This is a topic dear to my heart, and I make no apologies for it. I have a real passion for old houses, be they character heritage homes lovingly restored or decrepit piles standing only because the borer are holding hands. Part of their attraction to me, and many others who commit to their ownership and care, is the story they tell.

History is literally in the walls; old newspapers, photos and dead rats all speak to the years these houses have seen. They remind us of the living conditions and standards of the original occupants. Our own villa still had the copper in the outhouse where a fire was lit to heat water for clothes washing, and a previous owner told me that her mother only had an indoor toilet installed around 1990.

The individuality is seductive, the knowledge that you may well be living in a house like no other, that while the elements and features might be found elsewhere, the combination of them is reflective of the carpenter who built your home all those years ago. The very essence of your old home, the timber itself, is something we will never see again. Imagine the bullock trains dragging huge kauri trees from the bush to the sawmill, then delivered to site by horse and cart, before being framed on site by carpenters who had never seen an electric circular saw and certainly did not have the radio turned up loud.

The character and craftsmanship is attractive, and a beautifully restored home is a delight to behold. Standing on the footpath, looking at a decorative gable, the finial on the ridge, the type of balusters on the veranda, the fretwork on the posts and the dentals on the soffit, well, it takes my breathe away.

There is 1 big question I have about the cottages, villas and bungalows clustered in the older suburbs and towns across New Zealand. How long did it take the original builders to build them? It might seem like a simple question, but trying to answer it reveals a lot about these homes, and why we are either attracted to or dissuaded from living in them.

Whenever quoting or estimating the costs involved in renovations, it’s not hard to realise that the time involved in their original construction must have been considerable.

A good example is the classic double hung window. Simply put, it is 2 sashes in a frame, with each sash able to slide past the other. However, when you go to install or repair them, the components soon add up. Counting the frame, the sashes, the dividing beads, the holding beads, the sill and the architraves (see what I mean) there are 13 individual pieces that all fit together to make that 1 window, and I’m not including the sash cords and 4 weights that balance the weight of the sash. Compare this to a typical modern aluminium window. While there are numerous components, it usually arrives on site ready to install, already painted, and often glazed. Even allowing for all of the flashings and tapes required by the Building Code these days, its installation can be completed in an hour. Fitting and finishing colonial joinery can take up to a whole day, and then there is the painting to do.

Does this sound like a reason to run a mile? Not at all, but it is a word of caution. Time is money, and you need to be realistic about the labour commitment involved in heritage work.

How do they perform, and what can be done to improve them. To be blunt, not very well. Insulation is the key as there is none in an original home. In fact most NZ homes built before 1976 had no insulation at all. Any insulation is better than nothing, but the roof and sub floor are the places to start as they are accessible. I think that taking the time to strip the inside lining of
exterior walls so that insulation can be fitted between the studs is well worth the effort and expense, and will help to reduce energy costs over time. Check out the articles where I focus on insulation and wall linings.

I asked a mate how his weekend was. His reply, “I don’t have a weekend, I have a villa.” Pretty much sums up the experience of many owners of older homes. Timber cladding and joinery requires care and paint, things do wear out and those decorative details we love are also fiddly to fix. In the end, it does come down to a choice for the owner, as these heritage homes require more commitment than contemporary homes, but I think the reward is there.

So, if you are reading this, and like me you have an old home, there must be some consolation in knowing that you will never be bored and able to say you have nothing to do, but you are the guardian of our heritage, and I salute you.