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

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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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