Tale of Two Towns

With two of our main areas of operation being Milton Keynes and Bedford, we find it interesting to look at the differences in the type of work the two areas bring. We know that Milton Keynes has a large quantity of new houses, the town itself was only founded fairly recently in 1967, as opposed to other towns in the UK such as Bedford which is predominantly made up of Victorian buildings.

The two areas have buildings which are built-in a very different way. The walls on a Victorian building would have needed to have been thicker to withstand the winter chills, they didn’t have the luxury of central heating!

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The roof on a Victorian house would have been slanted or tiles on battens which would have been supported on a timber roof structure of rafters and ceiling joists. Purlins and struts would then usually be put in place to strengthen the roof by transferring the loads down onto internal load bearing walls. These walls would be corbelled out under the ground to distribute the load to the ground below. There will have been no roofing felt under the roof covering, no insulation would have been installed and the ceilings would have been of lath and plaster – hence the need for fires.

Your typical modern house would now have roof trusses instead of the timber roof structure described above and it would have cavity walls originally developed to stop rain from getting in, but it now helps to accommodate thermal insulation.

In addition to the roof trusses and the cavity wall, the other main structural difference between typical houses in Bedford and Milton Keynes is the concrete foundation. It’s often forgotten that Victorians didn’t have concrete as we know it today. The closest they came to our sort of concrete was lime mortar used between bricks and also interestingly as a floor in the scullery or kitchen part of the house. The remainder of the ground floor would be a suspended timber floor, much the same as the first floor, but with the earth below.

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Most Victorian homes had a fireplace in most rooms, as it was the only way to keep warm, and the skyline in Bedford gives testimony to this fact as every fireplace would have needed a chimney pot. Of course what we would not expect to see now on the Bedford skylines is the smog that lingered over most Victorian cities during winter.

These differences do have an impact on the way in which you can extend and modernise your houses, the biggest example of where the type of house has a large impact being a loft conversion. Some specialist companies would advise you that your roof can’t be converted, but we believe that by understanding the existing structure there is always a way. The only instance we can think of, where it probably wouldn’t be possible is if the space in the roof isn’t big enough to stand in. Many of the Victorian houses in Bedford have quite a low rood pitch, meaning that if you wanted more space then extending may be the better option, but this doesn’t mean you should discount the idea of a loft conversion, you should see what’s possible before you make any definitive decisions as to what you want to do.

Extending narrow Victorian houses so that you don’t reduce natural light to your neighbour’s home can be a challenge. One word of caution, modern concrete foundations will be expected to go much deeper than the brick footing mentioned earlier and there can be a serious risk of destabilizing adjacent foundations. You really must find out if you need to give notice in the proper manner to your neighbours if you are excavating near their building.

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Victorian houses will often have had bay windows with slanted sides and a flat front (these types are called ‘canted bay windows’). A single storey bay window would have often had its own slanted roof, which made the window an eye-catching feature. For the windows which didn’t need to look so flashy, a ‘sash window’ would suffice. It’s details like this which make living in such a house in a historic town such a joy, it also makes it even more worthwhile investing in the house improvements.

Working on houses from any era can be a challenge, but Victorian houses were built to be compact with small back gardens and often a low roof so there isn’t really a lot of room to play with. When you get the improvement right, whatever it may be, the house can be given a new lease on life and another generation of people can be brought up within walking distance of Bedford town centre and therefore help to preserve our green fields, cut down on transport and travel in our daily lives and sustain an established neighbourhood.

Written by Jade Turney – Building Tectonics Ltd.

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