and unlike today's fixings weren't rustproof, so loose slates are common.  If the roof covering is replaced then the felt should be replaced with breathable membrane, and the ridge ventilated, reducing the condensation problem.
  10. Damp proof course (if there is one!) – a thin layer of slate a few brick courses up from ground level - make sure outside soil or paving/courtyards have not  built up above the DPC.  If rising damp is a problem a DPC can be injected into the base of the walls retrospectively – at a cost!
  11. Small rooms – often difficult to find adequate space for bathrooms, boilers and storage cupboards.  Ensure boiler flues are well away from window and door openings so that fumes can’t come back inside the house (Building Regs dictate distances for new installations).  Check positions of soil stacks and waste pipes before installing or moving sanitary facilities. 
  12. Outside space – often small with limited access for bike and bin storage.   

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