Renovating a 19th Century Georgian home

Georgian houses are among the most admired of all heritage homes in Australia. These have typically sash windows, stained glass, fine plasterwork and elegant timber staircases.

A georgian house
ARTICLE Persephone Nicholas

Of all the heritage homes in Australia, Georgian houses are among the most admired. People love their elegant symmetrical facades and their beautiful interior details too. Sash windows, stained glass, fine plasterwork and elegant timber staircases are all typical features of these houses, which were typically built by free settlers who arrived In Australia from the UK and designed homes like those that were popular in the country they left behind.
A couple of centuries has passed since then, but their classic design has stood the test of time and Georgian houses remain highly sought after. If you’ve already bought one or are thinking of doing so, you probably can’t wait to get started on a few projects. But be warned - renovating or restoring such old houses shouldn’t be rushed.
Homes from this era are probably best suited to those who enjoy the renovation and restoration process as much as the end result. When you take on a project that requires research, restoring heritage details and sourcing fixtures, fittings and finishes that may no longer be manufactured on any scale, if at all, you need to love what you’re doing.
If you’re up for the challenge, here are our top tips for getting started:

Understand what’s possible

The most important thing to do before you even think about buying a period property is to contact your local council and find out whether or not it’s heritage listed. They will also be able to tell you if there are any overlays or regulations that will determine what you can and can’t do to the home.
We also recommend contacting your local heritage organisation(s). Every state has its own and you can find those that cover your region at: Australian Heritage organisation.
A sash window and wooden staircase

Look beneath the surface

A house that’s around 200 years old is quite likely to need major work even if it appears in relatively good condition. Investing in a comprehensive building inspection is a must if you want to try and avoid unpleasant surprises further down the track. If your inspection report reveals major issues it may give you some leverage for negotiating a lower purchase price. At the very least, you’ll be able to get a quote for remedial work before you’re committed to the purchase.

Pay attention to details

Restoring a period home is a very different project from renovating a more modern house. Depending on the condition of the house when you buy it, you may need to restore or replace heritages features such as sash windows, shutters, plasterwork, glass, tiles and fireplaces. These details contribute greatly to the value of the home and are something subsequent purchasers will be looking for, so it’s important to get them right.
Whatever the scale of your restoration project, research will be your friend. Look for examples of similar houses in your neighbourhood and online. Bear in mind that since this architectural style was originally imported from the UK, you’ll find a wealth of restoration case studies and imagery there and would be wise to extend your online search accordingly.
You may be lucky and find some original features still in place. Even if tiles, glass or plasterwork, for example, are damaged, they can still be invaluable for reference during your restoration. Bear in mind too that features such as fireplaces or sash windows may have been bricked up, rather than removed or replaced, in previous renovations, so you may just need to (carefully) uncover them.
You may also find that the fine details of decorative plasterwork, such as cornicing, are blurred by layers of old paint. The good news is that this can usually be successfully removed, but think twice before attempting it yourself. Overzealous removal of paint may damage the underlying plaster and cause more restoration problems than it fixes.
Original staircases are very likely to still be in place (replacing a staircase means the new one has to comply with current building code, whereas the original does not), but may need attention to make them safe and restore their period elegance.
A modernist renovate bathroom

Know when to bring in the professionals

When choosing a builder or trades to work on a restoration project, understand that you may also need to employ someone with specialist knowledge, for example a conservation joiner, to give you the best result.
Choosing someone who has a thorough understanding of heritage design, materials and restoration techniques, and who has the time and skills needed to mend the broken risers and treads, balusters and handrails of a Georgian staircase, for example, is a smart move. It could make the difference between a restoration that adds thousands of dollars worth of value to the house, and a renovation that adds little more than a degree of functionality and will be very likely ripped out by the next owner.

You might be interested in reading about Renovating an Old Colonial Gothic Picturesque home.

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*All information is believed to be true at time of publishing and is subject to change.

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