Repairing an old house may beat a restoration
Repair is an unfamiliar word in our age of consumerism, where nearly everything – from broken kettles to barely worn clothes – is quickly discarded. Not so with old houses, where repair is the mantra of conservationists and enlightened homeowners who understand that retaining and repairing as much as possible of a building’s original fabric not only preserves its character, but can also add value.
Fabian Richter, co-founder of a financial services start-up company, bought his terraced house in south London four years ago. With the help of his builder, Stephen Bull, he is slowly renovating the Grade II listed Georgian building. Many of the rooms still have their original lath and plaster walls and ceilings dating from around 1792 so, where necessary, the old plaster has been carefully reattached to its lath backing and repairs made with traditional lime plaster.
“The most common approach these days is to rip the old plaster out and replace it with plasterboard,” explains Richter. “What’s magical with the original is that you can actually see the slight undulation and texture of the plaster. It’s like a living organism rather than a flat, lifeless plasterboard.”
Many other elements have also been nursed back to life. Windows have had new timber jointed in to replace rotten sections, and uneven floors have been strengthened with hidden steel rods. An original fanlight above the front door has been releaded, and 18th-century panelling, discovered behind an Ikea kitchen, has been lovingly brought back to life.
This principle of repairing buildings with the minimum loss of fabric, and in so doing keeping their character and authenticity, is nothing new. It has been embraced by the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB), the UK’s oldest building conservation charity, since it was founded by William Morris in 1877.
The approach is in marked contrast to “restoration”, a word that for many in the old-building world means returning a structure to a perfect state. But putting things back to how they were can easily result in conjecture. Restoration is seen by some as being highly destructive, often leading to the loss of the scars of time and history that give old buildings their character. Morris was particularly outspoken on the subject, stating that “a feeble and lifeless forgery is the final result of all the wasted labour”.
By employing people who understand old buildings, or even by reading up and doing it yourself, features ranging from cornices and fireplaces, as well as doors and windows, can all be repaired sympathetically. The SPAB runs a variety of courses for professionals
Fabian Richter and builder Stephen Bull, at the south London house Old details in Richter’s house which are being repaired, rather than restored
Inside Richter’s restored kitchen, where old panelling was found