5 tips for planning the restoration and adaptation of a period home

When planning the restoration of a period home, it is important to establish if it is a Protected Structure.  In Ireland, a house becomes a protected structure when it is added to the Record of Protected Structures. The register of these “listed” buildings may be accessed through your local authority. The protection includes the exterior and interior of the house, the land and any structures within its curtilage. Also, it includes the fixtures and features that form part of these structures and any specific feature in the grounds. The owners and occupiers of a Protected Structure have a legal responsibility to preserve the character of the protected structure. Furthermore, they are required under the Planning and Development Act 2000 to prevent their protected structure from becoming endangered. Good maintenance and repair practices will preserve the protected structure and are the responsibility of all owners and occupiers.

So, before you begin the restoration of your period home, find out what is special about the building. Investigate how you can protect these special qualities when carrying out works. In order to do this most people will need independent advice from an expert to guide them through the process.

1. Look for the right advice.

Architect Accredited in Grade 3 Conservation

When it comes to repairing or extending a protected house, it is important to know when specialist advice is needed. Also, it is necessary to know where to find the right help. Poor repair works can cause damage to a building in the long-term and may be expensive to undo. You will need the right advice for the particular job. Sometimes you will require an architect, a surveyor or a structural engineer who has experience in dealing with old buildings. You will also need a contractor who knows how to deal sympathetically with a traditional building.  The Conservation Officer in your local authority may have a list of conservation architects and building contractors  in your area. The Irish Georgian Society’s building skills’ register is a good place to search for specialists.

2. Understand the basic principles of good conservation:

It is important to understand some of the basic principles of good building conservation. This is so that the works you undertake do not damage the special qualities of a historic building.

  • Repair rather than replace: Only replace parts of a building if they can no longer do the job they were designed to do
  • Use the right materials and ensure good workmanship.
  • Use techniques that can be easily reversed or undone so that any unforeseen problems to be corrected in future without damage to the character of the building
  • Only do as much work to the building as is necessary, and as little as possible
  • Consider problems in the context of the building as a whole
  • Only use architectural salvage if you know the origin of the materials. Also, ensure that they have not been stolen or caused the destruction of other old buildings

3. Determine what changes are you allowed to make your protected house

Owners are obliged to apply for planning permission for any work that will materially affect the character of the protected structure. Your planning application must show the protected structure and how its character will be affected by the plans.

If you are unsure as to what work requires planning permission, owners can request a Section 57 Declaration from their local authority. This declaration will clearly state what type of work will and will not affect the character of the house. The owner must submit a detailed survey of the internal and external features of the structure with the request. This declaration is available free of charge but takes about 12 weeks to obtain. Owners can also apply for a Section 5 declaration as to whether development is exempted from requirement for planning permission or not. While this , the advantage is that it is usually ready in four weeks. The Authority require adequate information for assessment, such as plans, elevations and a description of the development.

Examples of some of the work which you would be allowed to do are refitting new kitchens and bathrooms. Also, renewing wiring and plumbing is permitted if you follow existing plumbing and wiring routes. Painting or wallpapering is considered acceptable too. Whereas examples of work requiring planning would include structural work or subdividing a room.  Installing an en-suite bathroom and moving a kitchen up to the dining room level would be also necessitate planning permission.

Protected structure being insulated while reroofed
Protected structure being insulated under the slates while being reroofed

4. Retrofit while preserving the character of your protected home

When the owners of existing houses upgrade their homes this contributes to a reduction in Climate Change. There is embodied carbon in the existing structure and retaining this reduces the need for new materials.  The energy and carbon performance of older houses can often be improved. However, striking the right balance between the benefits and harm is not always easy. In traditional buildings, the highest percentage of heat is typically lost through the walls (35%), followed by the roofs (25%), floors (15%), draughts (15%) and 10 windows (10%).

  • Walls: In order to protect the character of buildings of architectural and historic interest, it is generally not appropriate to insulate masonry walls. The reason for this is that the impact of the interior or exterior insulation affects the buildings appearance. Another reason is that the insulation creates difficulties with the successful detailing of joints such as at eaves and windows sills.
  • Attic insulation: It is possible to install insulation under the slates (if the house is being reroofed) or above ceiling level otherwise .
  • Floors: Putting in suspended floor insulation in line with best conservation practice is another energy-saving measure. This does not require planning permission.
  • Windows: Draught-proofing original windows with brush seals is another low-impact measure. Adding secondary glazing – which can be removed in the summer months – prevents heat loss while keeping original timber framed windows. Neither of these measures require planning permission in buildings on the Record of Protected Structures.

Moisture is a conductor of heat and even a moderate amount of moisture in any building component will decrease its thermal performance. Therefore, care must be taken to keep a traditional building protected from excessive moisture. Also, it is important to ensure any new materials installed allow the building to absorb and release moisture.

4. Planning an extension your protected house:

There are great variety and diversity of potential design solutions for a protected structure. The RIAI has prepared a video and guide to provide inspiration to owners on how to reimagine their historic home. There is much information to be derived also from the conservation projects her on our website. Many of these solutions are derived from an understanding of the original house.

Conducting Research

The starting point of a typical residential project, where the house is a historic building or protected structure is a detailed Building Survey and assessment of its condition and significance. A Conservation Report or Architectural Heritage Impact Assessment is required for a protected structure showing how the proposed development works will affect important historic features and the overall character and structure of the building. The Conservation Report remains as the reference point for all works in a protected structure. It is an invaluable investment for the owner of a historic property as the basis for pre-planning consultations, on-going maintenance of the property and providing the context for your proposed plans. For example, identifying early extensions, previously attached buildings or a conservatory can allow an extension fit better with the original house.

Marrying Past and Present

It is important that any addition will not undermine the use of the rooms in the original house and that they will continue to be used for everyday life. Retaining living spaces within the historic footprint can be cost saving and more environmentally friendly as heat from these areas is sent up through the house.

Then there are issues around the returns of older houses, where extensions are commonly added, relating to the “breathability” of houses built of solid masonry. Chimneys on the return in period houses are valuable for regulating moisture from the return and so the chimney stack must be retained in most cases. Care must also be taken to ensure that new kitchens, bathrooms, utilities, showers and toilets built in extensions are properly ventilated to avoid a build-up of condensation in an older house.

One must also be aware of how the extension will change the setting, the garden and issues around views, privacy and light for the neighbours. The location and the depth of an extension needs to respect the overall context of adjoining properties and on the wider architectural significance and setting. Repairs and modifications should be neighbourly and preserve the historic character of adjoining properties and streetscapes overtime.

Finally, when planning the restoration and extension of a protected house you have a responsibility to future generations to extend or conserve it in a sympathetic manner that ensures the survival of its original integrity and character, whilst adapting it to your needs. An architect skilled in conservation will have the expertise to conserve and extend your home in a way that does not overwhelm the original building but instead resonate well with it. 

Further Reading

The Department of Arts, Heritage and Gaeltacht series of illustrated advice booklets on all aspects of restoring historic properties including roofs, windows, energy efficiency, maintenance, paving, iron and bricks. Available at Government Publications Office.

Period Homes: A Conservation Guidance Manual by Frank Keohane, and the Department of Heritage publication.

Architectural Heritage Protection: Guidelines for Planning Authorities

Energy efficiency in traditional buildings. Available at Government Publications Office.

Maintenance: A guide to the care of older buildings. Available at Government Publications Office.

Bringing Back Homes – Manual for the Reuse of Existing Buildings. Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government.