Bridging eras: an architect’s insight into modernising period properties

RIBA chartered architect and urban designer Kathy Basheva has worked in China, the Middle East, Europe, and the UK: since 2006 she has based her practice in London. Studio Basheva focuses on urban master planning and high-end residential refurbishments. Kathy is a regular external critic at the Bauhaus school of architecture and has been invited as a critic at the Architectural Association School of Architecture, the University of East London, and University College London.

Architect Kathy Basheva.

As an architect with a passion for marrying the old with the new, I have had the privilege of working on various period conversion projects that highlight the delicate balance required when integrating modern features into historic properties.

One such remarkable transformation took place over five years in a tranquil area of the London green belt, where we breathed new life into a 19th-century dilapidated former forge. This project serves as a compelling case study for the nuanced approach necessary to preserve the historical essence of a building while accommodating contemporary living standards. The commission began with a vision to convert the former forge into a two-bedroom family house.

Period property conversion: The Old Forge. Image: Tony Harris.

The building, initially constructed in the 1840s and later transformed into an electrical power station in the 1950s, was in dire disrepair. The challenge was to retain its historical essence while integrating modern amenities. Obtaining planning approval for the conversion within a listed cartilage, located in a conservation area, required meticulous consultation and negotiation with local authorities, historic preservation societies, and community stakeholders. Understanding the site’s historical significance informed every aspect of the design process, ensuring that the original structure’s integrity was preserved.

Image: Tony Harris.

One of the most striking features of the old forge was its large furnaces, once the heart of its industrial operation. Instead of removing these relics, we saw an opportunity to repurpose them as focal points within the new design. The furnaces were carefully restored and converted into functional fireplaces, paying homage to the building’s industrial past while providing warmth and ambience to the modern living spaces. This creative repurposing exemplifies how historical elements can be retained and given new life in a modern context. The project presented technical challenges, including structural issues and environmental considerations. Collaborating with engineers and environmental consultants, we addressed these challenges to ensure the new design met rigorous standards of safety, sustainability, and energy efficiency.

Incorporating new technology into period homes

Sustainable design principles were at the core of this project, incorporating eco-friendly materials and energy-efficient technologies. Reclaimed bricks and timber from the original structure were repurposed in the renovation, reducing the environmental footprint while adding to its historical authenticity. A ground source heat pump was discreetly concealed beneath the garden’s surface, offering a low-carbon alternative to conventional heating systems. Flexibility for the future was a crucial aspect of the design, ensuring longevity. The open-plan layout allows for reconfiguration as needs evolve, and the use of sustainable materials guarantees durability with minimal maintenance.

This forward-thinking approach ensures that the building can adapt to future advancements in technology and sustainability, maintaining its relevance and functionality for years to come.

House extension. Image: Adam Scott.

Another project that illustrates the same principles involves converting an old garage into a kitchen extension. This transformation exemplifies how thoughtful extensions can harmonise old and new, unlocking the true potential of period properties and tailoring them to modern lifestyles. Transforming a period home into a modern living space that seamlessly blends heritage and contemporary design is an intricate endeavour.

Preserving the character of these architectural gems, replete with distinctive features like stone masonry, Georgian fittings, and marble accents, while integrating amenities for elevated comfort, poses a delicate challenge. With a meticulous approach that respects the home’s historical origins and a discerning eye for marrying period aesthetics with innovative solutions, architects can orchestrate a symphony of timeless elegance and contemporary convenience. This seamless fusion empowers homeowners to revel in the allure of a bygone era while indulging in the luxuries of the present, ultimately crafting an abode that transcends the boundaries of time.

The extension work in progress. Image: Adam Scott.

Evaluating existing features

The architectural integrity of the structure is the foundation upon which all restoration efforts are built. Addressing any issues with the fabric of the building – be it the roof, foundations, or masonry – is critical before any cosmetic enhancements are considered. This phase often reveals the unexpected, requiring both resilience and flexibility in approach. A comprehensive building conditions assessment provides an understanding and documentation of the current conditions of a historic building in order to anticipate and plan for conservation, restoration, and preservation needs. Even if conservation work and/or new construction are not planned, an assessment can help document what exists, informing ongoing maintenance, stabilisation efforts, and safeguards against future damage.

Heritage properties are part of history, and as such, their restoration is often subject to strict regulatory oversight to ensure architectural and historical authenticity is preserved. Navigating this landscape requires patience and a willingness to engage with national and local conservation bodies, ensuring that restoration efforts are both compliant and respectful of the home’s heritage. Examining the eras when features like sash windows, parquet floors, or bullseye windows originated provides clues to date property origins. Consulting archives for original planning applications, conservation consent, construction records, and architectural plans can provide conclusive evidence of period properties’ history.

The completed kitchen extension. Image Adam Scott.

Identifying skilled craftspeople  

Assembling a team of experts who share your vision and respect for the property’s history is crucial. Architects, builders, and craftspeople skilled in the nuances of historic restoration are invaluable allies in marrying tradition with innovation. Their expertise ensures that the home’s character is preserved while seamlessly integrating modern comforts and efficiencies. In the Old Forge, we were lucky to be commissioned by a client who understood the historical artefacts in the building. We were able to find a local chimney sweep, a bricklayer and an ironmonger to complete the design ideas and convert the sketches into their final feature.

Working with period properties

Enhancing the period characteristics of a historic home is an intricate process that demands a harmonious blend of preservation and innovation. By highlighting unique elements, improving functional spaces, and embracing authentic decorating tips, homeowners can unlock the true potential of these architectural gems.

Preserving historic buildings is crucial for maintaining cultural heritage and identity, as these structures offer a glimpse into the past and tell the stories of our ancestors. The unique architecture and design elements, such as stone masonry, Georgian fittings, and marble accents, contribute to the aesthetic appeal of the property and make it visually appealing. Restoring original features like floors, fireplaces, doors, and windows not only adds character but also preserves the home’s historical significance and cultural identity.

Adapting historic buildings for modern use creates a connection between the past and present, allowing homeowners to enjoy the charm of a bygone era while indulging in contemporary conveniences. Architects and designers can incorporate modern elements like glass ceilings and open spaces to bring natural light and an airy atmosphere while retaining the industrial feel and original features like steel beams and brickwork. This blending of old and new elements has become a defining characteristic of many successful period home transformations.

To enhance the distinctive character of a period home, homeowners can embrace traditional decor elements and furnishings that reflect the property’s heritage. This includes features like restored original fireplaces, replica statement floor tiles, wall panelling, bay or sash windows with stylish window dressings, and richly hued, dramatic colour schemes reminiscent of previous centuries. Additionally, incorporating elements like ornate plasterwork, vintage-style wallpapers, butler or farmhouse sinks, and traditional furniture like Chesterfield sofas can further amplify the authentic period charm.

Blending old and new in period homes

Merging the old with the new in period home transformations is a delicate balancing act that requires a thoughtful approach to preserve the original character while seamlessly integrating modern amenities. Successfully renovating these architectural gems necessitates striking a harmonious equilibrium between restoration and modernisation. Experienced architects can help homeowners achieve a blend of timelessness and functionality by meticulously preserving the home’s distinctive architectural elements while incorporating contemporary features. The key lies in ensuring that modern interventions, such as state-of-the-art smart home systems, luxurious bathrooms, and kitchens, are seamlessly woven into the fabric of the historic structure without detracting from its character.

Bespoke designs that mimic the property’s original style are crucial for successfully integrating contemporary features into the home. Custom solutions, like custom-made windows, doors, and other elements that reflect the home’s aesthetic, ensure that additions or upgrades complement the existing structure, creating a comfortable living space without overshadowing the historical appeal. When transforming an older house into a smart home, wireless technology like mesh-connected radio systems can overcome challenges posed by thick stone walls that absorb Wi-Fi signals. Additionally, smart heating sensors that monitor room temperatures and external conditions can address temperature variations common in older homes. Careful planning during renovations can facilitate the integration of smart features, such as installing wires or modifying wall plates for smart lighting systems.

Financial considerations

Embarking on a domestic residential extension or refurbishment is an exciting prospect, but the financial aspect demands careful consideration. The total cost can vary significantly, ranging from £75,000 to £350,00 for a typical 3-bed house renovation in the UK. To estimate the costs accurately, it’s essential to create a comprehensive list of all required jobs, obtain quotes from local tradespeople, and factor in a contingency of 10-15% to cover unexpected expenses. Calculating the Return on Investment is crucial when evaluating the profitability of a period home transformation.

New life for historic properties

Seamlessly blending the charm of period homes with modern amenities is an intricate endeavour that demands a delicate balance. Preserving the architectural integrity and historical significance of these properties while integrating contemporary features requires a thoughtful approach from skilled architects and designers. Ultimately, the success of these transformations hinges on a harmonious fusion of tradition and innovation, where the allure of bygone eras coexists seamlessly with the comforts of the present day. As architects and homeowners navigate this intricate dance, the true essence of these architectural gems is celebrated, breathing new life into structures that stand as enduring testaments to our shared heritage.

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