I recently posted some images on Instagram of a new project that I've started working on of a very run down Victorian era sandstone inner city cottage here in Adelaide. There was a lot of interest in a blog post on the topic of how to start a renovation project on an older house, so I thought maybe this would be a good project to follow from start to finish. I do want to make mention however, that I am an Architect but not a Heritage Architect, which means that I don't have the depth of knowledge that someone that has specialised in the area has. My advice in this post is based on renovating two (very different) old houses of my own, commercial work that I've done over the years on heritage projects, and extensive discussions on the topic with my friend Kate, who is a Heritage Architect.

I'll start by saying that house styles vary enormously in Australia from region to region due to climate response (Weatherboard Queenslanders designed for cross ventilation in the tropics versus stone Georgian era cottages in cold Tasmania), because we live in a vast country that was difficult to traverse back in that era (affecting building materials used by keeping things local), and because white settlement and our built history occurred at different periods of times throughout the country which means that building materials and styles reflect Architectural fashions of that era. What was available in South Australia may well not have been available in Queensland, so paint colours, building materials and local vernaculars all reflect this.

Unfortunately the one place that might seem logical to find help on a topic like this isn't - the National Trust. They are concerned with buildings and places of historic significance that they own, not in preserving streetscapes, or restoring old houses with no particular architectural or historical importance. For this reason there is no advisory board, fact sheets or anything else to help the average homeowner. I find this really disappointing - it would be a great way to engage with the public and be at the forefront of preserving history as well as raising funds, however this has always been the way that they operate. They like to run historic house museums.

The best starting point for any Heritage restoration in Australia is therefore with your local council. It is usual that the council's library will house a local history section, which will have photographs of the area you live in over the years. If you are fortunate then  you will find a photo of your house or street, or of your house in the background of other photos, and this will give you some vital clues as to how it originally looked. Most libraries now have this information online.

Looking up your suburb and street name on the State Library's online digitalised photo cache could also provide some clues, as well as taking note of any other houses that look the same as yours in the area - Victorian houses were often built by builders out of pattern books, they were the project home of their era, so you can often find an identical house to your own not too far away, hopefully with the missing features that you can copy. Additionally you could try looking at suburbs that have many houses of the era that yours was built in - for instance in Adelaide, you might look to Unley or St Peters for a typical Villa, Toorak Gardens, Colonel Light Gardens and Myrtle Bank for a 20's era Bungalow, and Norwood, Parkside and North Adelaide for workers cottages. In Victoria it would be Hawthorn for villas, Port Melbourne, Richmond, Prahran and South Melbourne for weatherboard cottages etc.

The second point at which a local council can help, is if they have a Heritage Consultant in the Planning department. This is usual if the council has streets that are Heritage protected, or a large number of properties that have individual heritage listings on them. Councils offer as a free service an on site pre- application meeting with the Heritage Advisor who can advise you on colour schemes, point out what is original, and advise on what was typical for the era of the house when there is little or no evidence. Be aware though that the Heritage Advisor is not necessarily your friend. They will be looking at the property from giving a reasonably authentic appearance to the street and being faithful to the house originally, and won't necessarily view something you think is in your best interests in the same light, such as putting in a garage on the street, changing something you regard as ugly but that is original, etc.

If you're unable to get the advice of a free Heritage Consultant through your council, then there are a few things that you can do to work things out yourself. Firstly, through reading up on what was typical for your house at that time (I will list resources at the end of this blog post), and secondly by doing a little detective work on the house. You could also consider employing the services of a Heritage Architect to help you choose a paint scheme, advise on a fence or veranda, and also advise on any aspects particular to a heritage house (such as the tuckpointing of stonework, replacement veranda tiles, roofing materials and where to find replacements etc). As I often say on this blog, the money spent on a design professional pays for itself, and a Heritage Architect will cut through potentially months of research for you, and give valuable information on your particular set of circumstances.

It is pretty common to find that verandas on Victorian era houses are no longer the original. This is because they were built of timber and usually rotted out at the base of the posts around the 50-80 year mark. Often they were replaced with something that wouldn't rot in the future (such as metal poles), or something that would give a more "modern" style to the house. It's not uncommon to find a heavy 1920's bungalow style veranda attached onto the front of a Victorian villa for example, or, as more commonly occurred, a straight 1960's style veranda with wire posts, such as in the cottage that is my new project.

In order to work out what was originally there, the best thing to do is to look up against the facade of the house, where you can often see quite clearly the outline of the original veranda roof line, and the impressions of the posts in the plaster or from the paint build up around where the original posts sat. From this, you can easily copy the detailing. Sometimes you may be lucky and find that just the posts were replaced, but if not it's not a difficult thing to replace a veranda roof on a house.

When looking at a typical High Victorian era veranda, they were commonly adorned with cast iron lacework. There are several companies that produce replicas of the original patterns, but you can also consider using reclaimed iron from a salvage yard. Ensuring that you have a pattern that is scaled correctly is important though. If you have a cottage to restore, then you should be able to tell from the impression on the plaster what the width of the cast iron frieze was, and if not then look at other cottages that are similar in scale to yours to see what would be appropriate. Wider, more elaborate iron was used on larger villas and terraces.

Highly ornamental cast iron lacework veranda

Cast iron wasn't used from about 1900 onwards (and was actually considered in bad taste and excessively Victorian), and timber fretwork was more in favour, so putting cast iron onto a house that is more Queen Anne/ Federation in style is not appropriate.

There are several fact sheets that are helpful regarding veranda styles, and I've listed them at the end of the post.

Front fence

The second aspect most often missing is the original front fence. An easy pitfall is to replace an unsympathetic front fence with something far grander than would have originally been there before.

The most common Victorian era fence was a picket fence, and the main reason why it will be missing is because it would have rotted out and been replaced at some other point in time with something durable but inappropriate, or something that gives great security to a house (a high brick wall) but that doesn't add to the streetscape. If your house originally had a brick column and iron railing fence, there will likely still be the remains of it. While brick columns and iron fence panels may look nicer in your view for your tiny cottage, they were actually very uncommon on cottages in Adelaide, and a low picket fence was more usual. After about 1910 fences could also be made of woven wire (emu wire), or have panels of iron in between timber posts.

For those that do put in an iron and columned fence for a villa or larger house, then using salvaged fence panels or reproduction fence panels is the best way to go (rather than pool fence style tubular aluminium). Columns should be built by a bricklayer, however tempting cost wise it is to use the precast concrete faux Victorian style columns that are commonly seen in Adelaide, and this is because they are proportioned incorrectly and overly fancy.  The most common problems when people use this style of column is using them on a house from a later period than the Victorian era, and also putting in too many columns along the fence facade. Usually there was a column on either end of a property boundary, and at most one on either side of a gate (the house in the picture above is a bit of an aberration!). Columns were not commonly spaced every 2 meters down a fence line. Victorian style columns don't look great on a later period house, such as a bungalow, as the style of column in that era was chunkier with a taper, and otherwise fairly simple in detail but substantial in scale. Generally speaking, in heritage terms a Heritage architect would always prefer to see something obviously modern and a later addition to a house, rather than from a period in time before the house itself was actually constructed.

Dowel fence. These were once very common

One thing that can be very helpful in establishing an appropriate fence style for your house is to look at old photos, as generally this will be the most common feature in a street of consistent housing. One book that I've been recently looking at is called "Lost Adelaide", and it contains photographs of early mansions, terraces (uncommon in Adelaide compared to Sydney or Melbourne), and cottages that have been demolished in the past 100 years. It is really useful to get a feel for the typical streetscapes of the era, and you can see that fences were divided into two pretty basic types- there were cast iron and pillars in stone or brick on larger houses, and the cottages had rows of low and simple picket fences.

Paint Colours
Paint colours are the next biggest question. The basic rule in Heritage in Australia is that you shouldn't use the colour black. It wasn't used until relatively recently on the exterior of buildings here, and that is why you'll not find black in any of the paint company Heritage colour palettes.

You will find dark colours like dark brown, dark aubergine and deep navy blue, but definitely not black. All the major paint companies have Heritage Colour Palettes in their paint ranges, and these are based on colour analysis of different paint colours they have found on heritage houses around the country from different eras, so these are a good starting point. There are a lot of regional differences in paint colours - for example in Adelaide a lot of olive/ dark green was used as there was a shipment of the minerals used to create this colour that was forfeited in the 1880's. The stockpile was gradually used up in paint, but this means that our use of paint colours differs a little from houses in Sydney, for instance, which used more maroon/ red/ brown paint colours.

Depending on your house listing status with your local Council you may or may not be able to paint the house in colours that you prefer (this will depend on your listing type, if you have one, and what is allowable under that listing. Often a change in paint colours need approval from Council before painting if your house contributes to a heritage area). If you don't want a fancy style authentic Victorian style paint scheme, then simplifying it is a good alternative by using two or one colours from a heritage palette on painted surfaces.

If you want to do something resembling your house's original colour scheme, the best thing to do is grab one of your keys and do a little scraping. By doing this on the cottage I was able to tell that it originally had a creamy white paint on the quoins, and the window frames and door were a dark brown and this gives me a starting point to choose roof colour, and other details.

Windows and Doors
Where the original Windows and doors have been altered, it's usually fairly easy to spot if you're familiar with heritage houses. If looking to replace you can usually find something appropriate at a salvage yard, but if it needs a custom size, then the original sash style window or Victorian door can be made up new but in the traditional style to fit.

If your house originally had a slate roof, then there will likely be evidence of it - either slates sitting up in the roof cavity or the actual roof still on intact. The most common roofing material until the advent of the terracotta tile (around 1900) though was corrugated iron sheets. This was used as ballast in ships coming out to Australia that would return laden with wheat and wool. The ballast was then used to construct sheds, outbuildings and to roof houses and is now identifiably Australian. If you have a Victorian era house with terracotta tiles then it is not original and should be replaced if possible with iron or slate (also because if the roof wasn't strengthened at the time the tiles were installed it can also cause it to start to sag). Gutters have naturally often been replaced over time, and if you wish to use the correct profile, then the OG shape is the way to go. It's larger and more elaborate than a straight gutter, and there would usually be a scotia bead running under it. On bungalows onwards (1920s), they didn't use OG gutter, so don't use it on a house of a later period as it won't look right.

New project

So, that's the basic parts that make up a facade, and it's a tricky thing to write a non prescriptive blog post on this topic... so I'll just explain what I've done with the project I'm working on and why.

Aluminium windows down the side of the house

The cottage has some significant problems: the veranda has been entirely replaced, there is rising damp (saltdamp) in the sandstone facade, the front fence has been replaced by cinder block, and the windows down the side of the house were replaced with aluminium windows. The paint colour scheme is also entirely wrong.

Original veranda floor

The parts that are original include the front door (missing the stained glass panels on all sides and in the transom window), front windows and the veranda floor (very damaged).

Front door

So, to get started I measured up the facade, and looked for the impressions of the original veranda roof. You could see quite clearly from the curve on the house wall from the dirty to light coloured stone that the galvanised iron was a convex shaped, and from the impressions on the plaster the ghost of the post, which had a very large and elaborate capital. As with all houses of the era, there would have been OG profile gutters with a scotia bead running underneath - this is the sort of blobby bit at the top of the post impression where it meets the curve of the original iron roof outline.

You can see the curve from the original veranda roof, and the impressions of the post in the plaster on the left. 

Having measured all of this up, I consulted with the publications listed at the end of the blog post, and worked out the sizes for everything. The other thing that was noticeable from this cottage is that it is more elaborate than a standard cottage, so the detailing on the replacement parts I need to work out would have been reasonably elaborate too. There is a lot of chamfering, mouldings, and generally frilly Victorian detail, and the room sizes in the house are reasonably generous along with containing elaborate plaster work (deep cornices), so this was not such a simple cottage.

Close up of the post capital impression

Unfortunately my search for images from the State Library of the street it's in turned up nothing - frustratingly the house next door is pictured, as well as the house across the street, but you can't see anything of my project in those photos.

The front fence I have decided to design as a dowel fence, which were very common at the time in Adelaide.

So, after a heavy duty drafting session, and having laboriously transferred my measurements onto the plan, here is the finished product above (at this stage: I will have a pre application meeting with the Heritage Consultant at council, and they may well change something).

The colour scheme will be in browns and creamy white, reflecting what I've found as original to the house from my paint scraping, and what was pretty typical at that time. The sandstone will also need substantial restoration - it will likely have to have a modern damp proof coursing put in as the saltdamp is pretty extensive (they can use injectables if it's not so serious). Some stones will have to be replaced entirely, and then it will be re tuckpointed (the black lines that are painted on around the stone).

Severe saltdamp - sandstone is porous, so you can see that the damp has caused the stone to decay away, and mortar to be lost. I can't wait to paint out the olive green to creamy white on the rendered parts...

So my next step is a pre application meeting with the Heritage Consultant at Council to smooth the way for the Development application for the rear extension, and discuss the approach for the facade works. Unfortunately I doubt I'll have any pretty pictures to show of the finished product for about a year and a half... wheels turn slowly with applications and building... 

Here are some helpful places to start with your own project:


Not terribly useful unless you live in Sydney or Melbourne, but still the only books on this topic in Australia

Great for images of large and small houses that have since been demolished, I think there's also a Lost Melbourne book and Lost Sydney as well

Fact Sheets:
Adelaide City Council has a large Technical notes section with fact sheets on verandas, fences etc - link here
There are also Technical guides produced by the Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources SA on topics such as Saltdamp, roofing materials, bricks, fences  etc - link here

Trove is an online resource linking all the libraries in Australia, and will list resources for photographs, newspapers, books, magazines and anything else that might contain a reference to your property from the past


  1. Well done H!
    An excellent resource for research is the online search engine of the National Library of Australia, 'TROVE' available at https://trove.nla.gov.au/
    It searches across the collections of hundreds of libraries, museums, unis and historic publications, and displays thousands of digitised images, maps, books, newspapers etc. Can't rate it highly enough to save searching each library separately. Kate x

    1. Ah it slipped my mind! Thank you for the reminder Kate - I'll go back and include Trove in the resources list xx

  2. I'm glad you are blogging about this renovation/restoration. I love this sort of thing. Hope the council makes your life easy :)

    1. Thanks Vicki! I hope they make my life easy too... given this is a tricky heritage area to work in it might not be smooth sailing though. Fingers crossed!

  3. Love, love, love the dowel fence. Never seen or heard of those in Melbourne and they're beautiful. Great to do the things that are heritage but unique to an area. My grandfather had the 'colour schemes for old Australian houses' book and I've handily kept it for reference. So glad to hear of your endorsement.

    Can't wait to see more of your project.

    1. I'm not sure if the dowel fences were ever done in Melbourne - certainly I don't recall seeing any, so perhaps this was in fact a regional difference? They seem to have been fairly common in the photos I looked at, but you don't see them so much these days as they're a little more expensive than the standard picket fence.
      The colour schemes book was written a long time ago (maybe the 80's?) but it's still the only reference book available on colour schemes strangely. Nice to hear from you Rohan

  4. Hi Heidi,
    If I had your address I would send you a Christmas card. Thank you for your blogs. I appreciate they must be an effort when you have a busy life, family and work. They are so informative, interesting and fun. I am excited when I see you have had time to do a new one. We are installing an emu wire fence around an old weatherboard cottage and have had to do it ourselves as no one over here wanted to do one. Very best wishes for the holiday season for you and your family. Love your work ! A big thank you x

    1. The emu wire fence will look fabulous around a weatherboard cottage - I do love them as they are so authentically Australian!
      I'm afraid the blogging has been slow going this year, and this particular post was difficult to write! I would write a bit then come back and delete it... so it was good to get it finished off, even if it's a little bit long! HOpe you have a lovely Christmas x

  5. This is so interesting, the process and the look of the buildings in Australia, and the reasons you noted for different styles and materials.
    I confess, I always compare Australia to Canada (as we were both colonies of course) and I notice the differences more than the similarities. Australians are our colourful, partying cousins, with big personalities and houses to match. The houses look like something a jolly Canadian would build in Bermuda!
    Our heritage buildings are regulated at a municipal level, and our local heritage committee has been chaired by my friend Christopher for many years... he's just passed on the torch to another friend, Mary. Funny because I just chatted with her about this last night! It's a labour of love for these volunteer committees, that's for certain.
    We are surrounded by designated heritage homes and the restrictions can be arduous. Recently our neighbours began restoration of their massive wood veranda, went through heritage, had their plans approved... only then to have their work stopped by the building department. The height of the railings was not up to current code! (eye roll). They eventually sorted everything but the delay has caused the work to be incomplete going into winter... frustrating for them! Incidentally they are also building the new railings, posts, floorboards, etc for their extensive veranda out of hardwood rather than typical soft timber, hoping it won't rot so quickly. Very costly as I'm sure you can imagine. Labour of love!
    Thanks for this post Heidi, it will be so interesting to keep track of this project going forward. xx

    1. Pretty much all heritage balustrades are too low by the Code today. I had a job that was so boring about 15 years ago where I measured up and drew up glass panels to go in front of a heritage iron balustrade that was now too low. It was a commercial building in Melbourne, and there was acres of balustrades, and it was so boring to do! I sympathise with your friends though, as the hold ups when you're trying to restore something are so frustrating!
      Heritage is generally very poorly funded, with the idea (here) that unless it is a building open to the public then public money shouldn't be spent on it. But it benefits everyone if the buildings are maintained, and often there is a lot of extra cost involved if your house is listed, or has to restore parts that require specialised skill. It's very tricky....
      We are very similar to Canadians in our outlook and sense of humour I think! The built differences would be because you have snow and extreme cold and we don't really... the heat here means all houses have verandas on them, it was only the very early ones that didn't... they soon realised that they needed them! xx

  6. Thank you for this Heidi, I've finished renovating a workers cottage in Parkside (! before the big boom, thank God!) with my family and have been nodding my head reading many of your points. We're doing a bungalow in Cheltenham at the moment and reading this has reminded me just how different the styles can be suburb to suburb.

    1. Yes there's a vast difference between suburbs based on when they settled! I always enjoy finding an original farm cottage in the middle of what is now a sea of 60s suburbia or something. Well done on successfully completing one renovation, and you've obviously got a taste for it to start on a second round! Bungalows are very different however, so you'll find it an interesting challenge I'm sure.

  7. Oh Heidi, I think this might be my favourite post of your yet! I cannot wait to follow along your journey with this house. My family has a business (a shop) that services people who are restoring their houses in Brisbane, and we have done a number of renovations on our portfolio; my dad takes great pride in bringing some old dames back to their former glory! Of course, Queenslanders and workers cottages in Brisbane are so different to their southern cousins, but it's interesting to see that the process is still very much the same.
    Best of luck, and I look forward to seeing your progress with this old girl!

    1. I love Queenslanders - such an iconic vernacular in Australia, and the houses are just so pretty. What a fabulous business to be involved in - it must be so satisfying to see how they scrub up xx

  8. Hi Heidi,
    Long time reader but I think this is the first time I have commented. I work as a independent town planner specialising in heritage down in Hobart and I really enjoyed this post!

    A good source of information about the restoration of old houses can often be found in your state's heritage council.
    Even in the event that a building is not state listed (or even locally listed by the local government authority), state heritage council information sheets can still give some great information and advice that can be applied across the spectrum.

    I sit on the board of the Tasmanian Heritage Council and we have some great guides:


    Likewise, the South Australian Heritage Council has some guides:



    1. Hi Danielle, Thanks so much for the Tassie info, I'll go back and edit the post to include the links you've provided. So many beautiful houses in Tasmania, I just love the Georgian ones, which are so rare elsewhere in the country. Thanks for your comment! x

  9. Fascinating, Heidi. So generous to share your expertise this way. I'm sure it will be enormously useful to people considering restoring heritage properties. Sadly Canberra doesn't have many of those because most of it was built only from the 50s on, with a few exceptions. Love visiting cities where there are genuinely old buildings.
    Have a wonderful Christmas/New Year and holidays with the family! Pammie xx

  10. I love this. I've renovated a home from the 1890s and another from 1925. My next home will be old. It's such a labour of love. Xx

    1. THey are such a labour of love Jen! But the character in an imperfect wall or a little decorative feature are what always suck me in. I've been very interested to see what changes you do with your current house though. The catwalk is particularly intriguing to me!

  11. So excited for you! Thank heavens my house was already fully renovated!!!!!

  12. Thank you so much for this information. As a result of reading this and finding out about Trove, I looked up a house built in the 18880s that I’ve recently purchased and discovered wonderful old photos of the original exterior and interior. So exciting! I’m thrilled!

    1. I'm so happy to hear that Kathryn! That's just fabulous, and I'm slightly envious as I've never been able to find a photo of my own house. I'm going to tell my friend Kate, who was the one that originally put me onto the website, as she uses it extensively for her work and I know she'll be so happy to hear it's helped someone out. x


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Architect & Interior Designer. Mother of three. A sometimes Cook, Baker, Reader, Gardener, Fashion Lover, Renovator, Writer of random things in South Australia email me on anadelaidevilla@bigpond.com
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