From the January 2018 issue, Lee Jones reports on the restoration of a Georgian townhouse in the heart of London’s power base
In the shadow of Westminster Abbey stands some of the best preserved examples of Georgian townhouses in the capital, and it is the expert team from Fullers Builders who are charged with the repair of one of their number. Old buildings hold many surprises and when the trades began work in April of 2017 they would uncover more than the client was anticipating.
“We endeavour to retain as many of the original feature as possible but where the problem is structural you have to do what is necessary,” explains site manager, John Levin. “One of the timber beams that extended from party wall to party wall had a splice running through the middle, and required repair, and we’ve had to upgrade the floor strengths with additional beams, and getting the full length timbers in place was a challenge, but wherever possible we’ve repaired what’s already in place.”
The key to any successful restoration job is to keep as much of the historic fabric of the building whilst bringing it into the modern world, and this job is a very good example of just that, as John Levin explains: “We have an expert team of joiners carrying out traditional repairs to the windows and matching the original wood, whist as much of the skirting and mouldings as can be salvaged will return to its original position. Everything we take out is numbered and re-used and we’ve made new shutters that match the existing ones, whilst our joiner has also constructed a replica staircase of the period up to the top floor.”
From the first floor down, the ceilings and walls that are not covered in wood panelling are lime plaster on laths. These long strips of riven oak or chestnut provide the key for this precursor to gypsum, and require a spreader with a particular skill set. Paul Agar is formerly a William Morris Craft Fellow, a unique training course run by the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, (SPAB) and is an expert in lath and lime plaster. “The real art is in the preparation,” he explains. “Lime plaster is applied in three coats – scratch, float and finish – and it needs to be soft enough to be able to work with but firm enough that it will hold on the laths. Firstly, it has to be laid on a board and chopped up finer and then mixed for at least 20 minutes with a bit of water. It does go off a lot slower than gypsum, which is one of the reasons it fell out of favour as a building product, and that’s something that also needs to be taken into consideration when applying the different coats.”
“The gaps between the laths are between 8 – 10mm and the plaster and needs to be squeezed between these to provide the main key and if it’s too soft it simply won’t hold. On a ceiling of 18 square metres there would be in the order of a tonne and a half of material, so it’s imperative you get that consistency right, but the strength is in the lathing. As happened on this property, the ceilings are often lathed before the walls have been panelled. That means, when those panels go up, the fixings for the laths are effectively behind them so we have to add new timbers to ensure they can take all that weight.”
When complete this four bedroom property will also benefit from an extension to the rear, which will be four metres out from the original property, and work will extend well into the middle of next year. “I’ve been with the company for seventeen years now and Fullers Builders specialise in this kind of work. The beauty of it is that every job is different. If you’re working on new builds there’s a particular plan that you’ll take from site to site, but on old buildings you have to use your initiative far more because you just don’t know what you’ll find.”
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