Period restoration: When what’s on the outside really matters

Part three of our series focuses on renovating the exterior of an older building

“The internal joinery is beautiful in this house”: James Kelly outside his home at 81 North King Street, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

“The internal joinery is beautiful in this house”: James Kelly outside his home at 81 North King Street, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

Many owners of period homes realise they are only custodians of their houses, taking on the necessary upkeep to maintain the buildings to pass on to the next generation – whether through sale or inheritance. Understanding how a period house was built, the materials that were used and what works are appropriate to keep it in the best order is key.

“There is no such thing as a maintenance-free building and most damage to brickwork, stonework and plasterwork arises from the lack of maintenance. It’s astonishing how quickly a building can deteriorate and can become unlivable in within five to 10 years,” says Frank Keohane, building conservation surveyor, who is a strong advocate of what he calls preventative maintenance.

“The materials used in older buildings with solid-wall construction and timber-framed roofs are simpler to repair than modern buildings,” he adds. “Traditional building materials are breathable compared with modern homes with cavity walls and impermeable membranes to keep the damp out.”

Keohane advises homeowners to get to know their homes “holistically” before they undertake any works.

“What people need is a basic understanding of how their homes were built and the inevitable process of gradual decay. You can even do a methodical building survey yourself by carefully looking at your house during wet and windy weather to see if water is coming out where it shouldn’t be.”

He gives an easy example of taking a close look at downpipes and drainpipes – checking if they are blocked, corroded or cracked is hugely important to both the interior and exterior fabric of the house.

Conservation principles

Charles Duggan, heritage officer of Dublin City Council says the importance of “historical research and forensic analysis of the building” can’t be underestimated. Knowing when your house was built, whether it is Georgian, Victorian or Edwardian, from the Arts and Crafts period or later, will be a key to finding out what bricks and mortars were used as well as the type of timber and glass in the windows and doors.

 

Jacqui Donnelly, architectural conservation advisor at the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht says, “the sustainability principles of reduce, reuse and recycle applies to buildings too.”

Building conservation surveyors and builders attuned to the original materials will be keen to reuse them as much as possible. “Up to 50 per cent of slates can usually be re-used for a re-roofing job. However, be wary, not all contractors will give impartial advice,” says Keohane,

“Poor repairs are very expensive and sometimes impossible to undo,” adds Donnelly. She also advises against the use of architectural salvage, unless you know its origin.

The Irish Georgian Society’s building skills’ register is a good place to search for specialists. Homeowners are also advised to keep a building log of any work done. This log should include receipts, photographs of ongoing work and notes made during inspection of the works in progress.

The main exterior jobs that owners of period properties face are repairs to the roof, gutters and downpipes, maintenance (repair or replacement) of windows, doors and exterior walls, whether brick, stone or a combination of both.

“The key is to follow conservation principles which is to repair rather than replace and use breathable renders and mortars, avoiding resin and cement,” says Keohane.

For big projects, home owners will need professional advice and builders with detailed knowledge of working with historic properties.

“The key point I learned when doing work on my home was not to do anything to the structure that would prevent the house from taking in moisture and releasing it gradually back into the atmosphere. I also learned that older building methods, such as using lime mortar in pointing and linseed oil paint on window frames and fascia, work in harmony with nature while modern methods focus on keeping the elements out,” says one restorer of an early 20th-century home. Keeping windows and doors washed down and painted is a simple preventative approach to maintenance.

“We haven’t been as good at repairing and looking after our windows in the last 30-40 years as our parents’ generation was,” says Keohane. A similar level of care is needed for wrought-iron railings. Often, this maintenance also allows owners to keep a close eye on necessary repairs, which can be carried out before the damage becomes extensive.

Granite steps are, however, the exception to the rule as the more you clean them, the dirtier they will become as the pockets for dirt increase. A good old-fashioned occasional scrub with water and bleach is sufficient.

Plastered not stoned

Another point often raised by conservationists is that traditional brick and stone walls were never meant to be left un-rendered. So the fashion for exposed stone and brick walls in 19th century houses goes against the traditional building design. “Not rendering traditional walls is the equivalent of going out without a coat as the house is constantly battling to keep water out,” says Keohane.

“Get plastered, not stoned” was a catchphrase used by conservationists to encourage rendering of exposed exterior stone or brick buildings. The use of cement in pointing such walls is also not recommended as it can cause tiny cracks in the brickwork. And, pressurised cleaning methods such as sandblasting can also damage brick on exterior walls.

The Department of Arts, Heritage and Gaeltacht has published a series of illustrated advice booklets on all aspects of restoring historic properties.

Subjects covered so far in the series are roofs, windows, energy efficiency, maintenance, paving, iron and bricks. They can be bought from the Government Publications Office, bookshops or online at wordwellbooks.com for €10.

They are also available to download for free on buildingsofireland.ie/ FindOutMore

Restoring and maintaining the exterior: What the owners of a house on North King St, Dublin did

When we meet, James Kelly is still bristling about the spots of chemical cleaning agent that have splashed on to the windows and brickwork of his home from a nearby building undergoing routine cleaning. It’s a not-so-subtle reminder for owners of period homes to keep a close eye on any works to modern buildings in close proximity that could potentially damage the historic brick and stonework on their property.

Kelly and his wife, Patricia Wrafter, both conservation architects, bought number 81 North King St more than 20 years ago. They have been restoring this striking Georgian home (with Kelly and Cogan architectural practice in the basement) on the north side of Smithfield since then.

“When we bought our house, the roof was collapsed and water-logged, the brickwork was crumbling and the granite sills, timbers and glass in the windows were in a bad condition,” says Kelly. Undaunted by the challenge, the two architects took a slow and careful approach to restoring their home.

“The biggest problem for some people is that they want to do everything at once. I advise people to live in a building for at least one year to understand how the building works. I also advise people to avoid architects who talk about ‘interventions and extensions’”.

During their initial investigations in to the roof and internal joinery, the couple discovered that although the house had all the appearance of a Georgian three-storey over basement house, it was in fact a much older building which had been remodelled in the Georgian style.

“It is part of one of the original plots laid out in 1665. The dowager Duchess of Meath lived here until the 1720s and Lord Brabazon lived next door. Architectural historian Maurice Craig once said that the Renaissance of Dublin started in Smithfield. Formerly Oxmantown Green, it was the first public space to be laid out in Dublin. Now, only three houses remain, ours, number 80 next door which has fallen to wrack and ruin and number 85,” says Kelly.

For the first 10 years, Kelly and Wrafter concentrated on making their home structurally sound and weatherproof.

“Water penetration is the cause of most problems in a house and we found one rainwater pile leaking like a sieve,” says Kelly. They reroofed and repointed the front and back of the building about 10 years ago.

“We were lucky that the original lime mortar had not been replaced with cement so we didn’t damage the brick by taking out the decayed pointing,” says Kelly.

At this time, they also restored the ironworks on the railings but needed to replace the front door because the original one was in such bad condition. “We still have the original front door and hope to restore it in the longer term,” says Kelly.

Replica single-glazed windows (with crown glass imported from Poland) were fitted in the front of the house but some original ones were repaired at the back.

Conservation joiner Paul Lawrence has done extensive work to the staircase, stair rails, skirting boards, balustrades and doors.

“The internal joinery is beautiful in this house,” says Kelly.

More recently, the lead used along the parapet gutters has been replaced with copper. “We did this to prolong the life of the roof. Really, looking after a house like this requires a continuous maintenance programme of repair and repainting, says Kelly.

So what’s his view of the vista onto Smithfield Plaza, the former market square that has been modernised in recent years?

“The gas braziers look like something you’d hang a Swastika from. But I like the recent addition of trees and lawn. We have great neighbours. We couldn’t understand when we bought the house, why so few people wanted to live here.”

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