Victorian Buildings:

some typical features and defects

When we say 'Victorian buildings', we are usually referring to buildings constructed between the late 1830s and up to about 1900. The period corresponds to when Victoria was on the throne, although the term ‘Victorian’ has some currency for the periods immediately before and after her reign.

Typical Features

Victorian buildings are quite readily identifiable as a rule, although they show a remarkable variety in their forms of construction. Mass production techniques – and mass transportation - of many building materials were developing throughout this time, which provided builders and craftsmen with new challenges, and a number of techniques in construction were tried out during this time. The middle classes were burgeoning, and speculative development was increasingly commonplace. It wasn’t all roses, though – this was also the period of the industrial slum; huge areas of terraced housing built on the cheap to house low-paid labourers.

There are a variety of styles attributed to Victorian buildings, including the Vernacular, Gothic Revival, Italianate, Arts and Crafts and so on. We won’t go into the different styles here, but instead concentrate on those aspects that they had in common.

Most Victorian buildings have a square, solid look to them, unsurprising in an era of new industrial engineering. They were often modelled on larger townhouses belonging to the wealthy, and so would have a front parlour and a back room, usually off a hallway. There were no bathrooms in the majority of cases, and so in more recent times the coal-shed and privy to the rear of the house will have given way to a ground-floor extension housing the bathroom.

Perhaps to offset the rather solid, heavy construction of Victorian buildings, houses of the era tend to have a lot of decoration; detailed fretwork, ornamental brickwork and terracotta panels, swirls, volutes and so on, often crowded into less space than seems advisable.

New techniques in the production of plate glass allowed for larger panes to the windows than previously. Whilst sash windows were still the norm, the glazing pattern favoured fewer panes of larger area. It was normal in large towns for the windows of Victorian buildings to be painted dark brown, rather than the white we more commonly see today. Front doors became more prominent, often with stained glass incorporated into the door, the fanlight or both. Bay windows also were widely used, and Gothic and ecclesiastical motifs were frequently employed.

Brick was usually the favoured material, although in some towns – such as Bath – it was common for the local stone to be employed to ensure aesthetic harmony with the older buildings. Where brick was used, it was usually red brick; yellow stocks had been common until the beginning of the nineteenth century when mass-production techniques of red bricks made red the more fashionable colour. It is quite common for the front elevation of Victorian buildings to be built in red brick, often with a fair amount of decoration, whilst the rear of the house would be built in yellow brick and without decoration, to keep the cost down. Cement mortar was starting to replace lime mortar, although was not widely used for quite some time.

Although many Victorian buildings are of solid wall construction, cavity walls were developed in this time as well, with varying degrees of success. Cast iron wall ties were used, and damp proof courses became mandatory through the 1870s. These were often slate or sackcloth soaked in bitumen, and were not always effective.

Heating was invariably through the use of coal fires. Central heating systems were employed in some public buildings, but did not really start to appear in domestic settings for quite some time. Similarly, lighting was often gas-lighting; although the filament light-bulb was available from about 1870, electric lighting did not supersede gas until after the First World War.

Typical Defects in Victorian Buildings

Damp: Solid masonry walls allow for water penetration, although it is not always rising damp. However, a lack of a damp proof course, or the failure of the original DPC is commonplace. Slate DPCs become brittle and fracture with the settlement of the walls over time, and bitumen DPCs become friable or are simply squeezed out by the pressure of the brickwork. Furthermore, despite the mass production of bricks, some were still of poor quality; such bricks can be the cause of damp spots appearing halfway up a wall in isolation and with no apparent cause. Lastly, the application of cement render to the exterior of the property can seal in any moisture present in the brickwork, so that any such moisture appears to the internal face of the wall. See our page on damp for more detail.

Wall tie failure: The use of cast-iron walls ties where cavity walls are present means that the ties have often rusted through over the years. Furthermore, Victorian builders often used fewer ties than we would use today. Also, some of the aggregates used in mortar in some parts of the country have an electrolytic action when wet, and cause the wall ties to corrode.

Failed coursing beams: Another construction technique of the period involved using timber beams as part of the wall structure. These were usually hidden behind snapped headers, and so are not immediately apparent when the wall is viewed externally. Over the years, the timber rots, and the wall begins to sag or bow.

Rotten floor joists: As with preceding eras, the ends of the floor joists in Victorian buildings are built into the walls; when the wall becomes damp, the timber rots. Poorly ventilated voids beneath timber ground floors are another cause of such problems.

Cracking around bay windows: A common problem that occurrs with bay windows is that they have often have little in the way of foundations, and so settle at a different rate to the rest of the house. Also, it is common for small trees to be planted in the front gardens of Victorian properties, which draw water from the soil and can cause the bay window to drop. Ordinarily, underpinning can and should be avoided in remedying the problem.

Lead pipework: Intially, the pipework in plumbing was of lead, as it is maleable and easy to form into pipes that can then be shaped and bent (useless fact: the Latin for lead is plumbum, which is why plumbers are so called). It is uncommon for the internal plumbing nowadays to be in the original lead, however, although there are frequently sections of the incoming water main that are still in lead, usually where the pipe is embedded in the brickwork below ground level. This is obviously less than perfect, although the inside of the pipe usually has enough limescale build-up that the incoming water never touches the lead itself.

Ageing electrical services: Although any electrical wiring will not be original to the building, it will have been installed at any time in the past ninety years or so, and often not all at once. The inferences are obvious.

Poorly replaced roof coverings: Slate was commonly used to cover the roofs of Victorian buildings, and it is not uncommon to see roofs where the original slates have been replaced with concrete tiles. These are much heavier than slates, and unless the roof structure has been strengthened to accommodate the tiles, there can be problems with the rafters being over-loaded.

Spalling brickwork: When bricks are wetted by rain, moisture is absorbed into the exposed face of the brick.If a frost follows, the water in the face of the brick freezes and expands, and causes the face of the brick to break away. Victorian bricks can be quite porous, and this tendancy can be exacerbated by the use of incorrect mortar mixes when repointing.

Defective windows: Original timber sash windows to Victorian buildings are now of great age. If decoration has not been assiduously carried out to the exterior, or if condensation has not been removed from the internal face of the windows, the timber rots. Another problem is that is was common over the past thirty or forty years to replace single glazed sash windows with double glazed uPVC or aluminium units - and these can now have a detrimental effect on the value of the property, especially if the work has been executed poorly.

Some, all or none of these defects may be present in any Victorian property,and other defects besides. If you own a Victorian property and are concerned about any defects present, or if you wish to purchase such a building, please do call us for friendly, professional advice.

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