Their house is a museum

When people come to see 'em

They really are a screaming…

Addams family TV show lyrics, written by Andrew Gold

When councils are determined to refuse a residential application, and all else fails, inevitably the heritage hammer comes down. Which is an utter nonsense in most cases. Why? Almost without exception, old houses are not worth keeping.

Heritage has three attributes: the quality of the building, the context of the building, and the social life within. Currently, heritage can be determined by just one of those, but surely it has to be all three combined to make it worthy of retention. Many civic, public and commercial buildings are heritage. But most houses are not. Just 'gimcrack vernacular'.

For two hundred years we have built houses with bad plans, bad siting and bad construction, totally incompatible with modern living. How bad? Really awful.

The design of old houses is poor. 19thC planning revolved around servants or the wife being cast into servitude in outhouse kitchens and laundries. Rooms were cramped and small. High ceilings may be gracious, but are poorly insulated and cross ventilation is minimal. Accessibility is difficult with random steps and stairs.

The standardised plan was stamped out everywhere, not adjusted to its location, the project home of its day. Windows faced the street, smaller windows on the sides, no consideration of propitious orientations to sun and light. As a result natural lighting was dim and the central chandelier was a joke for artificial light.

It took Gough Whitlam to put the sewer on in many suburbs, and then the local council slapped a heritage order on the on the now useless dunnies.

Construction is equally farcical. Dressed brick on the front facade and commons down the side. Wall vents still used fifty years after the gas lighting stopped. Timber windows, sashes and sills rotting everywhere without preservative, or painted shut forever.

The hypocrisy of saying you’ve preserved a terrace house when only the brick party walls (and not all of them), are original. New floors, new kitchens and bathrooms, new roofing, new wiring, water heating and plumbing. It’s a two hundred old axe with three heads and four handles.

The demand to retain old houses condemns owners and occupants to huge costs to achieve second grade standards. All in the name of ...streetscape.

For councils, residential heritage is usually about the external façade, whilst for the occupants and owners it’s the internal livability that is important. Where houses are in private ownership it is unfair, indeed injurious, to burden owners with restrictions on their property so that others may enjoy a streetscape created years ago.

Preserving old houses cuts poorly in two ways, parochial and hypocritical.

If a council is so intent on preserving the past, why stop at the house? Why not require the residents to don top hats and crinoline skirts, leave the cars at the borders and ride home on a horse or penny-farthing? And send the children up the chimney as sweeps. None that is any more ludicrous than keeping something that is no longer fit for purpose, and may be a hindrance to a good life.

Secondly, most houses are way past their ‘use-by’ date in construction and technology. Why should we destroy a house to save it: pulling out all the wiring, plumbing, mould, damp, toxic materials and so on, to be replaced at great expense, just so some embellishments from the ‘Hammerbarn’ of the day can be retained?

The problem is only magnified when a grouping of houses is declared a ‘heritage conservation area’ or the like, condemning every house to more expense in upkeep, without achieving a sophisticated level of modern amenity.

I can understand that it is galling when quaint old houses are knocked down to be replaced with MacMansions. But look at why it happens: it’s far cheaper to ‘knock-down and re-build’ with new materials, services and finishes than it is to upgrade an old building. Costs less, better outcome. How dare the ‘heritage do-gooders’ tell a private owner that they need to spend more with a worse outcome just so the NIMBYs feel better as they walk their prams and dogs?

Some individual houses should be preserved, and some heritage areas are worthy of retention. But we would do better to keep the ‘holistic house’ as an ‘historic home’, replete with original interiors, appliances, furniture, and so on. Far better than maintaining a façade with a wholly reworked house behind.

But I have no doubt that FISH (fighting in someone’s house) will continue, with vocal locals telling owners what they can and can’t do with a house that is NOT a heritage item. But they will be told it should be, must be and will be.

Tone Wheeler is an architect / The views expressed are his own.

When the heritage hammer comes down. Tone on Tuesday 172. 25 July (week 30) 2023.

Long columns are Tone on Tuesday. Short pieces are in A&D Another Thing every Friday.

You can contact TW at [email protected]