From quaint thatched cottages and 17th century former coaching inns through brutalist high-rises and modern developments, British homes have changed dramatically over the last hundred (never mind thousand!) years. The age and character of a building has a big impact on the type of modernisations and renovations that are needed – and that are possible.
Why is British housing so old?
British housing is unusual compared to the rest of Europe in two main ways: first, an unusually high proportion of properties are owner-occupied (63%) and second, over half our housing stock is more than 50 years old, including a full 20% of homes being built before 1919*, making them a hundred or more years old. Obviously, there have been a few changes in how housing was built since then, so we’ve found it helps our clients to understand how best to shape their current home if they understand its history. Below, you’ll find a whistle-stop tour of developments in British housing over the last 100-150 years. For brevity, we’ve ignored a large amount of regional and class variation – new technologies, such as electric light or indoor plumbing often reached the rural poor decades after they became a norm for the city-dwelling middle classes.
* The detailed breakdown of British housing stock age is: pre-1919 20.1%; 1919-1944 16.7%; 1945-1964 19.1%; 1965-1980 20.4%; 1981-1990 7.9%; and 1990-now 15.8%.
Victorian and Edwardian homes
Queen Victoria ruled from 1837-1901, and her son Edward VII from 1901 to 1910. The Edwardian period, is usually extended to cover the seismic shifts of the First World War which put an end to the way of life Queen Victoria would have recognised. Homes built for the middle and upper classes before 1919 were typically larger and grander than we’d expect today, with high ceilings, multiple living and dining rooms and servant’s quarters. Today, these properties are often divided into flats while homes built for the working classes have often been knocked together or extended, as they typically consisted of a suite or a terraced house with just 2-4 rooms for families of up to 20. During this period gas for lighting, heating and cooking was becoming common, indoor plumbing was a new luxury and electric light a controversial novelty.
The inter-war years
The 1920s were boom years, followed by the 1929 crash and the hardships and privations of the 1930s and 1940s. Houses built in the 1920s often show the exuberance, flair and joy that designers were embracing in this thoroughly modern decade. While working class homes remained stark and basic, middle class families had new appliances (such as a gas range or gas fire) as well as decorative touches. Art Nouveau and Art Deco glasswork and tiling are particularly valued today.
You might expect that houses build in the 1930s would be dour and grim, yet this is not generally true as those who had money to build could afford to do it properly.
The impact of the Second World War
Bomb damage was the most obvious impact as German bombing wiped out a million homes in London and hundreds of thousands more around the rest of the UK. This reshaped many of Britain’s urban areas, including central London, Bristol, Liverpool and Manchester and had an impact on even small and idyllic cities such as Bath and York. The damage was a mixed blessing: some of the housing stock destroyed were slums: poor quality housing which was a real health hazard to the people who lived there. However, in a country struggling to get back on its feet, the replacement housing stock was not always high quality. Many homes built in the 1940s and 1950s were erected quickly and using low quality materials. Pre-fab houses came in at this time and while many were an improvement on the slums they replaced, at 60+ years old these homes can be cold, damp and hard to maintain.
Since the 1960s, British homes have mainly been built in suburban areas and reflect our modern desire to own our own plot. Houses vary enormously in cost, quality and size, with proportions shifting as trends change. The style has become more equitable, with only the very rich having servants and even poorer families living in conditions many in the 1950s would have found luxurious.
Old or new?
As a construction firm, our team has passionate advocates for both period pieces and ultra-modern architecture. We’ve found that, with the right adaptations, a building of any era can be transformed into a comfortable home for a modern family. As an example, post-war and modern buildings typically have lower ceilings and smaller rooms than their Edwardian counterparts bringing lower running costs and also less light and air. It’s also essential to understand, with older properties, whether services such as electricity and plumbing were built in (and thus may be 50+ years old!) or added later. Building technologies, including insulation, window construction and roofing have come on in leaps and bounds in the last 2 decades, which means that many properties built since 1980 benefit from a refresh. To discuss how to update and improve your home, just give us a call.