Britain has the oldest housing stock in the developed world. With 8.5 million properties over 60 years old it is inevitable that as interior designers we spend a lot of time trying to unravel the architectural journey a building has been on since it was a mere twinkle in a developer’s eye.
Our houses are part of our history, a living, breathing history, more real than that which is found in books. It is important for us to know, as far as we can, how our houses were when they were built, even if they no longer suit our aesthetic or how our domestic lives function.
In order to do justice to our enviable heritage it is crucial that anyone charged with altering the interior of a building learns to spot whether the architectural features are original. It’s not always easy. Our houses have become so butchered and bent over the years that, just like the best detectives of fiction, we have to piece together the merest slivers of evidence looking for clues and threads that enable us to piece together the truth.
During the arctic winter just gone I spent many walks home from work peering through the dusk (lights on, curtains undrawn) into the sitting rooms of the identical houses that line my street in an attempt to prove my suspicion that the picture rail in my sitting room is an unwelcome modern imposter which could be taken down. I also, with much regret, have to pull down the cornice in the bedroom owing to its poor state of repair. But I am leaving a length of it in place, hidden behind the built in wardrobes, so that there is a record of the original, a concrete clue should anyone in the future wish to know its original style.
As dwellers of period homes we should view ourselves as the custodians of our history. Because really all we ever do is borrow these houses. We merely lease them from the collective pool of our architectural heritage and look after them for the next generation. The price we should pay for the privilege of tenancy is to leave them a little better than we found them. We certainly shouldn’t do anything that makes it harder for future owners to understand the original bones of the building. And this is why we should take great caution before we rip out any period features.
I have no issue with people who do not like period features and wish to conceal them. Because what happens is that they store up a delight of discovery for a future owner, beautiful features waiting to be discovered like a long forgotten game of hide and seek. But I do have a problem with ripping period features out for no good reason.
I was recently on a site visit where I had been called in by a builder to give advice on the renovation of a Victorian conversion flat. He wanted, amongst other things, to remove the original 40cm high skirting boards because he felt they were too high. Thankfully I was able to persuade him to leave them as they are. Regardless of the fact the handsome skirtings provide a necessary counter balance to the intricate and startling ornate cornice, why remove them? They’ve sat there happily for a hundred and fifty years and it would have been criminal to remove them on a whim.
One of the key benefits of hiring an interior designer is that we have the trained, analytical, inquisitive mind which when combined with aesthetic capability equips us to know when a feature is original and when something should or shouldn’t be removed. It is our responsibility to educate our clients about preservation and heritage, to try our hardest to persuade them to retain as much of the original building as possible and to ensure any alternation are clearly defined as such so that in future it is easier to identify what is original and what is not.
For we do not just work for our clients, we also work for our heritage and for the integrity of every building we alter.