|Victorian houses: Big, because they could be.|
This is the Boudrow House in Berkeley, California, c. 1889.
(Photo: Daniella Thompson)
Ever wonder why Victorian houses were so big? The answer is—because they could be.
It’s no gag. The average house of the early nineteenth century was unassuming in scale, with modest rooms, small windows, and relatively low ceilings. But around 1840, two innovations began changing that. The first was balloon framing, a new building technique which substituted light, slender pieces of lumber—today’s 2x4s—for the massive framework of posts and beams that had been used for centuries.
Hand-in-hand with balloon framing came the introduction of mass-produced wire nails, which superseded the old hand-wrought variety and provided the ideal fastener for the new framing method.
|Those beautiful high ceilings also make it a challenge|
to keep heat down at floor level.
(Image courtesy of Impressive Interior Design)
Okay—fast-forward about eighty years. After being despised for several generations, Victorian homes are once again beloved for the ir ebullient design and fine craftsmanship—so much so that even today it’s all but sacrilegious to criticize them. Yet as practical places to live, they do have some serious drawbacks. If you're in the market for a Victorian house, here are a few things to consider:
|The Victorian |
Only vaguely airtight.
• Energy efficiency and comfort can leave a lot to be desired. Most Victorians were built with little or no insulation, and used single-paned glass windows with, shall we say, a casual degree of airtightness. The result is chilly floors, drafty rooms and massive heating bills. Those high, heat-trapping ceilings don’t help matters either. Such problems were recognized even at the time, and helped precipitate the trend toward smaller houses after 1900.
Bringing a Victorian up to modern standards of comfort usually means installing weatherstripping, a modern furnace, and mandated levels of floor, wall, and attic insulation, so plan on spending some serious money on these upgrades.
|Knob and tube wiring, along with the usual degree|
of attic insulation original to Victorians—i.e., none.
The same goes for Victorian knob-and-tube electrical systems, which suffer from inadequate amperage, brittle insulation, too few receptacles, and a host of other infirmities. In general, it’s safest to upgrade these systems to modern equipment—once again, major dollars.
|The umpteen color paint scheme: Impressive,|
but a sentence to perpetual maintenance.
• Finally, remember that despite their substantial appearance, Victorians aren’t as nearly as earthquake resistant as modern houses. Their typically unreinforced foundations and tall basement walls are particular weak points, and seismic reinforcement is an absolute must prior to any cosmetic improvements.