Renovating a Georgian house is a goal for many renovators — grand, simple and symmetrical, with strong classical influences, homes built during the Georgian era (1714 to 1837) are famed for their beauty. And Georgian manor houses, townhouses, rectories and farmhouses have, over time, become part of the landscape in the UK.
Georgian homes might often be viewed as one of the most sought-after and recognisable of all house styles for many, but this enthusiasm can soon turn into a feeling of dismay as renovators feel the pressure to not only remain true to the origins of a building such as this, but also try to update them for modern-day living.
In this guide, we take a look at the most common design features of Georgian houses, explaining how to make the most of them. We'll also explore the options for anyone faced with details that are beyond repair, as well as the best ways in which to approach extensions and alterations in a sensitive manner.
What makes a house Georgian?
The Georgian period ran from 1714 to 1830. During this time England was ruled by four King Georges (George I through to George IV) so homes built during this time are considered "Georgian".
Within the Georgian period, is also the "Regency Period". The Regency period refers specifically to the time when George IV (Prince Regent) took over from ‘mad’ George III and has subtle differences.
For instance a Regency period home might be rendered from top to bottom, while before this in earlier Georgian designs the render might be only to the ground floor, leaving the upper floor brickwork exposed.
What can I expect when renovating a Georgian house?
First things first, many Georgian houses will be listed buildings, in which case it goes without saying that you will need to seek listed building consent before you can make any changes — both externally and internally.
While there are many different types of Georgian house, there are some common traits they all tend to share. Chartered architect Alex Oliver, director of Alex Oliver Associates, explains that these "crucial Georgian principles of architecture" include:
- Large, tall windows "letting in lots of light"
- Simple, elegant designs
- Plenty of kerb appeal
- Tall ceiling heights internally
- A sense of openness inside
We'll go into the detail of these features shortly but it is useful to recognise these basic principles in order to know firstly how to approach their restoration where required, but also what to aim for should they have gone missing at some point in the past.
It is also important to understand the principles of Georgian architecture if you plan on building an extension — while you want your home to work well for a modern lifestyle, this shouldn't be at the detriment of the original form of the house.
What are the main features of Georgian architecture?
Thankfully, many of the key traits of Georgian architecture are still very much useful when it comes to how we like to live in our homes now.
So, just what were the most frequently used architectural details and features favoured by Georgian architects and what can you expect to find if you are lucky enough to be renovating a house of this kind?
1. Multiple storeys
Georgian houses were often built with three or more storeys. In grander houses, the upper storeys would usually have been servants' quarters, which is why the windows on these floors are usually smaller than those on the lower floors, where lots of light was seen as more important.
These upper storeys will usually have lower ceilings compared to those in ground and first floor rooms and it can be hard to know how to bring in light and a sense of space for the modern-day homeowner.
You could take the cosy approach and simply embrace the more squat proportions of these areas. Guest bedrooms, children's rooms, snugs and teen dens are all ideal uses for these spaces.
Lighting low ceilings can be tricky but a carefully considered design, will make the spaces feel cosy and intimate.
2. Tall sash windows
The windows are often one of the biggest giveaways of architectural eras — and Georgian houses and sash windows are as inseparable as fish and chips.
Tall sash windows with lots of smaller panes are common, as are fan and arched designs.
Earlier sash windows tended to have a greater number of panes of glass — with six-over-six being typical of the early Georgian era. By the end of the period, four-over-four or even two-over-two was more often used as it became possible to make larger panes of glass.
It goes without saying that if you have original sash windows, you should always repair rather then replace. When repairing sash windows, rotten sections are common, as are sashes that stick in their frames, broken panes of glass and peeling paint. While some of these jobs can be undertaken by keen DIYers, it is important to call in a skilled joiner to work on the trickier repair jobs. There are also specialist sash window repair companies who can not only carry out restoration work, but also upgrade the performance levels of the windows without impacting on their character.
3. Symmetrical exterior
Forget mix-and-match window sizes, clusters of chimneys of multiple heights and quirky brick details — they might make for charming features on cottages and ramshackle farmhouses but the Georgians liked everything to line up in an orderly fashion when it came to the exteriors of their homes.
Retaining a sense of symmetry is hugely important when it comes to most Georgian houses, as is maintaining proportion.
"The key to Georgian domestic architecture is proportion," says Alex Oliver. "Homes of this time ascribe to what is known as the 'golden ratio' which sets the proportions of the various sections of the build and features like its doors and windows. Even the humble workers’ cottages built in this era follow this design principle."
What all this means for renovators, is that the façade of a Georgian house is most certainly not the place to start experimenting with any new details that might interfere with its neat, tidy proportions.
If you want a lesson on how to create kerb appeal then the Georgian era is the place to look — if you are planning on adding an extension, aim for this to be at the rear, rather than one that might be in any way visible from the front.
Many Georgian houses feature stucco – a type of lime-based render – at least to the façade, which was commonly painted white.
That said, brick was also widely used, sometimes for the entire house, other times just on the upper storeys. In rural areas, stone may have been used in conjunction with areas of stucco with a rougher finish.
Original Georgian stucco would usually have consisted of a mixture of hydraulic lime, sand and hair. This gave a smooth render finish that was usually applied over brickwork and used to simulate dressed stone — far more affordable than the real thing.
Although external stucco was being used in London in the late 18th century, it was particularly popular during the Regency period.
If you are working with stucco on your renovation project, you may well find it has become stained, has come away from the wall or is bulging or cracked. This is usually due to general neglect leading to water penetration behind the render. You may also find that the stucco has been subjected to an ill-advised repair job in the past using cementitious materials that are not compatible with lime-based stucco.
It really is best to call in the professionals in order to get the very best end result when restoring stucco as it can be slightly different from other render repair jobs. Any new, inappropriate materials will need to be removed, carefully, and areas of original render that are beyond repair should be cut away.
Fine cracks are usually straightforward to fill, but larger cracks will need to be filled with a new lime-based mortar or render, depending on the original materials that have been used.
When it comes to repainting stucco, breathable exterior paints are usually recommended, but do check that the one you choose will be suitable for this purpose.
5. Classical elements
Classical architectural features such as columns, porticoes and pediments were all well-loved by the Georgians who felt they added a sense of grandeur and opulence to their homes. Other classical details, particularly those reminiscent of the Roman period can also be expected, such as motifs featuring floral details.
If your home does not have these – and never did – do not attempt to add them. They will just look out of place. On the other hand, if you are the owner of a house with any of these classical details still in place, do all you can to look after them and bring them back to glory.
In all likelihood you are going to need a restoration specialist here if you don't want to risk ruining a beautiful original feature.
If you plan on building an extension, it can be a nice nod to the origins of the house to include more of these details within the new design — arches and columns can actually work well with contemporary structures.
6. Grand staircases
When it came to staircase design, the Georgians liked to turn this into a real statement.
Long winding handrails, helical designs and classical motifs were all features that were commonly included in the staircases of the era.
If you are very lucky, you might find that all the original beauty of your Georgian staircase has simply been encased by boarding at some point in the past, and if this is the case, you can simply work on bringing what you have back up to scratch.
Georgian staircases were generous in their proportions, with wide, solid treads and both timber and metal balustrades were popular. Old flights of stairs in bad condition may well need strengthening from beneath, while very worn treads might need replacing with matching versions.
If you find missing ornate balusters you may struggle to find matching replacements, in which case you will need to call in a woodturner to craft new ones. A skilled joiner should also be able to help with restoring sections such as cappings and newel posts.
7. Bricked-up windows
The window tax that came into force between 1696 and 1851 means that it is not unusual to find one or more bricked-up windows in Georgian properties.
It is likely that you will want to open up a bricked-up window and doing so should not affect the proportions of your home — but do ensure that the new window matches the originals. It should also be a job without too many structural implications, providing the window opening and lintel above were not damaged when they were bricked up.
That said, even if your house is not listed, don't just assume that you will be allowed to open up a bricked-up window. In some cases, a window that has been blocked up in the 18th century could be seen as a crucial part of the history of the house — check with your local planning department first.
Some windows were actually built 'blind' meaning they were never open, in which case you will also need to seek advice from your local planners. You should also note that if you are looking to open up a blind window, there may well be no lintel in place.
8. Basements and cellars
Basements were commonplace in Georgian houses and often this is where the kitchen and servants' living quarters would have been located.
If you are lucky enough to be renovating a house with a subterranean level then it will be well worth looking into how to convert a basement. Basements can be used for everything from home offices to extra living space and even converted to provide additional self-contained accommodation providing the correct planning applications are made.
How much a basement conversion will cost will depend on its state and what you intend on using it for. If you have to lower the floor level to increase headroom, meaning digging out the ground beneath the house and underpinning the foundations, work can start to get pretty expensive, starting at £2,000-4,000/m².
9. Panelled and painted front doors
Georgian front doors were hugely important — remember, kerb appeal and first impressions were everything during these times. The wrong front door on a Georgian façade can total ruin its appearance and proportions so it pays to research what would originally have been in place.
Front doors were panelled and almost always painted. They would have been made from solid timber, with three, five or six panels forming an elegant, symmetrical exterior focal point.
Glazed doors were very rare in Georgian times, but arched fanlights above were really popular, allowing light into the hallway beyond.
Although black was a favourite colour for front doors, the Georgians were not afraid of colour either, dark green and even red were also sometimes used — all these shades look great with the chunky solid brass door furniture that was also popular at the time.
10. Shallow roofs and parapets
When it comes to the types of roof favoured by Georgian architects, the shallower the better.
"The shallower the roof, the more dominant the façade, meaning that Georgians – who really valued kerb appeal – tended to either opt for a very shallow pitch or they would cover part of it with a parapet — either way, reducing its impact," explains Alex Oliver.
M-shaped roofs were pretty common too, with central valley gutters. This type of gutter can be problematic if not kept clear of debris, so make this a priority and don't be surprised to find some water may have penetrated into the rooms below at some point in history.
When it comes to the kind of roofing materials you can expect, clay tiles, slate, stone slates and lead were all popular.
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Natasha is Homebuilding & Renovating’s Associate Content Editor and has been a member of the team for over two decades. An experienced journalist and renovation expert, she has written for a number of homes titles. Over the years Natasha has renovated and carried out a side extension to a Victorian terrace. She is currently living in the rural Edwardian cottage she renovated and extended on a largely DIY basis, living on site for the duration of the project. She is now looking for her next project — something which is proving far harder than she thought it would be.