You can’t treat your old building like a new one

Since living in the UK, I have had the pleasure of working on many historic or listed buildings in England, Europe and Scandinavia. I have even lived and stayed in some, which depending on the quality of the property was an absolute nightmare or an absolute pleasure.

The allure of these buildings is pretty obvious and I am not alone in my adoration of their pretty detailing, layers of history, rickety windows, super high or super low ceilings, creaking sounds and little surprises that spur our imagination. So its no secret that I love old buildings, it was, of course one of my main reasons for wanting to live in this part of the world.

The first thing that many people don’t know, is that in most Western & Commonwealth Countries, it is a criminal offense to make changes to a listed building without consent. That means you can incur huge fines and even go to jail. In the UK there is no cost to apply for listed building consent, but the cost of a specialist architect or designer is usually not cheap and depending on the changes you want to make and the listing level* your costs could escalate quickly, especially if the work requires specialist artisanal or building techniques.

To be honest I wasn’t intending this post to be about listed buildings, but mainly about the mass stock of older buildings, that many people live with daily and are abundant across the UK and inner city areas of Australian, Canadian, Scandinavian and European cities and my intention was mainly to raise awareness of modern materials.

I didn’t study material science, but this definitely comes up almost daily whilst working in an architectural practice, especially when designing something new or specifying materials, I always have to check whether different products or materials will work together. I’m not sure if it is my super paranoid or almost OCD personality, but I check everything, from whether the electric under floor heating mat is strong enough to work with the tiles I have specified and anything from what is behind my specialist plasterwork or whether the paint that goes on top is permeable or not.

This stuff can get pretty technical and I spend hours each day geeking over it, choosing the right material for each situation. However, for most people I would give you a real important tip and a little bit of a rule of thumb.

If your building was built in the last 60 years, more than likely it has been built with modern materials and you can usually use any products you want (although, I’d always check for asbestos in newer buildings).

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If your building is any older than 60 years, I would always err on the safe side and whenever making changes to your building (including painting the walls), opt for more natural products. This is because in my opinion, the products that were originally used, were less harsh and abrasive and the building is used to “breathing”. More often than not, natural materials are more permeable and less harsh and so will not interfere with your building doing its natural thang.

Even high gloss paint creates a non-permeable barrier and can start to cause condensation on the internal walls, where previously the water vapour would have been able to penetrate the wall and naturally escape at its own pace.

So that is my tip for you, if your building was built more than 60 years ago, I would always opt for using more natural materials, such as lime mortar over cement mortar and natural paints over lacquers or paints high in VOC’s.

Oh and lucky you, if you live in a gorgeous historic building, that’s on my wishlist!

*The Historic England Site gives explanations of listing types & links to search every currently listed building https://historicengland.org.uk/advice/hpg/has/listed-buildings/